What is active learning?
Active learning is an approach to instruction that requires students to thoughtfully engage with the course material, and often with one another. Instructor design and guidance is crucial in the active learning classroom, although a greater degree of responsibility for learning is placed on the student compared to more passive teaching and learning approaches, such as lectures. Active learning does not need to replace the lecture, but incorporation of active learning into a lecture, or designing active learning tasks to occur during some class times, will enhance student engagement and lead to deeper learning.
In simple terms, active learning involves students in course-related activities and causes students to think about what they are doing (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). Active learning is an evidence-based approach to teaching which is at the core of the teaching philosophy at the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Western. Many different examples of active learning are described in section 3 below.
What evidence supports active learning?
“At this point, it is unethical to teach any other way.” (Dirks, cited in Waldrop, 2015)
The consensus across years of investigation into teaching and learning in higher education concludes that active learning enhances student learning. The way that active learning is incorporated into a class will vary, but students have much to gain when they are made active contributors in their learning.
Students perceive greater knowledge and understanding gains with active learning (Braxton et al., 2008) and demonstrate this knowledge gain with enhanced test scores compared to traditional learners (Mello, 2013). Students can retain knowledge and understanding longer and are better able to broadly apply what they have learned (Waldrop, 2015) when engaged in an active learning environment.
In addition to enhanced course content mastery, students find their course work more personally rewarding (Braxton et al., 2008) and are better able to tolerate obstacles in the learning process (Lobatto, 2007) when active learning is brought into a course. Students also build social skills through the process of active learning (Yazedjian, 2007), which logically flows from the formative learning experiences of engaging with their colleagues.
It takes time to incorporate active learning into one’s class, but time alone is not the reason for these enhanced learning outcomes (Prince, 2004). Instead, it has been found that the nature of the active engagement activity is what causes students to have a deeper learning experience.
Active learning activity descriptions
Below is a list of a variety of active learning techniques that you could use or modify for your class. For suggestions about when and how you could use these, see the next section on How Can I Use Active Learning in My Class?
Identify a concept or principle your students are studying and ask students to come up with one to three applications of the principle from everyday experience, current news events, or their knowledge of particular organizations or systems discussed in the course.
Brainstorming is a technique designed to generate many responses to a given question or problem. Typically, students respond verbally to a prompt by the instructor and the instructor records the responses in some way. Use the following guidelines for facilitating brainstorming to reduce social inhibitions among group members, stimulate responses, and increase group creativity.
1) Withhold criticism – Ask students to refrain from critiquing responses during the brainstorm and focus on adding to or extending contributions.
2) Welcome unusual ideas – Encourage students to examine the question/problem from different perspectives and consider the assumptions/biases that may be influencing their responses.
3) Quantity breeds quality – Aim to get as many responses as you can so that you can provide a later opportunity to sift through the answers and identify the best or most creative responses.
Buzz Groups are small discussion groups (typically 3 – 5 students) formed to generate ideas, solve problems, or reach a common viewpoint on a topic within a specific period of time. Large groups are often divided into buzz groups after an initial presentation in order to cover different aspects of a topic or maximize participation. Groups may appoint a spokesperson to report the results of the discussion to the larger group if time permits.
This active learning activity involves groups of students examining a real life, authentic, or contextualized situation that requires the group of students to assess, evaluate, and respond. The case study activity can provide opportunity for students to apply previously learned concepts, or drive students to further investigate the research or course material so that students can appropriately respond.
This strategy allows the instructor to pose a question, be it a pre-assessment, conceptual, problem solving, prediction, or opinion question, and receive real-time feedback from all students in the class that can be instantly and graphically displayed. Western currently supports iClicker, an audience response software that can be used by faculty and students at no cost. Students can submit their responses in class from any web-enabled device over Western’s WiFi. Multiple choice, short answer, and heat-map type questions can be posed, and the results can be displayed as a bar graph, list, or heat-map, respectively. The instructor can then tailor further instruction based on this classroom assessment technique feedback, for example by further delving into a challenging concept, clarifying misconceptions, or moving on from a concept the class has obviously grasped.
