Documentation:Active Learning

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What is it?

Active learning is a way of describing pedagogical approaches rooted in constructivism. In order to support the construction of knowledge, students'prior knowledge is activated and challenged, often in collaborative inquiry with peers to examine a concept, issue, challenge or problem. Active learning focuses on the actions students take to construct meaning.

Active learning requires students to engage in meaningful ways with the content, both individually and collectively. This work is supported by thoughtfully designed learning opportunities that emphasize the application of methods, strategies, approaches, experiences and ideas to uncover meaning and build understanding. Rather than content delivery, the instructor's role in active learning environments is focused on the design and orchestration of the learning environment to support the work that students do in learning, to facilitate discussion and collaboration and to surface and address misconceptions that arise.

Engagement with active learning approaches allows the learner to better process what is being learned, thus creating a longer-lasting memory trace, improving content knowledge, critical thinking, and problem solving abilities (Anderson, Mitchell, & Osgood, 2005)[1].

Why use it?

Students learn more when they participate in the process of learning, whether it’s through discussion, practice, review, or application (Grunert, 1997)[2].

According to Svinicki (2001)[3], there are 10 benefits to implementing active learning principles:

  1. Students are more likely to access their own prior knowledge, which is a key to learning.
  2. Students are more likely to find personally meaningful problem solutions or interpretations.
  3. Students receive more frequent and more immediate feedback.
  4. The need to produce forces learners to retrieve information from memory rather than simply recognizing a correct statement.
  5. Students increase their self-confidence and self-reliance.
  6. For most learners, it is more motivating to be active than passive.
  7. A task that you have done yourself or as part of a group is more highly valued.
  8. Student conceptions of knowledge change, which in turn has implications for cognitive development.
  9. Students who work together on active learning tasks learn to work with other people of different backgrounds and attitudes.
  10. Students learn strategies for learning itself by observing others.

Learning Considerations

Active learning is "anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing" - Bonwell & Eison, Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. (1991, p. 2).[4]

There are a few learning considerations to help students to intentionally engage in the process of learning:

  1. Students' Comfort Level & Motivation: Some students may not be ready or well-prepared to actively participate in the learning process. It may be helpful to explain the benefits of active learning, explicitly connect the learning activity with learning objectives, to and share your rationale for engaging them in this way.
  2. Preference & Process of Student Learning: Given the diversity of your students' experiences, identities, and learning needs, it is reasonable to expect that they will have different preferences for how to learn. Employing a variety of learning activities may help your students to engage in learning processes.
  3. Structuring & Facilitating the Activity: Providing clear instructions and communicating expectations of how students will engage in the learning activity are key aspects of successful implementation. Be intentional about how you will facilitate the process for each step of the way. Some questions to ask yourself as you design and prepare for your class: how will you introduce the active learning activity? How much time will you give students? How will you monitor the students' progress/process/learning during the activity? How will you debrief?

Teaching Considerations

"Research shows that people will often continue to use a familiar strategy that works moderately well rather than switch to a new strategy that would work better." - Susan Ambrose, How Learning Works (2010, p.199)[5]

Even when we understand the benefits of incorporating active learning techniques and trust the research evidence for its effectiveness in facilitating student learning, implementing active learning strategies in our classrooms can still feel risky.

There are a few teaching considerations to keep in mind when experimenting with active learning in your classroom:

  1. Your Own Comfort Level: Even when there is a wealth of evidence that support active learning, it feels vulnerable nonetheless when trying something new in your teaching practice. Start small and experiment with a well-aligned yet simple learning activity to support your students learning.
  2. Logistics: The level of logistics consideration depends on the complexity of the active learning technique you choose to implement. Will the students be working on their own or in groups? How will the group members be determined? What are some features of the physical space that may support and/or pose a challenge to running the activity smoothly? What materials and/or learning technologies will I need to run this activity? How will the students get back on track after the activity?
  3. Effectiveness: Regularly check in with students, through both informal and formal feedback, about how the active learning techniques are impacting their learning experience.

Practical Guides

Please find below a list of teaching techniques and examples of implementation of this approach:

Online Resources on Active Learning Techniques


  1. Anderson, W.L., Mitchell, S.M., Osgood, M.P. (2005, November). Comparison of student performance in cooperative learning and traditional lecture-based biochemistry classes. Biochemical Molecular Biology Education, 33(6), 387-393. doi: 10.1002/bmb.2005.49403306387.
  2. Grunert, J. (1997) The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Co, Inc.
  3. Svinicki, M. (2001). EDP 398T College Teaching Methodology. University of Texas.
  4. Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE–ERIC Higher Education Rep. No. 1). Washington, DC: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.
  5. Ambrose, Susan A.. (Eds.) (2010) How learning works :seven research-based principles for smart teaching San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass,

You may find an additional bibliography here.