Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Active and Experiential Learning

Active Learning

Perhaps the simplest way to transform your class in a powerful way, active learning strategies get students working with course material in the classroom either individually or in groups. Active learning strategies, unlike open class discussion, are timed, structured, and designed to give students a chance to learn by acting on a specific piece of content in a specific way. Students learn material better when they engage it actively rather than absorb it passively. Decide on a set of goals for an activity—what you want students to learn or be able to do at the end—and structure the activity to reach those goals.

A well-designed active learning strategy has the following characteristics:

  1. Every student is acting on the material either individually or with others.
  2. The timeframe is clear and relatively short.
  3. The goal of the activity is clear, meaningful, and uncomplicated.
  4. The task of the activity itself is clear, feasible, and uncomplicated.
  5. The nature of the end product—be it a list, an answer, a choice, or a structure—is described unambiguously.


Active Learning: An Example

Twenty minutes into a discussion of evolution you realize that you’re hearing some fuzzy thinking in your students’ understanding of the concept of natural selection. This is an important concept that has major consequences for their understanding of the material in the remainder of the course. You stop the discussion and ask each of your students to spend two minutes writing a response to the following question: “If we accept the assumption of constant natural selection, what statements can we make about the state of the human race?”

After two minutes, you say, “Now turn to someone near you and, in three minutes, tell them your statements. If your statements agree, discuss them and choose the stronger. If you disagree, see if you can convince each other that you’re right.” Three minutes later you say “OK, let’s hear some of your statements.” You then write the statements on the board and discuss their accuracy.

What has happened in this five-minute exercise?


  • are actively engaged with the material, first by writing and then by explaining.
  • realize if they don’t quite grasp the concept either, as they try to write and can’t, or as they encounter the superior arguments of their peers.
  • who are clear on the concept have their thinking reinforced and deepened.
  • get practice in making and justifying arguments.
  • come to expect that they will have to take a more active role during class and will come to class better prepared.


  • get a clear assessment of how your class is doing.
  • get an assessment of individual students’ progress and understanding.
  • can focus the remainder of the class discussion on a key concept and misconception.

Collaborative Learning: Using Group Activities

Doing activities in groups can be a good way to mix things up. Students generally like them (since it’s something different), provided that you make the task clear and take safeguards against freeloaders and slackers. On a small scale, you can arrange group work as one activity you do during a single section (“Get in groups of three, and take ten minutes to list all the ways that X is related to Y”). On the other end of the spectrum, you can form long-term teams that work on a larger project for a month or the whole semester. Set students up to work on a long-term project and reap the benefits of collaborative learning—you might be surprised at how hard they’ll work and how much they teach themselves when given the right context.

There are three basic principles that make collaborative learning work. If you’re using groups only in the short term (one task, one time), follow the principles of active learning on the previous page. If, however, you want students to work in groups over a period of weeks to accomplish a substantial task, you’ll want to take the following strategies into account.

  1. Eliminate the possibility of slacking by creating a team contract to which all of the group’s members agree. Eliminate negativity and competition by encouraging relationships of helpfulness and respect. You might require that each student take responsibility for one aspect of the larger task.
  2. Smooth the way for group interaction by providing clearly defined goals and frequent feedback. Work on social skills with in-class mini-tasks and meetings. This also helps with the typical problems of “When do we meet?” and “I don’t know the people in my group.”
  3. Group projects, especially those whose products are presented to the entire class, generate their own motivation, so there is less need to use grades as an incentive. Instead, give students control over their own grades by making the tests and papers (or other assessments) graded on an individual basis and not as a group.

