Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Active Learning

Active learning was first defined by Bonwell and Eison (1991) as “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (emphasis added). Growing from developments in adult, cognitive, and educational research, active learning responds to traditional lecture formats with more engaged activities that invite students to participate in learning, including developing conceptual awareness, applying knowledge through experience, and transferring skills across contexts. Active learning helps students to ascend Bloom’s Taxonomy from remembering and understanding to analyzing and creating.

Thus, active learning may be distilled into two kinds of activities:

  • Doing things: Activities like discussion, idea mapping, and debate require students to construct knowledge through higher order thinking (such as recalling, applying, analyzing, evaluating, synthesizing, and verbalizing concepts). This contrasts knowledge passively transmitted to students solely via listening, transcribing, memorizing, and reading.
  • Thinking about the things [students] are doing: Although not always explicitly noted in active learning literature, metacognition—students’ thinking about their own learning—promotes active learning by acquainting students with their own learning habits. Metacognition promotes students’ ability to self-assess and self-regulate themselves as learners. Metacognition often happens through student feedback methods, which open up student-instructor dialogue about teaching and learning methods.

Active learning is also commonly associated with inclusive teaching. It has been empirically shown to decrease the achievement gap for underrepresented minorities and first generation college students, particularly in STEM fields; to reach “a diversity of students”; and to build “higher- order thinking skills” across engaged student populations (Handelsman, et. al, 2007). Active learning therefore can help improve class climate by promoting interconnections between students, which can enhance the sense of belonging and motivation for marginalized students and those with differing levels of academic preparation.

Instructors may also consider teaching in an Active Learning Classroom, an environment that promotes active learning through flexible seating, surrounding whiteboards, and digital displays. Yale features several ALCs that instructors can reserve.

Examples and Recommendations

Active learning includes techniques for large lecture courses in auditoriums with fixed seating, as well as for small classes with students seated in seminar-style rooms.  

1.) Activities to supplement lectures without major modifications to course structure

  • Clarification pauses and collaborative note-taking - The instructor pauses during lecture and asks students to take a few minutes to summarize in writing what they have just learned and/or consolidate their notes. Students may then exchange notes with a partner to compare, in order to catch key ideas that a student might have missed or misunderstood. The instructor can then field clarifying questions.
  • Retrieval practice / one-minute papers - At the start of class, students write down major points they can remember from the previous class. Similarly, at the end of class students write down key takeaways and consider logical next steps. The instructor might review responses in class and encourage questions. 
  • Think-pair-share activities - Students work individually on an active learning assignment or formative assessment activity (such as one-minute papers or an example problem). They then compare their responses with a partner and synthesize a joint solution, and then share with the entire class. This and other discussion activities are explored further here.
  • Demonstrations - Students predict the outcomes of a demonstration. After the demonstration, the instructor asks them to discuss the observed result and how it may have differed from their prediction. The instructor then follows up with a detailed explanation. Demonstrations may be enhanced through tools like open educational resources or 3D printing.
  • Polls - Utilizing PollEverywhere or some other audience response system, the instructor poses a multiple-choice question. Students work on the problem individually or in think-pair-share small groups, and use clickers or online surveys to report their answers. The instructor shows the class distribution and explains the solution.

More techniques for effective lectures can be found here.

2.) Activities to supplement lecture time with active-learning individual/partner/group work