One especially effective technique with clickers is to pose a question, have students respond individually, and if the results are not near consensus on the correct answer, have students take a few moments to discuss in pairs or small groups to “convince your peer you are correct”, then vote again based on these discussions. This allows students to teach one another, for example explaining their rationale for their conclusions. The instructor can then follow-up with any necessary explanations and conclusions.
Ask students to draw and identify the connections between various concepts discussed in a single class, or across multiple classes, by drawing a schematic map. This map could include key ideas, terms or sketches, with lines drawn between these entries to indicate relationships. For example, factors that contribute to plant metabolism could be connected, or the relationships between contributions to air pollution could be identified. Alternatively, you can ask students to develop a metaphor or image to simplify and explain a given concept.
Working in pairs or small groups would allow students to collaboratively reach consensus. You can move around the room to gauge student responses, have students submit this work via paper, or submit online. For a larger class, you could collect all the papers, and then randomly display some on the document camera and provide general feedback on some responses.
This is a technique for voting and assessing agreement among students. Typically, different coloured dot stickers are used (available at dollar stores), but students can also vote using pens/markers. First, present students with various options related to an issue, question, or idea. These options can be posted around the classroom. Second, provide students with a set number of dot stickers and have them to move around the room to review the options and place a dot sticker next to the ones they agree with most. The options with the most dots at the end of voting “win” and can provide the focus for ensuing class discussion or the next steps in an activity or assignment. Variations include using different colour dots to signify different values (e.g., green for “like” and red for “dislike”).
This technique focuses on helping students analyze their own learning and areas of confusion. Ask your students, "What was the muddiest point in. . . (today’s lecture, the reading, the homework)?" Give them one to two minutes to write on an index card or paper and then collect their responses. You can also facilitate this learning activity online via iClicker (short answer) or Google Survey. Be sure to review these reflections and address any concerns in the next class.
The most common fishbowl configuration is an "inner ring" (Group A – discussion group), surrounded by an "outer ring" (Group B – observation group). To start the activity, the instructor gives a question or issue to Group A to discuss. Group B observes the interactions without interacting or interrupting. After a set amount of time, the two groups exchange places.
This activity is particularly useful when the topic can be divided into distinct positions or arguments. The goal of fishbowl is to have groups gain insight on another group’s perspective through active listening and observation. As a whole, the class can reflect on their experiences, ask questions, and provide peer feedback.
This strategy requires more up-front preparation on the part of the instructor and students, and can be applied to an individual class or an entire course. The instructor provides materials for the students to review prior to attending class, such as short instructional videos, YouTube videos, readings, or online modules. Face-to-face class time is then devoted to active learning activities in which the newly-learned material is applied or analyzed in an interactive way. The instructor may still have short segments of instruction, but most of class time involves the students working with the material.
Games are most frequently used as review or recap activities to assess whether students have achieved the desired lesson outcomes and to review important concepts in a fun and active fashion. For example, you can use the free mobile app, “ Kahoot!” to create multiple choice questions for use in class. Students answer the questions by logging on through their devices. Instructors can also use the formats for popular television gameshows to formulate questions and structure guidelines for how students play the game. Example gameshows include: Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Family Feud, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
This strategy involves students becoming “experts” on one aspect of a topic, then sharing their expertise with others. Divide a topic into a few constitutive parts (“puzzle pieces”). Form subgroups of 3 - 5 and assign each subgroup a different “piece” of the topic (or, if the class is large, assign two or more subgroups to each subtopic). Each group’s task is to develop expertise on its particular subtopic by answering questions, developing ideas, and/or researching. Once students have become experts on a particular subtopic, shuffle the groups so that the members of each new group have a different area of expertise (you have now created “learner” groups). Students then take turns sharing their expertise with the other group members, thereby creating a completed “puzzle” of knowledge about the topic.
