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Active Learning

Students sitting in class listening to the professor speak.

Active learning refers to learning that requires students to do something as opposed to passively "receiving" knowledge by means of a lecture, video, or text produced by experts.

Active learning can assume many forms, from  simple activities like minute papers and self-assessments to more complex ones like simulations and quarter-long collaborative projects. Regardless of its specific form, active learning typically emphasizes higher-order thinking skills and collaboration among peers.

Why Active Learning?

There are a number of reasons to incorporate active learning in your teaching practice:

  • Active learning has been found to increase student engagement and motivation (Prince 2004) and even narrow achievement gaps (Theobald 2020). 
  • Active learning has been shown to increase student performance. A 2014 meta-analysis of 225 studies of active learning in science, engineering, technology, and math courses found that students in lecture-based classes are 50% more likely to fail than students in classes that integrate active learning (Freeman 2014).
  • Active learning encourages higher-order thinking, such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. According to a national survey, 93% of employers say critical thinking, clear communication, and problem solving skills are more important than a student’s undergraduate major. (American Association of Colleges and Universities,​ 2013.)

Explaining Active Learning to Your Students

Some students resist peer learning and may even see it as an abdication of a faculty member's responsibility to teach. In a study conducted at Harvard University, students learned more from active learning experiences when compared to passively listening to a well-delivered, traditional lecture. However, the students mistakenly believed they learned less from active learning. To address misconceptions like these, it is often helpful to introduce new learning activities by talking about why you're including it in the course. Make sure you explain how the activities you've planned are linked with the course learning objectives. You might also consider asking students why they think you've asked them to engage in a certain activity. Among other reasons students may cite, active learning often...

  • involves skills necessary in life beyond the classroom;
  • can improve one's motivation to continue learning;
  • provides exposure to students from other backgrounds, interests and walks of life; etc.

Active Learning Activities

What is it?
Students interview a partner and report back to a larger group.
Good for:
Introductions and icebreakers; helping students cover a lot of material (e.g., sharing what they learned from readings); starting class discussion¬; allowing all students to speak without taking a lot of class time.
How to:
Have students split into pairs. Each person interviews the other, with questions provided by the instructor. Then the pair finds another couple and forms a quad. Each person takes turns introducing his or her partner and a summary of his/her responses to the group.
What is it?
Students take turns responding to a prompt or question.
Good for:
Brainstorming, collaborative writing prompts, identifying key points from a reading/lecture; defining a key term; midterm/final review
How to:
Have students form small groups. Then give the students a question or problem and have them state their ideas aloud as they write them down, each taking turns. Ideally students will not skip turns, but if one gets stuck, he or she may “pass.”
What is it?
A quick activity that allows students to think before sharing their responses with a nearby partner.
Good for:
Giving students time to think independently before responding to prompts or answering questions; efficient group activity (i.e., all students can speak without taking a lot of class time)
How to:
Give students at least 30 seconds to think prior to responding to a question or prompt you give them. Then have students turn to a partner and share their responses.
What is it?
Individual students get feedback from peers on resolving obstacles to complex problems.
Good for:
Identifying obstacles or roadblocks to solving complex problems or assignments; giving students opportunities to learn from one another
How to:
Divide students into small groups. One student in each group has two minutes to explain the obstacle he/she has encountered. During this time no one is allowed to interrupt with comments or questions. Then each of the other group members has two minutes to share ideas about possible solutions. After the first person’s problem has been discussed, another student can go next, and then another, repeating the same process until each student has had time to discuss their obstacles (time permitting).


What is it?
Small groups of students work on different aspects of one problem, then present their findings in a logical sequence.
Good for:
Allowing students to become “experts” in subtopics; giving students opportunities to learn from one another; letting students get up and moving about
How to:
Break students into small groups. Each group is tasked with solving some aspect of one problem or prompt. After working on the assigned matter, each group takes turns explaining their piece of the puzzle. Note: if there is a large whiteboard, each group can have its own space to report their work.
What is it?
Pairs of students share ideas with one another in quick succession.
Good for:
Introductions and icebreakers; receiving feedback on new ideas; helping students identify partners or teams for group projects
How to:
Give students a list of questions or prompts--either ahead of time or during class--to respond to (e.g., “What is your topic?”, “What is your research question?”, etc.). Then divide the class into pairs and have them stand facing one another. In 3 minute rounds, students share their responses and their “date” gives suggestions and/or feedback. One member of each pair will stay in place while the other members circulate down the line until each set of pairs have spoken with one another.
What is it?
Prior to class, students prepare quotes, questions, and insights from the course readings in order to lead a discussion.
Good for:
Allowing students to become “experts” in subtopics, motivating students to come to class prepared; receiving feedback on students’ reading comprehension; teaching students how to ask good questions; giving students opportunities to learn from one another
How to:
Give students an idea of about how long they can expect to facilitate a discussion in class. Each student should prepare to lead a discussion by 1) preparing at least two quotes from the reading they want to discuss in more detail 2) preparing two questions for class discussion and 3) offer two implications for the course. The quotes students select could represent central points from the piece, aspects of the article they found confusing and want to discuss more, or provocative statements they’d like to hear others’ take on. Then during class, randomly select a student or two to lead discussion.

References and Further Reading

American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU). "It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success." April 2013.​

Barkley, E. F., Cross, K.P., & Major, C.H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Freeman, S., et al. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410–8415. https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.1319030111

Johnson, D.W., Maruyama, G., Johnson, R., Nelson, D., & Skon, L. (1981). Effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic goal structures on achievement: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 89 (1), 47-62.

Millis, B.J. (2012). Active learning strategies in face-to-face courses. The Idea Center.

Natasi, B.K., & Clements, D.H. (1991). Research on cooperative learning: Implications for practice. School Psychology Review, 20 (1), 110-131.

O'Donnell, A., & O'Kelly, J. (1994) Learning from peers: Beyond the rhetoric of positive results. Educational Psychology Review, 6 (4), 321-350.

Prince, M. (2004), Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93: 223-231. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2168-9830.2004.tb00809.x

Slavin, Robert. Cooperative learning: Theory, research and practice. (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Springer, L., Stanne, M.E., & Donovan, S.S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research. 69 (1). pp 21-51.

Theobald, E. J., et al. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(12), 6476–6483. https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.1916903117​​

Learning Activities Guide

Download a guide with more than 70 collaborative learning activities for you and your students. Thanks to Supplemental Instruction at DePaul University for creating and sharing this valuable resource.

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