September 13, 2018

Active Learning

Active Learning

Want to motivate your students to engage the content of your course and increase responsibility for their own learning? Looking to enhance your current teaching practice with a range of techniques that will make your class prep more efficient? Aspiring to develop a vocabulary to describe the effectiveness of your teaching? Active learning can help!

From simple techniques that get students involved in lecture to complex assignments that incorporate critical thinking and problem solving, active learning strategies increase student learning and develop instructor flexibility with diverse learning environments.

Active learning includes any activity or approach that makes students engage the material through meaningful activities that require that they think about what they are doing and why (Bonwell and Eisen, 1991). Such activities occur in the classroom during instruction (Prince 2004), and involves all students (Felder and Brent, (2009).

It works for classes range from 20 to 200 in all disciplines.  There are certain active learning strategies, such as collaborative assignments and undergraduate research that are also high-impact practices because they have been shown to increase rates of retention and student engagement (Kuh).

Put simply, active learning enhances student learning. When students are involved in their own learning, It increases their interest and motivation and helps build competencies and skills. It improves performance on exams (Freeman). Instructors who use active learning strategies can obtain immediate feedback on the effectiveness of their teaching. Active learning techniques enhance content delivery and  makes teaching more efficient.  

Active Learning Scholarship

Bonwell, Charles C. and James A. Eison, Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, ASHE-ERIC HIgher Education Report No. 1. The George Washington University: Washington, D.C., 1991.

Davidson, Cathy.  “10 Key Points About Active Learning,” Inside Higher Education, 25 Jan 2018

Freeman, Scott et al. “Active Learning Increase Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics.” PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol 111, no. 23 (2014): 8410-8415.

Kuh, George. “High-Impact Educational Practices: A Brief Overview,” Association of American Colleges & Universities,

Prince,Michael.  “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research,” Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 93, no. 3 (July 2004): 223-231, doi:10.1002/j.2168-9830.2004.tb00809.x


Show All | Hide All

Implementing Active Learning Strategies

Successful implementation of active learning strategies requires advance preparation ranging from simple to complex. Consider the following when using active learning strategies in your course.

Icon made by Eucalyp from


Icon made by Eucalyp from


Icon made by Eucalyp from


Active Learning Techniques

With just a little advanced prep and an intentional goal, you can incorporate active learning into your courses. Start Small.  Choose one active learning strategy to use throughout your course, or choose a few key points, modules or low-stakes assignments as starting places for including active learning.

Icons made by Freepik from


  • Think-Pair-Share. Instructor poses a question. Students think or write down their response,  discusses their answer with a neighbor and then shares with the class. See a demo in the video Think Pair Share/Post It Pile It  (at 2:15). Variations include Think-Write-Pair-Share and Think-Pair-Square-Share. 
  • Pause Procedure. Instructor pauses regularly (18-20 minutes) during a lecture and encourages students to do something, including review notes, raise questions or write a response. See Active Learning: The Pause Procedure for more ideas. 
  • Minute paper. Students write for one or more minutes about a prompt posed by the instructor.  Variations include Muddiest Point/Clearest Point, where students write about a point they don’t understand or understand very well. See One Minute Paper for more details.
  • Brainstorming. Students generate and record ideas on a topic.




Icons made by Freepik from


Icons made by Freepik from

Use of Technology

Instructional technology can get your students involved in their own learning in a fun way.

Icons made by Eucalyp from


iClicker (Personal response system)

Poll Everywhere (Web-Based Polls)

Kahoot! (Online games)


Icons made by phatplus from

Prezi (presentation software)

Mindomo (mind mapping and concept mapping)


Icons made by mynamepong from




Icons made by Eucalyp from

Google Docs

Blackboard Collaboration Ultra

WordPress Course Blogs

Active Learning Challenges and Strategies

Challenge: Some students will resist active learning or new learning environments
Strategy: Set and communicate expectations from the first day of class

1) Provide an introduction to the class. Send a welcome e-mail to your class explaining your approach and what students can expect, or provide an introductory video for students to watch prior to the first class meeting. Explain how and when they’ll take in content—and reinforce that it generally won’t happen during class. Clearly communicate these types of expectations to and for students:

  • Assume an active role in your learning process and that of your peers
  • Do your best, but don’t expect perfection (problem-solving is messy and hard)
  • Come to class prepared, with assigned readings and homework completed
  • Do the in-class activities and apply them to your own work
  • Make thoughtful contributions to class discussions and activities, and stay on task
  • Actively develop and exercise critical thinking skills
  • Take some risks, be curious, ask hard questions, challenge yourself and each other
  • Try new things, including new processes, technologies and tools
  • Engage in respectful and constructive debate, collaboration, and course activities. Genuine learning and scholarship require open-mindedness, an eagerness to learn from each other, and careful consideration of topics and ideas (both your own and those of your professors and peers). It’s important that we all challenge one another while respecting what we each bring to this class. That said, mean, closed-minded, or discriminatory talk or actions of any kind don’t belong in our work environment.