This activity establishes individual student opinions in a quick and visual way by asking them to line up according to how strongly they agree or disagree with a statement or proposition. For example, students could be asked to pick a number from 1 to 5 that best describes their position on a given issue. The instructor would then ask the students who have chosen “1” to stand at a designated point along the wall of the room, and so on, until all of the students are lined up. From this point, a discussion could be initiated between students at the extremes with those in the middle.
Pose one to two questions in which students identify the most significant things they have learned from a given lecture, discussion, or assignment. Give students one to two minutes to write a response on an index card or paper. Collect their responses and look them over quickly. Their answers can help you to determine if they are successfully identifying what you view as most important.
Post-it Parade is a brainstorming technique that allows the instructor to compile student opinions in a visual way. The strategy has the added benefit of giving students who are reluctant to speak in class the opportunity to share their ideas/opinions in a written format. For this activity, the instructor poses a question (or series of questions). Students respond to the question(s) on post-it notes, and post their answers on the board (or different areas of the classroom depending on how many questions you have). The students should have time to walk around and review the ideas posted by their peers. If there are many responses, consider asking students to group similar responses together or assign themes/categories. You can follow up with a large class discussion about the responses and themes that emerged from this activity.
This strategy gets students working collaboratively and thinking deeply, while the instructor provides resources and feedback along the way. Rather than absorbing information in a lecture format, students are presented with a complex, authentic problem, which requires students to apply what they currently know, and then delve into other resources to acquire the new skills and knowledge required to solve the problem. A well-designed problem is required to keep students engaged and to reach the course learning outcomes.
This discussion is conducted entirely in the form of questions. The instructor begins by sharing a challenging/provocative question or statement (e.g., “Should potential employers use Facebook as a means of gathering information about their applicants?”) and students MUST respond to this prompt by suggesting questions of their own (e.g., “What is the distinction between professional and personal information?”). As the Quescussion proceeds, students must wait for others to speak before they can speak again. If someone makes a statement, the rest of the class shouts "statement!" and the contribution must be withdrawn or revised. Questions can be recorded on the board and serve as a map to inform future class topics, activities, and assignments.
Individual students think about a question or issue posed by the instructor for a few minutes, and generate three reactions/comments/answers (e.g., identify three strategies to improve recycling programs on campus). Students then form groups of two and share their responses, reducing six individual responses to a consensus of the best three responses. Groups then merge and narrow down responses again. You can repeat the snowball process as many times as you want. The goal is to reach a whole class conclusion or consensus.
This is a form of brainstorming that works very well when introducing a new topic to students. The strategy allows the instructor to get a sense of what prior knowledge/experience exists among students. Begin by asking, “Tell me what you have heard about. . .” and insert the topic of interest into the question (e.g., global warming, acids and bases, Jane Eyre, etc.). Collect and theme responses to identify common knowledge, misconceptions and/or student questions/concerns.
Think-Pair-Share is a cooperative learning strategy that can promote and support higher-level thinking. The instructor asks students to think about a specific topic or problem individually for a short period of time. Students then pair with another peer to discuss their thinking and, after that, share their ideas with the larger group.
How can I use active learning in my class?
Think about what you want your students to be able to do by the end of your lesson or course. What activity would allow your students to practice and progress toward this outcome? The active learning you choose to incorporate into your teaching will be based on your outcomes, but is only restricted in format by your imagination. Active learning can be used to introduce new information, analyze or apply concepts, create extensions and applications to concepts, and facilitate peer feedback. Active learning can also be the platform for instructors to give and receive feedback on their teaching and students’ learning. It can also create a positive, supportive, and collaborative learning environment. You can begin with simpler strategies, such as a Think-Pair-Share, and explore more involved active learning strategies as you and your class progress, such as Problem-Based Learning.
Once you have considered your learning outcomes and goals for your lesson or course, begin to think about how you can actively involve your students in the learning process. You can design your own active learning activities or use one of the ideas presented above as a springboard to bring into your own classroom. As you reflect on which active learning strategies will work best for your course and students, consider how you will navigate any apparent restrictions.