Examples of Collaborative Learning

  • Students in a class on the American presidency were divided into four committees. Each committee was assigned a president (one from each of the time periods the class had covered) and asked to determine how they would get their candidate elected, the role played by political parties, and the qualities that would make their candidate electable. The idea was to illuminate the changing electoral systems and the types of candidates encouraged by these changes.
  • Students in a social psychology class were placed into groups of five or six and given thirty minutes to compose an eight-line poem. The poems were read aloud and the class voted, by applause, on their favorite. In a class discussion, students talked about their own satisfaction with their group’s poem and the steps they took that allowed their group to produce a poem of such high (or low) quality. Finally, students discussed whether they thought they could produce a superior poem on their own. The activity was used to build interest in a chapter on problem solving and creativity.
  • Students in a course on the Gothic novel spent a class period in groups writing their own short Gothic tales using the themes, subjects, and conventions found in the novels they were studying. The teacher spent time with each group, clarifying concepts and posing increasingly sophisticated questions. Weeks later, each group presented its tale to the class.

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning (PBL) is based on both active learning strategies and collaborative learning principles. Instead of giving students solutions or problem sets with no context or connection to reality, the teacher allows students to work on complex, real-world problems. Students apply what they know and what they’ve learned from class readings; when they don’t know something, they go find it.

PBL often involves case studies with ambiguous solutions that are designed to replicate the sort of poorly structured, multi-faceted problems that students will face in life or on the job. PBL tends to be more popular in advanced courses in which application is a primary goal, but proponents argue that PBL is useful even in basic classes because students learn facts in context and therefore learn them more deeply. In addition, students using PBL gain important skills in communication and reasoning in social situations.

Before you try writing your own PBL cases, try using one of the many pre-tested cases available on the web. You can find some PBL links in the Appendix. [INSERT LINK]

Experiential Learning: Service Learning, Field Trips, and Holding Sections in Galleries and Special Collections

Most faculty members who use experiential methods would agree that experience is in fact not the best teacher. After all, people have experiences every day from which they learn absolutely nothing (drink ten beers, feel awful in the morning, repeat the following weekend). Zesty or vivid experiences can raise interest and capture attention, but learning requires another step: reflection.

When you commit to using experiential learning methods, you commit to asking two new questions of your teaching:

  1. What experience or activity will capture my students’ attention and reach them in a meaningful way?
  2. What kind of reflective experience can I create to help my students make sense of that activity?

Experiential learning is particularly powerful because it helps students raise questions rather than simply find answers.

Service Learning

Service Learning is a broad term applied to projects that involve students in community-based initiatives as part of a class assignment. For example:

  • A course on the Digital Age had students design web sites for student organizations
  • An American history class had students do oral history interviews of participants in the Civil Rights movement
  • A political science class had students interview recent émigrés about their views on building an expatriate community
  • A psychology class had students observe the learning behavior of toddlers at a day-care center and report to teachers at the center.

As with any kind of teaching, set your goals and define what you want students to produce as a result (a web page, YouTube video, a term paper, etc.).

Field Trips

After that catastrophic fourth-grade trip to the petting zoo (who knew monkeys would mate with humans?), you might not think that field trips are particularly useful. Think again! You may even find that there are ways to explore the subject of your class in field trips right around Yale.

  • One medieval history class had a field trip to map the Gothic architectural elements of Sterling Memorial Library and then sort them into the categories of “true historical Gothic” and “anachronistic.”
  • A literature course had a scavenger hunt in the library in which students had to find items such as a sonnet written after 1950.
  • Advanced Italian classes use the Center for Language Study’s Multimedia Classroom to “chat” via Classes*v2 while watching Italian music videos.

Holding Section in Galleries and Special Collections

Discussion is great, but nothing puts the “cat” back in “education” like seeing the real thing. Yale’s museums and special collections are loaded with the art, objects, manuscripts, and scientific paraphernalia that you want students to discuss, so why not bring your section to the library or gallery? Too time consuming, you think? Too much hassle? Not so!

In most Yale galleries there’s someone whose job it is to help you out. Not only will this person provide a room for you and your students, he or she will also fill that room with the objects you request. It’s like having a special exhibit just for your class. Not sure what you want students to see? No problem—you can get help with that too. This is a terrific service, but it does require some advance planning—we’re talking about several weeks here, folks, not forty-eight hours. See the Appendix [INSERT LINK] for a list of the people you need to call to make this dream a reality; if you’re interested, get on the horn now.