If you’re struggling to get students engaging with one another and participating in class, active learning may be your best solution. This hands-on pedagogy enables students to be actively involved in (and out) of the classroom and is proven to increase attendance and exam scores. Plus, active learning favors discussions, activities and quizzes over passive lectures, in order to prime curiosity and boost student outcomes.
In this guide, we’ll look at the differences between active and passive learning and will leave you with eight learning examples that you can apply in any course.
Table of contents
- What is active learning?
- The history of active learning
- Active learning classroom design
- One-minute papers
- Quick quizzes
- Muddiest point
- Case studies or problem solving
- Peer instruction
- Flipped classrooms
- Educational technology used for active learning
- Rely on Top Hat Basic for free and easy active learning strategies
What is active learning?
Originally coined by Charles Bonwell and James Eison, active learning works by “involving students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.”1 Rather than think about what they are watching, hearing, or reading, students are first encouraged to be “doing” something in class, and then apply critical thought and reflection to their own classroom work and activity.
The traditional lecture model is no longer the most efficient way for instructors to impart knowledge to students. Wi-Fi, smartphones and laptops provide endless distractions—especially in the online classroom. Educators must now rely on teaching methods like active learning for classroom engagement and to keep students attentive and alert. In their book Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson write that “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 past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”
“Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”
Active learning strategies can result in higher student engagement, increased higher-order thinking skills, improved grades and a lower dropout rate. A 2019 study from Harvard University found that students who engaged in various types of active learning strategies scored higher on tests versus students who passively learned material.2 Strategic use of the tools normally associated with distraction can be used to benefit instructors and students regardless of teaching modality.
The history of active learning
Didactic instruction once made up much of the postsecondary experience. Traced back to the 14th century medieval times, this was a lecture-heavy approach and positioned students as idle recipients in the learning process. Large lecture halls were seen as the ideal place for sharing and spreading knowledge. Here, students were expected to take extensive notes and memorize as much information as they could. Examples of learning strategies that we know today—such as discussions and debates—weren’t the norm.
Passivity characterized the learning experience for many, but centuries later, it’s a heavily criticized pedagogical model. Here is a comparison of what a passive versus active learning classroom looks like.
|Passive learning||Active learning|
|Viewing a lecture on deadly diseases||Discussing which diseases students have heard about and in what context|
|Providing an image of a cell that is already annotated||Providing an unlabelled image of a cell for students to explore and annotate themselves|
|Watching a video without prompts or class discussions after||Engaging in a simulation that reacts to student interaction and includes formative questions throughout|
With active learning, students have opportunities to apply their understanding of the material periodically. Instructors can also gauge student performance and adjust subsequent lesson plans according to what students do and don’t know. Especially in the hybrid or fully online classroom, incorporating active learning examples are a crucial strategy to keep students engaged and alert. In higher education’s ‘new normal,’ learning and teaching don’t necessarily occur at the same time. Thus, active learning strategies help students engage in self-instruction at a pace that suits their needs.
Passive learning can be defined as a teaching and learning approach, during which the teacher lectures and students copy down the text in class. Assigned reading is another example—though in this case, the text serves as a proxy for the teacher.
Active learning posits that in order for a student to understand a concept, they need to consciously engage with the material. They need to talk about it. The key to active learning is the idea that students should be given agency. Pausing a lecture to have a group discussion, for example, is a common active-learning strategy in the classroom.
Active learning classroom design
Active learning is one of the most effective ways to maintain collaboration and is even proven to boost academic performance.1 Designing thoughtful active learning strategies doesn’t have to be a laborious undertaking—and that’s where this five-step guide can help. Here’s how to make active learning definitions and strategies part of your course prep to maximize student engagement.
Step 1: Determine the teaching challenges that active learning will solve
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to using active learning in your course. For instance, business and nursing students require different curriculum delivery methods to help solidify course material. It’s essential that you set time aside to conduct research on how active learning can impact your particular subject matter. Consider turning to past course data—including participation rates or the number of below-average grades in a particular unit—to inform you where your new students may benefit from a more engaging, hands-on learning experience. You may also wish to compile a list of active learning examples that you would like to use in your course, including team-building activities, discussions, games or simulations. Keep this list of activities handy for step four.
Step 2: Break your course into topics and questions
During this step, clearly identify the narrow topics you’d like to emphasize in your course. You might also use some of the questions or domains that students have historically struggled with to inform your list. It can be helpful to complete this step as you build out your full course syllabus to view all topics covered at a glance.
