Active Learning

Active learning is referenced in CTEL’s course design evaluation form, and it’s also incorporated in the Quality Matters rubric. But why should you use active learning strategies and activities, and how can you incorporate them in your course?


Click on the links following to navigate directly to each topic.

Why use active learning strategies?

Students actively process information when they ask or answer questions, comment, and explain; therefore, when they go beyond passive listening to analyze and use what they’re hearing, they’re participating in active learning. Active learning is very different than traditional styles of learning, which require students to sit at length, passively listening to an instructor and absorbing information they present. Research has shown that passive learning is problematic: Both students’ attention and their ability to retain information begin to decline after 10 to 15 minutes of lecture (Hartley & Davies, 1978; Stuart & Rutherford, 1978).

In contrast, active learning strategies have students “doing” things, like analyzing, creating, role playing, or reflecting. Students in classes that incorporate active learning typically outperform students in lecture-based courses, and they retain information longer term (Benware & Deci, 1984; Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Freeman et al., 2014; Michael & Modell, 2003). In addition, evidence has shown that active learning strategies benefit students of color, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and/or women in male-dominated fields (Haak et al., 2011).

Which active learning activities should I use?

Dee Fink (2003), author of the significant learning model, separates active learning activities into three categories:

  1. rich learning experiences: debates, role playing, situational observations, authentic and service learning projects;
  2. in-depth reflective dialogue: reflective writing, journaling, learning portfolios; and
  3. information and ideas: primary and secondary data and sources research.

Fink advocates for incorporating activities from all three categories into your course as a holistic approach to active learning.

Examples of active learning activities

Rich learning experiences

  • Case study problem-solving exercises help students develop analytical skills and learn how to apply academic theories to real-world problems. Reference case studies in your lecture or assign them as a reading, then have students work out their solutions independently or in small groups. (In online class meetings, you can have students meet in small groups virtually through Zoom’s breakout rooms feature.) You can also use case studies as the basis for major projects or exams.
  • Debate helps develop critical thinking and logical reasoning skills. Present competing viewpoints through readings or in your lecture, then assign students to defend one of them. (For classes that meet asynchronously, VoiceThread is a great tool for hosting debates.)
  • Giving students agency in setting learning objectives and/or selecting readings automatically increases their engagement level and helps them develop a deeper understanding of your course materials. Have them pick a reading from a list of options, then defend why the class should focus on it or brainstorm learning objectives for a lesson.
  • Reading quizzes can be used to measure students’ comprehension of assigned readings and other media at the start of a class. You can have students discuss their quiz answers in pairs or small groups to agree on a correct one, then share their answers with the rest of the class. If a significant number of students answer a question incorrectly, you can deliver a short lecture to clarify that topic.
  • Concept mapping requires students to identify and organize complex information and establish meaningful relationships between different points or topics. Students design concept maps by connecting terms with lines that indicate relationships between them. (Mindmup is a web-based application that some USM faculty recommend for concept mapping; you can add to your Google Drive account through the G Suite Marketplace.)
  • Visual lists can be used to organize and analyze information. Ask students to form small groups and make lists, either comparing views or listing pros and cons of a position. Once they’ve generated as thorough a list as possible, ask them to analyze which side is more heavily “weighted.” (A collaborative document application like Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides would allow students to create their list virtually.)
  • Role playing allows students to perform an in-depth analysis of concepts and theories related to a course topic. For example, students could be asked to role play being journalists during a historical era and write an article that includes interviews with a set of people from that time, or they could divide into “union” and “management” teams and renegotiate a contract.

In-depth reflective dialogue

  • Muddiest (or clearest) point provides a way to gauge students’ understanding of and reaction to learning materials. Ask students, “What was the ‘muddiest point’ in this week’s readings?” or “What (if anything) do you find unclear about the concept of ‘___’?” Give them 1-2 minutes to write their responses, then discuss their answers, either as a class or in small groups.
  • Reflective journaling provides students the opportunity to grow in their content knowledge, metacognition, and self-awareness. Have students contribute weekly to a reflection journal and either turn it in to you periodically for feedback or share their reflections with one another. (With Brightspace’s assignment tool, students can share their journal privately with you online, or you can use a discussion forum if you want them to share their reflections with one another.)
  • Reflection on high-stakes assignments helps students self-evaluate the quality of their work, articulate their own learning, and identify ways to improve the quality of both in the future. Shortly after students submit their work, ask them to identify what worked and what didn’t work, how they would approach the same project differently if they had to do it again, or one part of their work they’re proud of. They could also share one thing they learned or a question for future investigation.

Information & ideas

  • Wikis provide a space where students can share research they’ve conducted. Assign topics to them individually or as small groups, then have them document information they’ve found. For example, in a media studies course on the history of television, students could be assigned new series to document on the wiki. (Any of the content management applications that CTEL recommends can be used as a wiki.)
  • Jigsaw group projects have students synthesize each other’s work to form a complete, larger deliverable. Students form small groups in which each member is asked to complete part of an assignment; once every member has completed their assigned task, the pieces are joined together to form a finished project or report. For example, students could be required to research a different member of the Harlem Renaissance, then come together to prepare a report on the overall movement.
  • Presentations provide another way for students to share information and ideas with one another. Rather than lecturing at length about a course topic, assign parts of it to students to research and present to the class. Afterwards, you can deliver a shorter lecture that fills in any gaps in the information that they presented. (VoiceThread allows students to easily share a narrated presentation online.)

References & Additional Reading

  • Benware, C. A., & Deci, E. L. (1984). Quality of learning with an active versus passive motivational set. American Education Research Journal, 1(4), 755-765.
  • Bonwell, C.C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.
  • Faust, J. L., & Paulson, D. R. (1998). Active learning in the college classroom. Journal on  Excellence in College Teaching, 9(2), 3-24.
  • Fink, L. D. (2003). A self-directed guide to designing courses for significant learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • 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 of the United States of America, 111(23), 8410-8415.
  • Haak, D. C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E., & Freeman, S. (2011). Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science, 332(6034), 1213-1216.
  • Hartley, J., & Davies, I. K. (1978). Note-taking: A critical review. Programmed Learning and Educational Technology, 15(3), 207-224.
  • Michael, J. A., & Modell, H. I. (2003). Active learning in secondary and college science classrooms: A working model of helping the learning to learn. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • “Standards from the Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric, 6th Edition.” (2018). Quality Matters. Retrieved from
  • Stuart, J., & Rutherford, R. J. D. (1978). Medical student concentration during lectures. Lancet, 312(8088), 514-516.

Written by Jennifer Keplinger

Last updated on December 26, 2018