Between juggling new digital learning tools and having your students spread across the globe, active learning was put to the test in 2020. Regardless of what the upcoming semester looks like, 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 part of your course prep to maximize student engagement.

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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. Below are examples of course-specific and unit-specific learning objectives2 to mirror in your own course.

Course-specific learning objectivesLesson-specific learning objectives
By the end of this course, students will be able to effectively communicate the results of their research findings and analyses to fellow classmates in an oral presentation.By the end of this lesson, students will be able to demonstrate the four steps used to administer CPR.
By the end of this course, students will be able to categorize macroeconomic policies according to the economic theories from which they emerge.By the end of this unit, students will be able to describe the characteristics of the three main types of geologic faults (dip-slip, transform, and oblique) and explain the different types of motion associated with each.

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.

Refer to the following checklist3 when deciding what active learning techniques to adopt and adapt for your course.

I’ve adopted a variety of activities across quizzes, discussions, collaborative exercises and more

I’ve considered how my students will engage with me and their peers throughout my chosen activities

I’ve considered how technology can help facilitate these activities in blended and/or hybrid learning environments

I’ve considered how students who are absent can participate outside of class

No matter what discipline you teach, the following are tried-and-true active learning strategies that promote engagement, collaboration and memory retention in your class.

  • Think-pair-share: Ask students to pair up and discuss the material just covered. Students are then encouraged to prepare questions or share their observations with the entire class.
  • One-minute papers: At the end of your lecture, ask students what the most important thing they learned today was and what questions they still have about your lesson. Use this information to guide you in your next lesson.
  • Debates: Ask students to defend their viewpoints in small groups on an assigned topic.

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. Find a balance and make sure your activities are designed to keep students engaged before and after class just as much as during class. While live debates or role plays work best during class time, you might ask students to complete chapter questions before arriving to class. Similarly, journaling or reflection exercises can help students quiz themselves on what was covered in today’s lesson once your class ends.

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  1. Aji, C. and Khan, M. (2019). The Impact of Active Learning on Students’ Academic Performance. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 7, 204-211. doi: 10.4236/jss.2019.73017.
  2. University of Toronto. (2020). Appendix A: Examples of Learning Outcomes. Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation.
  3. Carleton University. (2021). Active Learning Tips for Fall 2021. Office of the Associate Vice-President (Teaching & Learning).

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