Next, generate a handful of questions that speak to each topic on your list. It can be helpful to use the 5 W’s (who, what, where, when and why) during this stage. For instance, if you’re teaching psychology, you might engage your students in a discussion on classical conditioning (topic) that aims to answer ‘how does the process of acquisition work?’ (question).
Step 3: Draft your learning objectives and outcomes
You’ve now created a robust list of topics and questions to cover in your course. Additionally use your learning objectives to inform your active learning strategies. Pair each learning objective with an outcome that clearly states what students should be able to accomplish at the end of each unit or at the end of your course.
Consider creating learning objectives for each unit you plan to teach if you’re covering a wide array of topics in your course. This approach can also help you tailor your activities accordingly. We recommend using the Bloom’s taxonomy framework during this stage in order to ensure students don’t just memorize your lessons, but instead, actively analyze and apply your material.
Step 4: Plan and design your learning activities
With your list of topics, questions and learning objectives in mind, start planning your active learning activities accordingly. Be sure to consider the following factors when designing your activities, including: where you anticipate learning taking place (in person? Online? Both?), what an ideal rubric looks like for discussions versus presentations versus quizzes and what assigned roles and responsibilities might entail in group work.
Step 5: Evaluate when and where to use your learning activities
Not all active learning activities will work in every teaching scenario. The quantity and quality of your active learning strategies also depends on where you’ll be teaching. Activities such as a one-minute quiz work well in any modality, whereas others such as role-plays are more effective when used in person.
Don’t be afraid to switch up your formula from class to class. For instance, you might run a lecture-heavy course with an exit ticket exercise one day, while you might prioritize group work for three-quarters of another class.
Below is a list of active learning strategies, offering eight practical examples for any online, hybrid or face-to-face classroom.
Active learning strategies to implement in your classroom
Perfect for collaborative and cooperative learning, faculty briefly pause their lecture and ask students to pair up and discuss the material that was just presented. Students are then asked to prepare questions or share observations with the entire class.
The University of Queensland’s Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation suggests splitting this learning activity into three constituent parts.3 First, ask a question that you feel will challenge your students. Next, have students think for two to three minutes by themselves. Then, pair students in small groups of two or three to discuss their conclusions for no more than five minutes. Finally, ask for volunteers to share their conclusions with the larger group.
Examples of active learning in the classroom, such as think-pair-share, are effective after the first few lectures—especially if the attention span of students in your class is beginning to dip. One of the benefits of active learning in the classroom is that it helps to recapture enthusiasm, and remind students that their learning is not taking place in isolation.
In your classroom, ask students to reflect on their own and capture their notes in a word processor. You can then use small groups or breakout rooms for peer discussion. After ten minutes, ask students to share their findings with the rest of the class. Top Hat’s discussion features also allow students to ask questions throughout the discussion.
2. One-minute papers
Towards the end of the lecture, students answer a question about the course material either individually or in small groups—give them about a minute. The submitted responses from this active learning activity can be used to gauge student learning and comprehension of the material covered in the class period.
Educator James Lang, author of Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, is a proponent of active learning—particularly the one-minute paper. Lang says that this active learning example is perfect for students to connect their ideas with the wider aim of the lecture. It will also allow students to reflect on what was taught before class is dismissed—in person or online.4 Pose one of the following two questions to students at the end of class:
- What was the most important thing you learned today?
- What question still remains in your mind?
The first question requires students to remember something from class and articulate it in their own words. It also encourages students to think on the spot.5 The second question encourages students to consider what they haven’t understood. To answer the second question, students have to decide where confusion or weaknesses remain in their own comprehension. This example of active learning in the classroom promotes reflection, while measuring information retention.
One-minute papers can easily be run in any classroom. Create a discussion question in Top Hat and set five to 10 minutes at the end of class for students to respond to your question. Share the anonymous responses live and be sure to address areas of confusion in future lessons.
3. Quick quizzes
This active learning activity can be administered at the start of class or part way through a lecture. It should count as formative assessment—not for a grade, but to assess comprehension. These no-stakes quizzes provide an opportunity for students to reflect and recall information that was just covered before the instructor moves on to the next topic.
Students can complete these quizzes at the start of class to challenge pre-existing assumptions. You may want to ask the same question at the end of class in order for students to compare their understanding to the start of class. It will also allow you to engage in a meta-analysis of students’ performance. Frank Spors, Associate Professor of Optometry at Western University of Health Sciences, leveraged these informal assessments to guide his lecture. “The assessment identified content areas that required more clarification during class, and I adjusted my planned lecture accordingly to focus on areas where students needed the most help,” he says.
