Active Learning

Active learning refers to the process in which students are engaging in the learning process because they are actively doing something such as analyzing, brainstorming, discussing, problem solving, reading. There are a number of strategies to employ.

Why Active Learning?

Research suggests that audience attention in lectures starts to wane every 10-20 minutes. Incorporating active learning techniques once or twice during a 50-minute class (twice to or thrice for a 75-minute class) will encourage student engagement. Active learning also:

  • Reinforces important material, concepts, and skills.
  • Provides more frequent and immediate feedback to students.
  • Addresses different student learning styles.
  • Provides students with an opportunity to think about, talk about, and process course material.
  • Creates personal connections to the material for students, which increases their motivation to learn.
  • Allows students to practice important skills, such as collaboration, through pair and group work.
  • Builds self-esteem through conversations with other students.
  • Creates a sense of community in the classroom through increased student-student and instructor-student interaction.


Video Link: Inside Active Learning Classrooms

This handout graphically represents the relative complexity of different active learning techniques. It also provides brief descriptions for each of the activities on the continuum.

Ideas for active learning in higher education


  • While some active learning activities are spontaneous, many require that the instructor design and/or prepare the activity prior to the class period.
  • Motivation for active learning often needs to be shared with the students as many are used to a more passive classroom environment.
  • Instructors may struggle with giving up some control over what is happening in the classroom.
  • Active learning activities can take up a significant portion of a class period.

Suggestions for getting started

  • Begin small and integrate active learning activities gradually.
  • Incorporate active learning into something that already happens in the classroom.  What changes could be made so that students are actively contributing to that process?
  • Look around for existing activities from your discipline; many instructors share examples online and in journals focused on student engagement.


Angelo, T.A. & Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-BassBonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE–ERIC Higher Education Rep. No. 1). Washington, DC: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.Davis, B.G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.Deslauriers L, Schelew E, Wieman C. (2011). Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science, 332, 862-864.Felder, R.M. & Brent, R. (1996). Navigating the bumpy road to student centered instruction. Retrieved, September 8, 2011 from, R.M. & Brent, R. (2009). Active learning: An introduction. ASQ Higher Education Brief, 2(4).Johnstone, A.H. & Percival, F. (1976). Attention breaks in lectures. Education in Chemistry, 13, 49-50.Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning really work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education. 93(3). 223-231.