2) Make sure that students do something meaningful on the first day—design an activity that will highlight key features of your course and let them experience what the class will be like. If your course won’t involve students listening to you talk throughout much of class, don’t default to that on the first day. If you won’t deliver content in class, don’t spend class time reviewing the syllabus. One way to initially set the expectation that students are responsible for taking in content outside of class is to assign the syllabus as reading; then design an online quiz, a question set, or a student activity to hold students accountable for reading and understanding the syllabus and other important course documents.

3) Take time during the first week for students to reflect on themselves as learners and on their expectations for teaching and learning. Here’s one possible approach, from Faculty Focus, for getting students to think about their learning experiences and expectations: “Two Activities that Influence the Climate for Learning

4) Discuss and define active learning—and your rationale for it—and to compare it to their prior learning experiences. This discussion, and your syllabus, should include information on what students will be expected to do outside of class to be prepared for what happens inside the classroom and how much outside study time they should allocate for your course.

Challenge: Getting students to do the reading or homework that prepares them for class
Strategy: Hold students consistently accountable for class preparation and readings

1) Give online reading quizzes in advance of class or assign reading journals or reflections. Hoeft (2012) found that 74% of students in a course that used reading quizzes and 95% of students in a course that used graded reading journals consistently completed assigned course readings.

2) Give collaborative quizzes at the start of class to hold students accountable and prepare them to work together for the class period. Have students decide who gets credit on the quiz or articulate who contributed in a valuable way (and why or how).

3) Use i-Clickers, Poll Everywhere, or other tools for assessing in-class student knowledge and preparedness.

4) Start class by having students summarize or write reflections on the most important points from the readings.

5) Collect written notes, homework or other prep work at the start of class—don’t accept it late or give students an opportunity to complete it in class.

6) Cold call by table or group.

7) As part of setting expectations for the semester, emphasize the collaborative nature of the class. Make students aware that their preparedness affects not just their own learning but the learning of other students.

Challenge: Making connections between work done outside and inside the classroom, and between class activities, homework and larger assignments or learning outcomes
Strategy: Intentionally design opportunities for making connections

1) Ask students to point back to earlier elements of the course and explain how they are applying them to current assignments, or include connections and references to earlier material and assignments on new activities or assignment.

2) Spend class time on exercises dedicated to students explicitly making—even literally mapping—connections.

3) End activities or classes with students reflecting on how the work done in class connects with a major assignment, course learning goals, and to work outside of your course.

Challenge: Providing instruction and answers to questions—but not the answers—during activities
Strategy: Prepare and circulate

1) Provide clear, concise written instructions for activities and build answers to likely questions into the prompts or instructions. Hold students accountable for reading and following these directions and for answering basic questions in their groups.

2) Circulate to groups or tables. You may want to interrupt the group or class to answer repeated questions or use a group’s work as an example. If you have students serving as Learning Assistants (LAs) or Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs), you will want to practice how to respond to student questions without providing direct answers.

Challenge: Measuring participation and valuing the work of quiet students
Strategy: Recognize diverse forms of participation

1) Set clear expectations on your syllabus regarding what constitutes participation and how it will be assessed or graded. Help your students recognize that talking isn’t always the most valuable contribution that they can make and that not all talking is value added. Clearly state (and reinforce) that commitment, preparedness, level of engagement, trying hard, and respect for the classroom environment are all important participation and engagement components.

2) Create a classroom environment that encourages active participation but doesn’t encourage students to (meaninglessly) talk for points. See Faculty Focus for more on “Keeping Introverts in Mind in Your Active Learning Classroom.”

3) Start discussions or group activities with an individual component that allows students to think and write in advance of sharing or working with others.

4) Assign students different roles or responsibilities for group activities. Possible roles include note-taker or scribe; questioner, whose role is to push the group and asks some of the hard questions; facilitator, whose role is to keep the group on track; and reporter, who helps report out to you, other groups, or the entire class.

5) Assessing participation can be tricky and time-consuming, especially early in the semester. Using nametags in large classes, taking notes or using a participation log or app as you circulate to groups, assigning group member roles, and requiring that students post process work or reflection on in-class activities all help.

Challenge: Students will need outside resources and assistance
Strategy: Plan extra time, and start small

1) There’s just no getting around it: you will need additional prep time when creating new active learning courses, course components, or activities. Building or locating readings, tutorials, and other class resources is time consuming. So is designing value-added activities that enhance learning and provide motivation for students to participate and prepare for class. But it’s also fun and rewarding.

2) Remember that you can start small and work towards a completely flipped or active learning course over time—if that’s your ultimate end goal.

3) You can also find ways to recoup time that you traditionally spend on other aspects of class. For example, use an online discussion board or a tool like Twitter for publicly answering individual student questions that will benefit the entire group. Encourage students, as part of the collaborative nature of the class, to answer each others’ questions, too.

NEW RESOURCE! As part of Mason’s strategic plan, we are committed to designing learning spaces that support active learning. Check out Mason’s Learning Environments website for more information. (Note: The Active Learning with Technology (ALT) experience video has been moved to this new website. Please click on the “Faculty Experience” tab to view.)

Additional Reading and Resources

Page References
Bonwell, C.C., and J. A. Eison, “Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom,” ASHEERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, George Washington University, Washington, DC , 1991.
Hoeft, M. E. (2012). Why university students don’t read: What professors can do to increase compliance. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6, (2).