“The assessment identified content areas that required more clarification during class, and I adjusted my planned lecture accordingly to focus on areas where students needed the most help.”
By facilitating pre-tests and post-tests—two examples of learning strategies for any course—you can compare and pair the results of the two quizzes and get instant feedback about the effectiveness of your lesson. Did students understand, or do they need more clarification on a topic? Quick quizzes are a beneficial active learning strategy for helping you understand and collect student insights in the moment.
Top Hat tests make it easy to run quick quizzes in your course. Facilitate your primary test during the first five minutes of class. You can then administer the second quiz as a form of exit ticket before students leave your classroom. Consider addressing responses and misconceptions in future lectures.
4. Muddiest point
Muddiest point is a type of active learning strategy that pinpoints the area(s) that students are least confident about in the course material that was just covered. Students note the most confusing part of a lecture or course content and instructors can use these insights to determine how to engage students in active learning, and where to focus future teaching efforts.
Consider anonymizing student responses in order to make students feel comfortable. While the goal is to encourage participation, it’s equally important to respond to student feedback during the next class or as soon as possible after. Responding to students shortly after—when their curiosity is already primed—will help them link ideas together and encourage them to critically reflect on what they do and don’t understand.
When using the muddiest point activity in your class, pause halfway or at the end of your lesson to let students submit topics they don’t understand. In an online classroom, consider using your video conferencing platform’s live chat for students to submit their responses. Alternatively, create a video assignment in Top Hat that will let students submit their response via video.
Having students defend different viewpoints is an effective way to engage the entire class. Debates help instructors check student comprehension and help students learn from one another. This activity works well in small groups versus large classes.
Role-playing provides a safe and fun way to explore new concepts and ideas, as Tony Crider, Professor of Astrophysics at Elon University, North Carolina, argues.6 In his classes—which are infused with active learning techniques—students are assigned roles of historical characters. One of his classes is called the “Pluto Debates,” where leading figures of the astronomy world argue over whether or not Pluto should be considered a planet.
Every student has a character sheet, with their victory conditions. For instance, the conditions outline: “You’ll win if the vote turns out this way, or that way.” For Crider, the aim of this active learning example is getting his students invested in how astronomers make sense of objects and how they make decisions together. The simulation aspect of this approach drew students in to the point where they’ll often prepare more for Crider’s class than others.
When running a debate in class, consider using small groups. Post the topic well in advance (such as one or two days before class) to give students enough time to prepare their responses. Randomly assign students to a small group, or breakout room, to begin their debate. Alternatively, you might use a discussion board that allows students to respectfully respond to their peers’ opinions.
6. Case studies and problem solving
In this active learning strategy, students work in small groups or individually and apply knowledge gained from lectures or reading materials to a given scenario. This is more spontaneous than setting multi-week, large group projects. Provide students with a real-world contemporary case related to your curriculum and learning outcomes.
It’s best to pick a case study or event that is a) relevant and timely and b) well-known to ensure all students are comfortable participating. Students respond to a set of questions prepared by you, which ask how the case study intersects with course material and the relevance of the case in comparison to another timely topic.
Large group discussions aren’t always possible—or easy to facilitate—with remote learning. Joshua Eyler, Director of Faculty Development at the University of Mississippi, suggests an alternative for small group discussions: breakout rooms. Instructors should consider breaking students into small groups with the understanding that they will need to report back and share their responses either live or via a discussion board or learning management system (LMS).
Use breakout rooms to your advantage rather than trying to manage a whole group discussion. Give them a meaningful question/activity/problem and then break them randomly into groups *with an understanding that groups will need to report back*. (3/x)
— Joshua Eyler (@joshua_r_eyler) August 21, 2020
If you plan to use case studies in your course, split students into groups and assign a relevant and timely case study along with some application and comprehension questions. Provide 10–15 minutes for students to discuss the assigned questions together. Ask one student from each group to write up a summary of their discussion and submit for participation points for that class.
7. Peer instruction
Peer instruction is an active learning strategy where students prepare and present course material to the class or in small groups. This approach encourages interaction and trust-building between students—especially important at a time where a portion of learning may take place online.
Facilitate this active learning activity early in the semester to help students get to know each other. Thomas Hayden, Founding Director of the Master of Arts in Earth Systems, Environmental Communication Graduate Program at Stanford University, teaches environmental journalism—an experiential class that mixes humanities and science students. The difference in academic backgrounds provides an opportunity for mutual learning powered by students’ own knowledge.7
Hayden explains: “As an introductory assignment, I have the students teach each other about the things they know best. This class is half science students and half journalism students, so the science students teach Science 101 to the journalism students, and the journalists teach their craft to the scientists.”
