Active Learning

Active learning is an educational approach that emphasizes student engagement and participation in the learning process. Active learning “requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing” (Prince, 2004). It is purposeful, effortful, feedback-oriented, and designed to support metacognition (i.e., thinking about thinking). An active learning approach to teaching integrates opportunities and moments for meaningful engagement, interaction, and application of course concepts. An effective active learning approach does not wholly exclude lecturing or, more generally, any presentations of material by the instructor (Freeman et. al., 2014) Even lecturing can be part of active learning if the lecture incorporates meaningful engagement, interaction, and application. 

Active Learning Benefits Students

Active learning has many benefits for student learning, including: 

  • Improved academic performance 
  • Increased motivation and engagement 
  • Development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills 
  • Improved communication and collaboration skills 

Active learning provides opportunities for students to practice applying their knowledge and skills, reflect on their progress and performance, and receive feedback on their learning. In this way, active learning supports students’ achievement of the learning outcomes and retention of course content. To be effective, active learning must be designed to align with the goals of the course and the larger assignments that students are expected to complete in the course. Active learning isn’t simply getting students to complete random activities for the sake of being active in class; instead, any activities students complete should be designed to support practice, reflection, and feedback in relation to the course goals.   

Active learning benefits all students and offers even greater benefits for individuals from underrepresented groups. Incorporating active learning can help to reduce barriers to learning and create a greater sense of belonging for all students, which promotes equity in higher education (Theobald, et. al., 2020).  

When incorporating active learning into your course, it is important to be explicit with students about why you are doing so and how the strategies were selected and designed to support their learning. If students are accustomed to listening, rather than actively engaging, they may be reluctant to participate in active learning strategies. However, when students understand the value and purpose of what they are doing, they are much more motivated and committed to engagement. 

Active Learning Strategies

There are endless ways to incorporate active learning into your instruction. There are active learning strategies for any size class, in any discipline, and for any level of student. Students can engage in active learning individually, in small groups, or together as a class. Active learning strategies can take anywhere from seconds to an entire class period. This active learning library allows you to filter by difficulty, prep time, class size, group size, activity time, class modality, amount of formative feedback, level of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and inclusive principles.  

Below are a few of the most common and most effective strategies, organized by simple and quick versus complex and time-intensive. 

Simple & Quick 

These active learning strategies can be incorporated throughout class sessions and can be particularly helpful to break up lecture content and support retention of material as it is being introduced. What’s great about these simple and quick strategies is that they don’t require much planning, preparation, or time. Keep them in your back pocket to add to class when you are sensing confusion, low energy, or a need for students to connect! 

  • Think-Pair-Share (a.k.a. Turn and Talk): Students think individually about a question or prompt, then share their ideas with a partner, and finally, the pairs share their insights with the whole class. Having students reflect individually and consult with a peer before jumping into a class-wide discussion can allow students a chance to gather their thoughts and build confidence in their ideas, leading to a more engaged class discussion. 
  • Pause and Reflect: Provide students with time to reflect individually after a lecture or class discussion, which allows them to identify key points, synthesize the information for themselves, and make connections to their prior knowledge.  
  • Chalk Talk (a.k.a. Silent Discussion): Students consider ideas, questions, or problems by silently responding in writing both to the prompt and the thoughts of others. This activity can be done on the whiteboard, poster paper, digital whiteboards, or other digital discussion spaces. 
  • Quick Write (a.k.a. Minute Paper): Students write for a short period of time responding to a prompt or question. This exercise can be done at the start of class to connect to pre-class readings and content or throughout class to help students synthesize what they’ve learned so far. You can then use the quick writes as a springboard for discussion or reflection.  
  • Polls & Surveys: Deployed with or without technology, polls and surveys allow instructors to determine where students are in their thinking and understanding on a group level. They allow for anonymous contributions, which can encourage honesty and risk taking in the classroom. They can also quickly measure student understanding of class concepts, providing feedback to instructors and students on learning.  
  • Exit Ticket (a.k.a. Final Reflection Question): As students leave class, they answer a quick question or prompt that they turn in on a piece of paper or digitally. One option for an exit ticket is asking students to share their “muddiest point,” or the point that they found most confusing. You can then collect the papers and review them to see what areas need to be clarified. 

Complex & Time-Intensive

These active learning strategies require a bit more planning and class time but are incredibly effective for supporting students’ development of critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills.  

  • Problem-solving Exercises: Students can work on problems individually or in small groups, which can help them to practice applying their knowledge. 
  • Case Studies: Students can analyze scenarios, which can help them to see how course material applies to the real world. Bring real world examples from your discipline into the classroom. Encourage students to use critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, and (when appropriate) consensus-building to address timely or historical issues. 
  • Simulations: Students can participate in simulations, which can help them to experience real-world situations in a safe and controlled environment. Online simulations (e.g., Science and Math Simulations from PhET) provide students additional ways to interact with or experience content. Simulations allow students to practice specific skills, figure out how things work, create new ideas, or find solutions.  
  • Role-playing: Students can role-play different scenarios, which can help them apply what they are learning to real-world contexts. 
  • Jigsaw: Students form “expert” groups focused on a particular topic, reading, question, or problem. In these expert groups, students explore their prompt in depth and develop a plan to teach their concept to other class members. Students then leave their expert groups to form new groups, with one member from each expert group. Each expert will then teach their group members about their expert topic. 
  • Concept Mapping/Mind Mapping: Students, individually or in small groups, create a graphic representation or diagram that shows the connections between different course concepts. Concept maps can be created by hand or digitally. 
  • Student-led Presentation or Discussion: Students, individually or in small groups, prepare to present new content or lead a discussion, based on their own review of the course material. Instructor follows up with a summary of key takeaways. 


Other CTRL Resources Related to Active Learning

Accessible Course Design: Universal Design for Learning 

Facilitating Class Discussions 

Honoring Students’ Prior Knowledge and Experiences 

Promoting and Assessing Student Participation 


Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415. 

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of engineering education, 93(3), 223-231. 

Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E. N., 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, 117(12), 6476-6483.