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Active Learning

“Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves” (Chickering & Gamson, 1987).

What is Active Learning?

Active learning is just that – active.  Students are involved “in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). Active learning strategies range from simple pauses in lecture, which allow students time to reflect on lecture material, to complex group work to students actively learning outside the classroom.  In a fully engaged active learning classroom, students are grappling with coursework and constantly processing what they are learning.

How Do I Incorporate Active Learning into My Course?

Fortunately, actively learning can become part of an instructor’s lectures in small steps.  Incorporating one of these activities into your already created lectures is a great step in getting students to begin to be active during class time.  Already crafted lectures can be easily turned into interactive lectures – “presentations that provide students with multiple brief opportunities for structured engagement. Interactive lectures involve both (a) several relatively brief segments of instructor talk (or mini-lectures) and (b) explicit opportunities for student thinking and responding” (Eison, 2010). Once you have begun with something small, you can incorporate more activities every semester.  This comprehensive diagram lays out active learning activities that require the least amount of class time to the most amount of class time:  How Can You Incorporate Active Learning into Your Classroom? (PDF)

As these activities are incorporated in the classroom, there may be challenges.  Students sometimes resist active learning, but the more they participate and learn, students begin to see the benefits and even enjoy a more lively class.  University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning found in a recent study that students had “little resistance to active learning” (“Implementing Active Learning in Your Classroom,” n.d.).  As these activities are introduced, the benefits should be explained to students; see below: What will my students gain from active learning?  A meta-analysis comparing traditional lecture to active learning by Freeman et al. (2014) reported results from 225 studies across STEM disciplines.  In active learning classes, students’ average exam scores were shown to improve by around 6%, and in addition, students involved in traditional lecture were found to be 1.5 times more likely to fail as compared to those in classes with significant active learning.  Active learning activities can also be linked to a grade, so students will be more inclined to try something new.

Time is also a challenge when incorporating active learning activities.  However, with proper skills, students will be able to do active learning activities outside of classroom, which in turn extends learning time and deepens understanding. You may want to share with your students the videos "How to Study Long and Hard and Still Fail...Or How to Get the Most Out of Studying" (Youtube video) by Stephen Chew on how to study effectively. He’s chair and professor of psychology at Samford University. He points out that as students learn to read their textbooks correctly, they can gain a wealth of knowledge outside of the classroom. This reading can be done prior to class meetings, leaving more time to use active learning activities during class time to actively dive deep into course content. You can use Chew’s videos to help your students learn to use their out of class time effectively.  Other instructors have successfully ““flip[ped]” their classroom, having students work through self-study modules before class to cover content, and using the actual class period to assess and supplement their learning in an active way” (“Implementing Active Learning in Your Classroom”, n.d.).

What Will My Students Gain from Active Learning?

“Lectures alone are too often a useless expenditure of force. The lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves. The water may be wholesome; but it runs through. A mind must work to grow” (Elliot, as cited in Eison, 2010).

Active learning activities allow students to have a deeper understanding of course materials. Students will remember the course material and be better prepared for tests and assignments.  Not only will students be better prepared for the next course, they will be confident in their acquired knowledge.  During active learning, student knowledge becomes deep, not shallow:   “Deep processing focuses on subjective meaning: relating new information to prior knowledge or making information personally meaningful” (Chew, 2011).  Active learning activities allows students to talk, discuss, and grapple with course material in such a way that it becomes meaningful to them.

If you’re interested in reading more about active learning, you can also check out these sites:


Bonwell, C., & Eison, J. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1). Washington, DC: George Washington University. Retrieved from

Chew, S. L. [Samford University]. (2011, August 16). How to Get the Most Out of Studying [Video File]. Retrieved from

Chickering, A. W. & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7.

Eison, J. (2010, March).  Using Active Learning Instructional Strategies to Create Excitement and Enhance Learning.  Retrieved from Cornell University's Center for Teaching Innovation.

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, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Implementing Active Learning in Your Classroom (n.d.).  Retrieved from

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of engineering education, 93(3), 223-231.

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