“As an introductory assignment, I have the students teach each other about the things they know best. The science students teach Science 101 to the journalism students, and the journalists teach their craft to the scientists.”
Hayden adds a twist: he bans students from using PowerPoint slides. This strengthens their creative and critical thinking skills on how they can communicate what they know to an unfamiliar audience. The result is a class primed to learn outside of their field and, equally as important, helps form peer-to-peer relationships that are so important to the higher education learning experience.
Peer instruction can easily be run in any course. Provide learners with a narrow list of topics and ask students to sign up for a topic of their choice. Have each student present their topic to the rest of the group either in person or using your chosen video conferencing solution. Consider facilitating one or two presentations each week, spaced across the semester.
8. Flipped classrooms
Students’ attention fatigues over time—and this concern is even more pertinent when there’s no instructor present. James Lang finds that change renews attention and can help students focus more on the task at hand. However, in a flipped classroom, students watch pre-recorded lectures aligned with learning goals as homework and spend class time engaging in active learning activities. This alternative approach to the traditional classroom ensures students are actively involved in the learning process.
Flipped classrooms not only position students as more active recipients of the learning journey, this model additionally saves faculty time when planning instruction. Rather than delivering an hour-long lecture, the flipped classroom favors short, concise lecture recordings that students can view on their own time. Flipped classrooms are dedicated to exploration, collaboration and interaction—three pillars critical to any active learning environment.
During class, students can actively apply concepts from lectures, readings or simulations through peer learning, minute-quizzes, case studies or other active learning strategies mentioned above.
With the right foundation, a flipped classroom online can be active and engaging for every student. Follow the example of Sarah Sletten, Associate Professor of Biomedical Sciences at the University of North Dakota. Consider recording your lectures in advance of your live class, using a platform like Loom or Kaltura. Ask students to review lecture modules prior to attending class. Administer a pre-test to gauge comprehension and then use these insights to determine your class discussion. You may additionally run brainstorms or problem-solving activities during class time to get students talking with one another.
Educational technology used for active learning
No matter what kind of classroom you teach in—in-person, fully online, blended, hybrid or hybrid-flexible (HyFlex)—education technology will continue to play a role in bringing active learning to life. Ed tech can be used for informal discussions, quizzes, reflections, simulations and more. Below are some of the most common tools your peers are using today to facilitate active learning strategies.
|Platform||How does it enable active learning?|
|Kahoot!||This student response system lets instructors run active learning exercises such as quizzes and polls. Students are also able to play games to assess their comprehension.|
|Poll Everywhere||Poll Everywhere allows educators to facilitate active learning examples such as live polls, Q&As and quizzes. Students can respond online and in a hybrid class setting.|
|Padlet||Active learning is collaborative in nature. This platform lets students use sticky notes on personalized boards that serve as an open canvas. Students can use this tool for brainstorming or group exercises.|
|Labster||Designed to inject active learning into online STEM courses, Labster lets students explore chemistry, physiology, biology and other STEM-related topics using this simulation software.|
|Flipgrid||This video-based assessment software lets students create personalized videos responding to a question of the week or assigned discussion topic. Students can also reply to their peers’ videos.|
|Top Hat Basic||Top Hat Basic is an all-in-one, free active learning solution. Run interactive quizzes, polls, discussions and more—in any online or in-person class.|
- Bonwell, C. & Eison, J. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Reuell, P. (2019). Lessons in learning. Retrieved from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/09/study-shows-that-students-learn-more-when-taking-part-in-classrooms-that-employ-active-learning-strategies/
- Think-Pair-Share (2016, October 27). Retrieved from http://www.uq.edu.au/teach/flipped-classroom/docs/FAB/FABThinkPairShareTipsheet.pdf
- Parker, Q. (2018, September 12). Easy Way to Use Exit Tickets in Class. Retrieved from https://tophat20172.staging.wpengine.com/blog/exit-tickets-how-to/
- Lang, J. (2016). Small Changes: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
- Preville, P. (2017, November 13). Innovative and Unexpected Ways to Teach Your College Class [PDF]. Retrieved from https://tophat20172.staging.wpengine.com/ebooks/innovative-unexpected-ways-teach-college-class/
- Preville, P. (2018, March 26). Textbook Heroes: How Digital Textbooks Make Learning More Impactful [PDF]. Retrieved from https://tophat20172.staging.wpengine.com/ebooks/guide-textbook-heroes/