What are your time constraints?
Do you have two minutes, ten minutes, or a week to dedicate to this active learning? Some brief activities, such as the minute paper, go a long way in allowing students to process their newly acquired knowledge and reflect upon their learning process. If you want to dedicate more time, you could consider some problem-based learning and allow students to delve deeply into a presented issue. As you move along your journey in teaching with active learning, you may find that spending multiple brief segments or some larger chunks of time spent on active learning (and less time lecturing) actually improves the depth of your students’ learning!
What is your class size?
Although class size may initially be seen as a barrier to active learning, rest assured that great active learning can occur in large-enrollment classes. You may need to adjust the format of your activity, but the essence of your active learning is probably possible. Consider small group activities, paired activities such as Think-Pair Share, and using technology to facilitate collaboration and feedback with an audience response system/clicker.
What is your comfort level?
Perhaps your formal education was based on pure lecture mode, and you hesitate to deviate from this time-entrenched instructional method. Well, start small. Consider adding a brief, two-minute Buzz Group to your class to break up the lecture and allow students to discuss their conclusions or predictions with their classmates. Or, you could consider an Exit Ticket, giving students an opportunity to analyze their learning, and provide you with feedback on their learning as well. If you are comfortable with active learning, continue expanding your active learning repertoire with a Jigsaw activity or Problem-Based Learning, where a greater degree of the learning responsibility is placed on the student and your role moves to designer (selecting the Jigsaw readings and designing the problems), and facilitator (engaging with groups of students to check-in and provide feedback and guidance).
What is your class mode?
Active learning can occur in a face-to-face, blended or online learning environment. Again, you may need to be creative to format your activity, but having students engage with one another and the material is still possible. Consider a Quescussion on your OWL Forum or Brainstorming session over Blackboard Collaborate. See the eLearning Toolkit that can assist you in facilitating active learning in an online environment.
During an active learning activity, monitor the room and students’ engagement levels. Provide further direction and feedback as needed. Be sure to wrap up the activity to consolidate the learning process and validate students’ contributions.
What if students are resistant?
Active learning may be a new experience for your students, although more than likely, students will have experienced active learning in previous learning experiences. Share your rationale for taking class time to devote to a student-centred learning activity. Sometimes this means clearly connecting the activity to your learning outcomes or course material, or perhaps even sharing research that demonstrates how this activity (clicker questions and peer instruction, for example) enhance student learning. Also, be sure to be present and demonstrate to your students that you are still involved and invested in their learning.
No one formula exists to create active learning in your classroom. Your creativity and learning outcomes are your guide to getting students engaged and active in their own learning. Consider some of the activities in Section 3 and adapt them to your own learning environment. Get your students doing and thinking… and learning.
If you would like to talk in more detail about active learning techniques, please contact one of our educational developers.
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Ebert-May, D., Brewer, C., & Allred, S. (1997). Innovation in large lectures: teaching for active learning. Bioscience, 47(9), 601-607.
Felder, R.M. & Brent, R. (2009). Active learning: an Introduction. ASQ Higher Education Brief, 2(4). available at http://asq.org/edu/2009/08/best-practices/active-learning-an-introduction.%20felder.html?shl=093530
Lopatto, D. (2007). Undergraduate research experiences support science career decisions and active learning. Life Sciences Education, 6, 297-306
Mello, D. & Less, C.A. (2013). Effectiveness of active learning in the arts and sciences. Humanities Department Faculty Publications & Research. Paper 45. Providence, Rhode Island : Johnson & Wales University.
Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? a review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93, 223-232.
Waldrop, M.M. (2015). Why are we teaching science wrong, and how to make it right. Nature, 523, 272-274.
Yazedjian, A., & Kolkhorst, B. B. (2007). Implementing small-group activities in large lecture classes. College Teaching, 55(4), 164-169.