Promoting Active Learning

Background and Definition

Active learning techniques are based on the idea that students learn better when they do more than just listen to the presentation of information. It involves providing learning experiences that require students to think about and apply the material (e.g., discuss, present, write, and read). The instructor provides activities that encourage students to seek patterns and connections, analyze and synthesize, and evaluate and apply the material. In addition, students are encouraged to reflect on their learning and learning processes and explore their attitudes and values. This approach helps to move students toward more complex intellectual tasks, as outlined in Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning. ​​​​​​​

Using Class Time Well
University of Kansas Center for Teaching Excellence

According to the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching site, “Active learning is generally defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. In short, active learning requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing (Price, 2004).” Read more

On the website for the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, Brame alluded to a consensus definition of active learning presented by Freeman et al., 2014: “Thus active learning is commonly defined as activities that students do to construct knowledge and understanding. The activities vary but require students to do higher order thinking. Although not always explicitly noted, metacognition—students’ thinking about their own learning—is an important element, providing the link between activity and learning.” She also reviewed some of the evidence for the effectiveness of active learning approaches in promoting learning for all students and claimed there is additional evidence that these approaches are effective in making classrooms more inclusive.


Brame provided the following examples of techniques to both supplement and replace lectures.

Supplement Lectures

Pause procedure– pause for two minutes every 12 to 18 minute and encourage students to discuss notes in pairs.

Retrieval practice– pause for two to three minutes every 15 minutes and encourage students to write everything they can remember from the preceding segment.

Demonstrations– Before a demonstration, ask students to predict the results and discuss prediction with a neighbor. After demonstration, ask entire group to discuss observed results and compare to prediction.

Think – pair – share– pose a question and ask students to think or write about an answer for one minute and then discuss response with a peer for two minutes. Ask students to share their responses.

Peer instruction– pose a question and ask students to think about an answer and vote on a response before discussing with a neighbor. Encourage students to change answers, after the discussion, if they choose. Graph responses and discuss.

Minute papers– pose a question and ask students to write for a minute. Ask students to share responses and discuss.

Replace Lectures

  1. Strip sequence– give students the steps in a process on strips of paper that are jumbled and ask them to work together to reconstruct the proper sequence.
  2. Concept map– identify key concepts and ask students (small groups or entire class) to determine general relationship of concepts. They should arrange them two at a time, drawing arrows between related concepts and labeling them with a phrase to describe the relationship.
  3. Mini maps– provide students a list of major concepts (fewer than in concept maps) and ask them to work together in groups of two or three  to arrange the terms in logical structure and show relationships with arrows and words.
  4. Categorized grids– present students with a list composed of several important categories and a list of scrambled terms, images, etc. Ask student to sort terms into correct categories in grid. Share grids and discuss.
  5. Student-generated test questions– provide students with a copy of learning goals for unit and a figure representing Bloom’s taxonomy. Ask students to create test questions corresponding to learning goals and different levels of the taxonomy. Distribute questions to class.
  6. Decision-making activities– provide a short description of a real life problem and ask students to work in groups to arrive at a decision related to it. Have groups share their decisions and reasoning.
  7. Content, form, and function outlines– ask students to work in small groups to analyze of particular artifact (e.g., image, graph, or story) and identify the “what” (content), “how” (form), and “why” (function).
  8. Case-based learning– provide students with a case, additional necessary information, and potential impact and implications of decisions. Ask small groups to consider responses and then share them with class.

Active Learning
Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching

Additional Examples

Active learning techniques may also be characterized on the basis of the number of people involved. Additional examples include the following:

  1. One person
    • Letter Home: Ask students to write a letter home explaining a concept in simple language.
    • Anonymous Cards:Students write questions about course material on index cards, which are distributed to other students.  Each student researches the question that they received and then shares what they have learned with the rest of the class.
    • Self-Assessment: Students receive and respond to a quiz (typically ungraded) or a checklist of ideas to determine their understanding of the subject.
  2. Two person
    • Three-Step Interview: Students first work in pairs. The first person in the dyad interviews or questions the second person. The second person then interviews or questions the first person. For the next step, two dyads work together. One person from the first dyad explains their conclusion or summary to the second dyad, and one of the individuals from the second dyad explains their summary or results to the first dyad.
    • Pro/con grid: Pick a topic that lends itself to the idea of making lists of pros and cons/advantages and disadvantages. Have students work in pairs and develop at least 3 of each. Then, each pair can share with the entire group.
    • Responsive lecture: Students work in pairs to generate and rank questions based on course material (e.g., a lecture, reading, or out-of-class activity) for the instructor to answer.  Each pair submits their questions.  After class, the instructor reviews and organizes the questions and then responds to the top-ranked question at the next class.
  3. Small groups
    • If you could ask one question: Students write on an index card one question about the material that they would like further explored.  They then work in groups to discuss the questions and formulate answers.
    • Active Review Sessions: Pose questions to the class and ask students to work on them in small groups. Groups then show their responses to the class and discuss any differences.
    • Circle of voices– Pose a question.  Ask students to form groups of 4 to 6 students.  Each student takes a turn sharing their ideas with their group, going around in a circle so that every student participates.  At the end of the activity, a reporter shares conclusions or themes with the entire class.
  4. Entire class
    • Whole-Class Debates: Assign sides of a debate to two halves of the class and ask each side for 5 statements supporting their side of the issue. This process may be repeated, with rebuttals, until the class has fully explored the issue. To end the debate, the ask for 2 or 3 volunteers to make summary arguments for each side.
    • The Lecture Check (polling): The first step is to deliver a lecture for 15 to 20 minutes and then raise a question, often a multiple choice item. Ask students to raise their hands to indicate if they think ‘a’ is the correct response, ‘b,’ is correct, and so on. If most of the students have the correct response, continue with the course material. If, however, more than approximately 20% chose the incorrect response, ask students to turn to their neighbor and convince them of the correct choice. Finally, go through the items again to see how many choose each alternative. If an unacceptable number still have incorrect responses, go back over the material.
    • Gallery Walk: Write several different questions or prompts on large pieces of paper and post them at different locations around the room.  Ask groups of students to write down responses to a particular question, then rotate to the next question and add responses.  At the end of the activity, each group summarizes and shares the responses to their last question.

Tips for Teaching with Active Learning Techniques

The Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University provides information on active learning technique, including the following tips for teaching with active learning:

  • Don’t try to do too much.  Active learning takes time.
  • Choose activities that help students learn the material and master important skills.  Don’t choose activities just for the sake of doing something active.
  • When students are working in small groups, walk around, listen to the students, ask questions, and guide them in the right direction.
    • If you notice that students are struggling with a particular issue, gather everyone’s attention to add a clarifying comment or work through an example problem on the board.
  • Make sure to give all of the necessary instructions before distributing materials and telling people to break into groups or find a partner.​​​​​​
  • Write down the instructions for any activity – on a slide, on the board, or on a handout; it is much easier if the students have written instructions to refer to.
  • It a good idea to randomize students so that they work with a variety of people and you mix up students from different backgrounds.
  • You may wish to assign reporters for group work.
  • Include time to debrief the activity.
    • The instructor might ask students to share answers.  For quantitative work, students might write on the board or post their work (e.g. large sticky pads) on the wall.
    • The instructor might write/draw answers on the board or present a PowerPoint slide that explains possible answers.
  • Ensure that all students in a group know what is going on.
    • Let the students know in advance that each member of the group may be responsible for sharing their answers or thought process with the class.  You could designate who this person will be (e.g. the person whose last name is first in the alphabet or who has the next birthday).
    • You could rearrange the students and have students teach each other about what they just discussed, so each student needs to be responsible for understanding the material.
    • Ask a follow-up question that each student responds to individually.  This could be a multiple-choice polling question for immediate feedback, or it might be a minute paper or other written answer.
  • Include time for students to write during class.  After you ask a question, giving students a minute to jot down a thought requires all students to engage with the material.


►​​​​​​​ Active Learning
Harvard University Bok Center for Teaching and Learning
In addition to providing background on active learning and listing examples of activities, this site has a link to ABL Connect, which is a comprehensive repository for active learning in higher education.

►​​​​​​​ How Can You Incorporate Active Learning into Your Classroom?
University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching
This site provides a long list of active learning techniques as well as a spectrum that arranges active learning techniques by complexity and classroom time commitment.

►​​​​​​​ Active Learning
Cornell University Center for Teaching and Learning
This site lists additional techniques, tips for introducing active leaning to a class, and techniques for using technology for active learning techniques.

►​​​​​​​ Active Learning
Yale University Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning
This site lists activities to supplement lectures without major modification to course structure as well as those to supplement lecture time with active-learning individual/partner group work. It also lists activities to strengthen student motivation and metacognition.

