Active Learning


Active learning is a category of teaching methods that attempts to engage students in their learning. Active learning includes a broad swath of activities such as reading and thinking, writing, discussion and debate, practicing skills, solving problems, and participating in simulations or case studies. The level of thinking involved often includes critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Active learning also may include reflecting on actions.The Greenwood Dictionary of Education defines active learning a:

  • The process of having students engage in some activity that forces them to reflect upon ideas and how they are using those ideas;
  • Requiring students to regularly assess their own degree of understanding and skill at handling concepts or problems in a particular discipline;
  • The attainment of knowledge by participating or contributing;
  • The process of keeping students mentally, and often physically, active in their learning through activities that involve them in gathering information, thinking and problem solving.  (as cited in Weimer, 2011)

Active learning then is designed to:

  • Provide opportunities for reflection;
  • Awaken students to their current knowledge and skills – and then to build upon those knowledge and skills;
  • Encourage students to engage with information.

To design an active learning approach is to create a learning opportunity with these elements in mind. Listed below are a number of specific active learning activities that you may be able to integrate into your lecture or session. Don’t feel limited to this list. Any level of student engagement, however modest, is a movement in the direction of active learning. For example, 15 minutes into your lecture you may pause to ask your students to share their notes with one another – this is a form of active learning. You may also pause and ask your students to briefly tackle a problem or discuss a specific question about the lecture. This engages students in thinking. The following active learning activities are a small sample.

Active Learning Strategies

Thinking-Aloud Pair Problem Solving

To solve case studies, complex problems, or interpret text, students can pair, with one individual designated as the explainer and the other as the questioner. The explainers outline the issues at hand and then begin detailed descriptions of how they would solve the case, problem, or interpretation. The questioners listen, for the most part, but they can also pose questions or offer helpful hints. At a given point, the students reverse roles, a process that continues until the exercise concludes (Felder & Brent, 2009, p. 3)

Three Step Interview

Common as an ice breaker or a team-building exercise, this structure, developed by Kagan (1989), also helps students reinforce and internalize important concept-related information based on lectures or textbook material. The instructor usually poses the interview questions, focused on content material and having no right or wrong solutions. In a Three-Step Interview, one student interviews another within specified time limits (Step 1). The two then reverse roles and conduct the interview again (Step 2). Two pairs combine to form a foursome, and the students introduce to the rest of the group the ideas posed by their partners (Step 3). An extra question can be added for pairs working more rapidly than others, an “extension” or “sponge” activity recommended to reduce off-task behaviors and to allow fast-moving pairs or groups to tackle more challenging problems.


This structure is particularly effective for problem solving. Its exact source is unknown. The Howard County Maryland Staff Development Center developed a version of it inspired by Kagan’s (1989) work. The starting point is a list of problems, issues, or case studies, which can be generated by students or can be teacher-selected. Each team records its problem on the front of a folder or envelope. The teams then brainstorm effective solutions or responses for these problems, issues, or case studies, recording them on a piece of paper. At a predetermined time, the ideas are placed in the folder or envelope and forwarded to another team. The members of the second team, without looking at the ideas already generated, compile their own list of solutions or responses. The folder with the two sets of ideas is forwarded to a third team which now looks at the suggestions provided from the other teams, adds its own, and then synthesizes the ideas from all three teams.

Alternatively, if the problems generated a list of ideas, then the teams can select the best two solutions. During this activity, students are engaged in the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (1956)—evaluation and synthesis.

Technology Tips

Online discussion forums engage students in active learning and promote growth of collaborative learning communities. To replicate the Send/Pass-a-Problem with the discussion tool, divide students into small forum groups to generate their ideas on the initial problem. Organize a schedule and deadline dates for groups to post their problems and responses to another group.

Case Studies

Students consider problems situated in the complexity of their fields. Good case studies, like good stories, are realistic, reflect the complexity of the situation, and involve a conflict or dilemma. For more on case studies see What are case studies?

Pro and Con Grid

The pro and con grid lists advantages and disadvantages of any issue and helps students develop analytical and evaluative skills. It also forces students to go beyond their initial reactions, search for at least two sides to the issue, and weigh the value of competing claims.

Problem Solving: Demonstrations, Proofs and Stories

Begin a lecture with a question, a paradox, an enigma, or a compelling, unfinished human story. Solving the problem, depending on what it is or in what field, may require a scientific demonstration, a mathematical proof, an economic model, the outcome of a novel’s plot, or a historical narrative. You refer back to the problem throughout the lecture, inviting students to fill in imaginative spaces in the story (or model) with their own solutions. Students fill in their successive answers passively, or the instructor elicits responses which are recorded on the board and discussed. Example questions include: “What do you think will happen?” “Which solution, outcome, or explanation makes the most sense to you?”

Role Playing

Here, students are asked to “act out” a part. In doing so, they get a better idea of the concepts and theories being discussed. Role-playing exercises can range from the simple to the complex. For more see Role-Plays and Simulations

Jigsaw Discussion

In this technique, a general topic is divided into smaller, interrelated pieces (e.g., the puzzle is divided into pieces). Each member of a team is assigned to read and become an expert on a different topic. After each person has become an expert on their piece of the puzzle, they teach the other team members about that puzzle piece. Finally, after each person has finished teaching, the puzzle has been reassembled and everyone in the team knows something important about every piece of the puzzle.

Technology Tips

For a jigsaw online, experts form a group in the online discussion forum to teach one another about their topic of expertise. This can be followed by discussion questions to ensure that everyone in the team understood the content from the interrelated pieces. Office 365 is useful to have students record and share notes about their piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

Forum Theatre

In this technique, a general topic is divided into smaller, interrelated pieces (e.g., the puzzle is divided into pieces). Each member of a team is assigned to read and become an expert on a different topic. After each person has become an expert on their piece of the puzzle, they teach the other team members about that puzzle piece. Finally, after each person has finished teaching, the puzzle has been reassembled and everyone in the team knows something important about every piece of the puzzle.


1. Millis, B. (2012). Active learning strategies in face to face courses. The Idea Center: University of Texas at San Antonio. Retrieved from:

2. Active Learning Activities from the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence.
Retrieved from:

3. O’Neal, C & Pinder-Grover, T. How can you incorporate active learning into the classroom?
Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan Retrieved from:

Magna Campus Video and Supplemental Materials Resource

Active Learning That Works: What Students Think


  1. Log on to UM Learn
  2. Under My Courses, select All Roles under Role, and All under Term.
  3. Scroll down to Development Courses and select The Centre – Magna Campus Resources
  4. Select Magna Campus > Open Menu > Seminar Libraries > Online Seminars
  5. In the search box, type in “Active Learning That Works: What Students Think”

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Brookfield, S. (2015). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Davis, B. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed., Jossey-Bass higher and adult education series). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Fink, L. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lang, J. (2008). On course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Nilson, L. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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