Active learning is an umbrella term that encompasses several different teaching approaches, all of which shift the focus from the teacher delivering course content to the student actively engaged with the course content. It includes most activities that students do in a classroom other than passively listening to an instructor’s lecture.
This teaching approach allows students to interact with course content while in class purposefully as well as interact with each other in structured learning activities. Including engaging activities throughout a class, can prevent students from becoming bored, take part in off-task activities, and be disruptive to their peers.
The concept of active learning encompasses a wide variety of learning activities in which students engage with the course content. The focus of active learning is to foster that engagement.
Explore more activities
- Download CELT’s 226 Active Learning Techniques (PDF)
- Visit the Character Lab website
- Read The Chronicle’s “How to Make Your Teaching More Engaging” web article
- Explore an online database of active learning via Harvard University’s ABLConnect website
When students sit and passively watch or listen to lectures – whether in person or on video – they are not actively engaging with the content. If you think about the difference between your engagement with the topic at hand and merely listening to someone report out on it at a committee meeting versus when you are actively debating the topic with colleagues, you can see the difference. If students are actively involved in the content, they will learn more, be more satisfied, and be more successful in your course.
Michael and Modell’s Active Learning
Michael and Modell (2003) identify the following 10 core principles that support their understanding of active learning:
- All learning occurs on the foundation of already learned knowledge and skills.
- To the extent that the old knowledge is faulty, the learning of new knowledge will be compromised.
- Declarative (what) and procedural (how) knowledge are different, and the processes of learning them are different.
- Learning declarative knowledge involves building mental representations or models.
- Practice with timely and appropriate feedback is required for all procedural learning.
- Retention and the ability to utilize knowledge (meaningful learning) is facilitated by building connections (links) between old knowledge structures and the new knowledge being learned.
- The ability to construct multiple representations of the new knowledge is an important component of meaningful learning.
- Some knowledge and skills may be more readily transferred to a new domain.
- Collaborative or cooperative effort can yield more individual learning than individual effort alone.
- Articulating explanations, whether to peers, teachers, or one’s self, facilitates learning.
Examples of active learning strategies include:
- An example from a Spanish class might be having students explore a local Hispanic market, observing the types of food and the organization. Then, reflecting on the differences and similarities to a standard American grocery store and connecting it to course concepts about culture and its influence on shopping, cooking, and eating. In an online class, students could share pictures or videos of their exploration with a reflection via a Canvas discussion where they can compare and contrast their experiences with those of their classmates.
- Focused writing assignments to check to understand of course content (1-Minute Paper); Creating an individual summary about a topic, discussing it with a partner, then sharing the pair’s discussion with the whole class (Think-Pair-Share); or
- Facilitate small group exercises where students apply course content to a real-world situation and work toward a solution (Case-based Learning).
- In some cases, active learning strategies can check student learning or understanding, and these strategies are Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs).
For online strategies, view the Engage Students Online page.
- Visit the ABLConnect (Harvard University) website to find activities and projects and downloadable materials in a searchable online format. It also has video tutorials, links to valuable technology resources, and academic research summaries to back up various active learning approaches.
- Active Learning Strategy Guide (Auburn University)
- Arizona State University’s Design for Online Learning Toolkit
- Northwestern’s Best Practices for Synchronous Sessions
- Stanford Online High School (two decades and more): Effective Best Practices in an Online Classroom
- Vanderbilt’s Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms
- Penn State: Engaging Students Synchronously: (video lesson; text material; slide deck)
- Examples of Active Learning Activities (Queen’s University)
- Teaching Practices Inventory (Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia)
- Brindley, J. E., Walti, C., & Blaschke, L. M. (2009).Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).
Chickering, A.W. & Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education (pdf, 266k) (Links to an external site.). AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7.
- Driessen, E.P., Knight, J.K., Smith, M.K. , and Ballen, C.J., & Sato, B. (2020, Oct. 1). Demystifying the meaning of active learning in postsecondary biology education. Monitoring Editor Published Online. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.20-04-0068
Fink, D. (2005). A self-directed guide to designing courses for significant learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved on May 20, 2020, from https://www.deefinkandassociates.com/GuidetoCourseDesignAug05.pdf
Kirschner, P., Strijbos, J., Kreijns, K., & Beers, P. J. (2004). Designing electronic collaborative learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 52(3), 47-67.
- Michael, J., & Modell, H. (2003). Active learning in secondary and college science classrooms : A working model for helping the learner to learn / Joel A. Michael, Harold I. Modell. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Rodriguez, J. E. (2011). Social media use in higher education: Key areas to consider for educators. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(4).
- Theobald, E., Hill, M., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E., Behling, S., . . . Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(12), 6476-6483. Retrieved on May 29, 2020, from https://www.pnas.org/content/