►​​​​​​​Active Learning
University of California/Santa Cruz Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning
This site includes four active learning guides as well as an active learning techniques table that provides ideas for activities.

►​​​​​​​ Learning Activities: Active Learning
DePaul University Teaching Commons
This site discusses how to introduce active learning to a class and links to a Learning Activities Guide with more than 70 collaborative learning activities.

►​​​​​​​ Suggestions for Using Small Groups in the Classroom
University of Chicago Center to Teaching
This site describes a number of small group activities.

►​​​​​​​ Classroom Activities for Active Learning
University of North Carolina Center for Faculty Excellence
This is a document with a list of activities categorized as (a) questioning techniques, (b) small groups, (c) whole class involvement, and (d) reading and writing exercises.

Flipped Classroom

One well known techniques that uses active learning is the Flipped Classroom. According to Brame, in another entry on the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching site, “’flipping the classroom’ means that students gain first exposure to new material outside of class, usually via reading or lecture videos, and then use class time to do the harder work of assimilating that knowledge, perhaps through problem-solving, discussion, or debates.” In relation to Bloom’s taxonomy, students are doing the lower level cognitive work (gaining knowledge and comprehension) outside of class and focusing on the higher level cognitive work (application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) in class. The underlying premise is that lecture or direct instruction is not the best use of class time, and students should do the simpler cognitive work out of class and the more complex work in class.

According to Brame, the key elements of the flipped classroom are:

  1. Provide an opportunity for students to gain first exposure prior to class. The method used for first exposure can vary, from simple textbook readings to lecture videos to podcasts or screencasts.
  2. Provide an incentive for students to prepare for class. Students should be required to complete a task associated with their preparation. The assignment can vary (e.g., online quizzes, worksheets, short writing assignments). These should be completed before class.
  3. Provide a mechanism to assess student understanding. The pre-class assignments that students complete as evidence of their preparation can also help both the instructor and the student assess understanding. They allow the instructor to tailor class activities to focus on the elements with which students are struggling and students to focus on and ask for help in those areas.
  4. Provide in-class activities that focus on higher level cognitive activities. If students have gained basic knowledge outside of class, they should be ready to participate during class time in activities to deepen their understanding and increase their skills at using their new knowledge.

Flipping the Classroom
Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching

One of the most challenging aspects of flipping a classroom is deciding how to spend the time in class; the aim is to select activities that help students synthesize and analyze the material to which they have been exposed outside of class. There are, of course, many active learning strategies that can be employed, and these should be considered, with an eye to appropriateness and potential effectiveness. Another challenge is to find or create resources for students to use at home (e.g., readings, audio or video recordings, and websites). This requires teaching students how to use these materials at home and providing an incentive for them to do so (e.g., in class quizzes or short assignments). ​​​​​​​

The decision to use the flipped classroom approach can be made on a unit by unit basis; that is, it does not have to apply to entire course. A best practice in implementing this approach is to begin with the learning objectives for a particular unit and then develop activities and assessments, both in and out of class, that will lead to students’ attaining these objectives. The preparatory materials should be engaging and specific so that students focus on the information and come to class prepared to participate productively in the in class activities, which should be interactive and help students clarify and apply the material. The time needed for both pre-class and in class activities should not exceed the time needed in traditional approaches.


Flipping the Classroom
Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching
This site covers the history, theoretical basis, and supporting research. It also summarizes key elements of this approach.​​​​​​​

Flipped Classrooms
Harvard University Bok Center for Teaching and Learning
This site enumerates the benefits of a flipped classroom and broadly outlines the steps involved.

How to Flip a Classroom?
University of Texas/Austin Center for Teaching and Leaning
This site provides a guide with steps for flipping a single class, but it is scalable for larger units or an entire course.

Resources: Flipped Classrooms
University of Colorado/Boulder Office of Information Technology
This site provides a step by step guide for flipping a class, as well as a discussion of benefits and downsides and a list of best practices.

Flipping the Classroom
Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation
This site provides additional information on how to implement the flipped classroom approach as well as short videos from faculty members who have used the technique.

Flipped Learning
University of Vermont Center for Teaching and Learning
This site lists several activities as well as providing an extensive list of resources on the topic.

What is a Flipped Classroom?
University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching
This site provides detailed information on applying the technique, as well as examples and an FAQ.

Flipping Your Remote Classroom
University of California/Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning
This site focuses on flipping the remote classroom.