Active Learning

What is Active Learning?

Rather than being a passive recipient of information, the active learner puts knowledge to use. Words capturing an active approach to learning include action verbs such as analyze, evaluate, generate, apply, connect, and extend. These actions engage students to think at a higher level, taking learning beyond memorization and recall towards active thinking, doing, and engagement.

Why do Active Learning?

Reviews of the literature (Freeman et. al, 2014; Prince, 2004; Michael, 2006) show extensive empirical support for active learning.

Freeman et. al's (2014) meta-analysis of 225 studies comparing active learning approaches with traditional lecturing showed improved exam scores and decreased failure rates for active learning. The authors write, “If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial."

Several research studies demonstrate the positive impact active learning can have upon students' learning outcomes:

  • Increased content knowledge, critical thinking and problem-solving abilities, and positive attitudes towards learning in comparison to traditional lecture-based delivery (Anderson et al, 2005)
  • Increased enthusiasm for learning in both students and instructors (Thaman et al., 2013)
  • Development of graduate capabilities such as critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, adaptability, communication and interpersonal skills (Kember & Leung, 2005)
  • Improved student perceptions and attitudes towards information literacy (Deltor et al., 2012)
  • Check out the latest research on active learning featured in Active Learning in Higher Education.

Despite the wide range of positive benefits listed above, Michael (2006) articulates an important point: “active learning doesn’t just happen; it occurs in the classroom when the teacher creates a learning environment that makes it more likely to occur”. There are many active learning strategies for instructors to consider when they design their courses.

Active Learning Strategies

Active learning can be achieved through a variety of instructional strategies. Decisions about which strategy to use will consider several dimensions:

  • your goals for student learning
  • the amount of class time required
  • the pattern of interaction (i.e. between faculty and students or among students)
  • students’ prior knowledge of the subject matter

Focus on Active Learning: Active Learning Strategies (PDF, 599KB) Included here are strategies designed to support students’ active learning in a variety of contexts: lecture; tutorial/seminar; and team- or group-based learning. All strategies can be adapted to multiple contexts, face-to-face or virtual, and are presented simply as catalysts to your own creativity. The single most critical factor in selecting a strategy is ensuring that it directly supports the intended learning outcomes.

Teaching Tips on Active Learning Strategies (University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence)

Collaborative and Cooperative Learning

Cooperative Learning in an Organic Chemistry Lecture (Paulson, 1999) (PDF, 1005kB)

Working in Groups: A Note to Faculty and a Quick Guide for Students (Harvard University)

Team-based Learning Collaborative

Problem-based Strategies

Structured Controversy: Inquiry-based Learning in place of traditional Group Presentations (Archer-Kuhn, 2013) (PDF, 490kB)

Active Learning Classrooms

Active learning classrooms (ALCs) are learning spaces that have been designed to facilitate and promote active learning. Research on learning space design has demonstrated that the design of a classroom has impact upon the way in which students and instructors interact and engage in teaching and learning.

Active learning strategies often involve complex, student-centered interactions between professors, students, local, and global communities. The physical space of an ALC promotes and encourages these interactions though accessible and flexible classroom design.

More information on Active Learning Classrooms can be found on the Queen's Classrooms website.