  • Large-Group Discussion - Students discuss a topic in class based on a reading, video, or problem. The instructor may prepare a list of questions to facilitate discussion.
  • Sequence reconstruction - Instructor gives students jumbled steps in a process, and asks them to work together to reconstruct the proper sequence. More ideas about this and related group work techniques can be found here
  • Error identification - Instructor provides statements, readings, proofs, or other material that contains errors. Students must find and correct the errors.  
  • Concept map - Students are provided with a list of terms and must arrange the terms on paper, drawing arrows between related concepts and labeling each arrow to explain the relationship. Alternatively, students can use software like MindMeister or bubbl.us to project their maps on a screen or share with the class.
  • Categorizing grids - Instructor gives students several important categories and a list of scrambled terms, images, equations, or other items. Students sort the terms into the correct categories.
  • Interactive Lecture - Instructor breaks up the lecture at least once per class for an activity that lets all students work directly with the material. More information on effective lectures can be found here.
  • Active Review Sessions - Instructor poses a question which students work on in groups or individually. Students are asked to show their responses to the class and discuss any differences. 
  • Inquiry Learning - Instructor presents a major concept and then asks students to make observations, pose hypotheses, and speculate on conclusions. 
  • Brainstorming - Instructor provides a topic or problem and then asks for student input. After a few minutes, the instructor asks for responses and records them on the board. 
  • Role Playing - Students use dramatic techniques to get a better idea of the concepts and theories being discussed. They might stage dialogue in a case study, act out a scene in a literature class, produce a mock debate of a historic issue, or present (within a safe context) problematic social responses requiring discussion.
  • Jigsaw Discussion - Students are divided into small groups that discuss different but related topics. Students then shuffle to create new groups with one student from each of the original groups. In these new groups, each student is responsible for sharing key aspects of their original discussion. The second group must synthesize and use all of the ideas from the first set of discussions in order to complete a new or more advanced task. More information about this and related discussion techniques can be found here.

More techniques for effective lectures can be found here.

3.) Activities to strengthen student motivation and metacognition

  • Ice breakers - Students learn each other’s names and interests to facilitate group/partner work later in the semester.
  • Discussion ground rules - Instructor cultivates an inclusive class climate by working with students to create ground rules for discussion. 
  • Case studies - Instructor engages students with real-life stories that help them integrate their classroom knowledge with their knowledge of real-world situations, actions, and consequences. Case-based learning is common in management, law and medicine, but can be utilized in a variety of settings.
  • Experiential Learning - Instructor facilitates site visits that allow students to see and apply theories and concepts. For example, students can visit museums or libraries, engage in field research, or work with the local community. Experiential learning may also include 3D printing, under the right knowledge circumstances. More information about field trips and experiential learning at Yale can be found here.
  • Self-Assessment - Students receive a quiz (ungraded) or a checklist of ideas to assess their understanding of the subject. Instructors can consider formative assessment, which offers opportunities for reflection during learning and class, or summative assessment, which examines knowledge gained at the end of a unit or term. More information about student assessment can be found here.
  • Student-generated test questions - Instructor provides students with a copy of learning goals for a particular unit and a figure summarizing Bloom’s Taxonomy. Groups of students create test questions corresponding to the learning goals and different levels of the taxonomy. 
  • Peer Review - Students complete an individual homework assignment or short paper. Before the assignment is due, students submit one copy to their partner or group, and then provide each other with critical feedback.

Instructors may also consider teaching in an Active Learning Classroom, an environment that promotes active learning through flexible seating, surrounding whiteboards, and digital displays. Yale features several ALCs that instructors can reserve.

Additional Resources

ABL Connect (Posted Resources, Harvard University)

Active Learning (Essay and recommendations, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching)

Active Learning Continuum (Recommendations, University of Michigan)

Active Learning Day grew from a White House Initiative to improve the quality and scope of active learning in STEM classrooms. The practice continues in association with the AAC&U.

CourseSource (“open-access journal of peer-reviewed teaching resources for undergraduate biological sciences”; focus on active learning and alignment with learning goals)

Engaging Students in the Classroom and Beyond (Videos, University of Michigan)

Promoting Active Learning (Essay and recommendations, Stanford University)

Interactive Classroom Activities (Recommendations, Brown University)

National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (database featuring hundreds of accessible STEM- and social science - based case studies)

Wieman’s Observation Guide for Active-learning Classroom (Assessment, Stanford University)

The downloads section (bottom) features a printable handout version of this web page.

References

Bonwell, 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.

Handelsman, Jo, Sarah Miller, and Christine Pfund. Scientific Teaching. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching, 2007. Print.

Downloads 

Handout featuring theory and practical strategies for active learning in the classroom.