Active Learning

What is Active Learning?

Incorporating Active Learning into Your Teaching

Faculty Perspectives on Changing the Landscape with Active Learning

Active Learning Activities

Challenges to Active Learning

Considerations for Online Courses

What is Active Learning?

Active Learning is a broad term encompassing several models of instruction that seek to improve student learning outcomes by making students active participants in their learning. Active Learning of particular interest to health profession instructors because of the value of teamwork, cases, and simulation. Active learning can incorporate discussions, games, simulation, or a variety of activities. Instructors can apply active learning using simple to complex techniques ranging from occasional classroom activities to a formalized team based learning curriculum.

Good active learning teaching strategies combine agency, reflection, and collaboration:

Agency. Students learn best when they are in control the need for a student to take control of his/her mental activity, to be responsible for constructing knowledge, and to make certain that what he or she does in school matters.

Reflection. The ability to look back to an experience and be able to draw significant ideas, insights, questions. Reflection means recalling events, reconstructing them in order to find their meanings, and taking them inside the mind.

Collaboration. Actively working together by sharing the resources with a variety of people involved in teaching and learning. Knowledge is socially constructed through discourse.

Incorporating Active Learning into Your Teaching

Successful implementation of Active Learning techniques is a three step process

1. Planning

  • Select ONE course try it out, ideally a course you know well and are comfortable with.

  • Pick ONE class meeting that would be appropriate to incorporate active learning techniques into.

  • Select a simple Active Learning technique to start with.

2. Implementing

  • Be sure to set student expectations.

  • Let students know in advance what they will be asked to do.

  • Let students know the goal of any activities.

  • Be clear about activities that are grade related vs. solely learning activities.

  • Clarify any student confusions before moving forward.

  • Communicate to students the time constraints of any in class activities.

3. Responding

  • Close the feedback loop: provide feedback to students individually or to the whole class as appropriate .

  • Have a plan for how you will react to students needs for further instruction you become aware of via learning activities (additional readings, handouts, extra lecture, etc.).

  • Communicate any adjustments you will make in your teaching in response to active learning activities.

Faculty Perspectives on Changing the Landscape with Active Learning

Active Learning Activities

All active learning activities include some element of talking and listening, writing, reading, or reflecting. The goal of all active learning experience is giving students a chance to clarify, question, consolidate, and apply knowledge.

Examples of Active Learning can also be found under the List of Examples of Classroom Assessment Techniques.

Talking and Listening

When students talk about a topic, whether answering a teacher's question or explaining a point to another student, they organize and reinforce what they have learned. When they listen, we want to ensure that it's meaningful listening, relating what they hear to what they already know. In a lecture class, students need periodic time away from passive listening in order to absorb what they have heard. And they need reasons to listen - reasons perhaps more immediate than a good grade at the end of the semester. Posing a question before a lecture segment that is thought-provoking enough to cause students to search for the answer in the words that followed.


Like talking and active listening, writing provides a means for students to process new information in their own words. Activities that incorporate writing can be particularly effective in large classrooms where breaking students into pairs or groups may be prohibitive. These types of activities also appeals to individuals who prefer to learn independently.


Students do a great deal of their learning through reading, but they often receive little instruction in how to read effectively. Active learning exercises such as summary and note checks can help students process what they've read and help them develop the ability to focus on important information.


In the all-too-typical lecture class, the lecturer stops talking at the very end of the period. Students gather up their notes and books and run for their next class. One can almost see the knowledge evaporating from their brains. They've had no time to reflect, to connect what they've just learned with what they already know, or to use the knowledge they've gained in any way. Allowing students to pause for thought, to use their new knowledge to teach each other, or to answer questions on the day's topics is one of the simplest ways to increase retention.

Challenges to Active Learning

Instructors sometimes face disinterested students, time pressures, and classroom management issues when adding active learning to their toolbox of teaching strategies. Students who have been historically successful in lecture based courses can be resistant to active learning strategies. Some of this resistance is simply to changes in instruction that move students out of their comfort zone, other elements of the resistance can be the challenging nature of Active Learning techniques compared to “passive” learning.

Suggestions for Overcoming Student Resistance to Active Learning:

  • Begin using active learning strategies early in the term. Introduce the concept on the first day of class and let students know that they will be expected to participate in such strategies throughout the course.

  • Be true to your word and use Active Learning frequently–at least once a class period initially. Balance between class time and objectives. After the first several sessions, students will understand that you're serious about active learning and will accept their role as participants readily.

  • Give clear instructions. State the goal students should meet, how much time they have for the activity, what procedures they should follow, and with whom they should partner (ie, "turn to the person next to you" or "form groups of four with the people nearest you.") It is often a good idea to put directions for in-class activities on an overhead or a PowerPoint slide so that students have something to refer to as they begin the activity.

  • Explain to students why you are using active learning and the benefits they can expect from it.

  • Be committed to your choice to use active learning and communicate that confidently to students. Students will be put at ease if they understand that you're in charge and have good reasons for what you're doing.

  • Manually break students into groups. This can be an effective way to overcome student reluctance and demonstrate that you are in charge.

  • Start small and simple. Use low-impact strategies such as think-pair-share or in-class writing exercises. These strategies are easy to implement, take only a few minutes, and are "low stakes" for students who may be unsure or uncomfortable. As you and your students gain experience, you may decide to graduate to more involved activities.

Active Learning Teaching Strategies

There are many specific teaching strategies that fall into the philosophy of Active Learning, read more about these at: Teaching Strategies.

Considerations for Online Courses

Most activities work for both the in-class and online learning environments. However in an online environment clarity becomes even more important. In a face-to-face environment, verbal directions frequently accompany the written ones. Making sure students still receive all of that supplementary information is the challenge for online activities.

You may want to think about including any or all of the following with your activities and assignments:

  • purpose statement

  • for group work, a list of options for communication tools

  • discussion section devoted to questions about the activity/assignment

  • statement of expectations

  • recommended resources - another way to help your students understand your expectations (e.g. DynaMed or the CDC site)

  • grading rubric

  • audio recording of your explanation of the activity/assignment

Further Readings

All of these books are available for borrowing from the Teaching Resources Library

Angelo, T.A., & Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Boettcher, J.V., & Conrad, R.M. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nilson, L.B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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