Active Learning

What is Active Learning?

Active learning refers to teaching strategies that engage students as active participants in their learning, either in groups or independently. These strategies can include elements of reflection and can range from short, simple activities to longer, more involved activities.

Why Plan for Active Learning?

Research studies demonstrate the positive impact active learning can have on students’ learning:

  • Improved critical thinking/problem solving skills and increased content knowledge understanding in comparison to traditional lecture-based delivery (Anderson et al, 2005)
  • Students in courses without active learning were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students with active learning (Freeman et al, 2014).
  • Increased enthusiasm for learning in both students and instructors (Thaman et al., 2013)
  • Development of essential skills such as critical and creative thinking, adaptability, communication and interpersonal skills (Kember & Leung, 2005)

The consistent results of this data shows that collaborative active learning experiences lead to high levels of student achievement, personal development, and engagement (Kuh, O’Donnell, and Schneider, 2017).

The Active Learning Continuum

Two sided arrow explaining how to move from Instructor Centred Active Learning at one end of the arrow to Collaborative Learning, Cooperative Learning and Problem Based or Project Based Learning, by focusing on Student Centred Learning at the other end of the arrow. These steps are demonstrated by moving from Active Lecutres, to Informal Group Activities, to Structured Team Activites, and finally through the use of Problems to Drive the Course.

Active learning supports a student-centered learning environment, as shown in the diagram above. Source

Implementing Active Learning in your Course

1. Plan for Active Learning

    • Choose activities and essential questions that engage students in the content and allow them to practice applying the content.
    • Ask yourself:
      • What are the most important elements of content that students should learn during this class?
      • What misconceptions or difficulty do students commonly have with this content?
      • What kind of practical application can students engage in that will help them prepare for an upcoming assessments?

2. Explain Active Learning

    • Explain to students why you are incorporating active learning strategies in your course. They may not be familiar with this type of learning environment and need a rationale for why this method of learning will be used in your course

3. Determine a Facilitation Game Plan

    • The active learning strategy you choose will be influenced by the number of students in your course, the setup of your class furniture, the time available for the activity, the type of activity being used, and if the activity is to be done alone, in pairs or in groups.
    • Keep students on task by circulating the classroom and engaging with student groups. 
    • Be transparent with students about how they will disseminate information to the class when the larger group reconvenes – either they will be called on randomly or if they will upload their answer using a piece of technology/software or if each group will be required to share their learning. The wrap-up keeps students on task during the activity and accountable.
    • Keep activities short so students stay focused.
    • Ensure the active learning activities are relevant so students value what they are doing. The activity could be closely linked to an upcoming assessment so students are motivated to engage and participate.

4. Record and reflect on feedback of the active learning strategies you use in class. 

    • Record your own reflection of how the activity went – what went well, what needs to be changed
    • Gather student feedback on the activity

Planning Lessons with the Bookend Model

Planning your lesson to include active learning strategies – use the bookend model:

Diagram with Lesson/Unit Outcome at the beginning and the use of a Connection Activity to connect with learners. Learners progress through Learn and Practice by alternating content and practice repeatedly. The lesson concludes with a Summary to synthesize new knowledge.

Start with an activity that will help students connect to the content that day.

  • Video prompt
  • Picture prompt
  • Discussion
  • Anticipation Guide
  • KWL
  • Case Study
  • Poll/Survey
  • Pre-test/quiz
  • Quick write
  • Reflection Question
  • News article/clip
  • Comic strip

Then, teach the content for 10-15 minutes and follow that up with a practice activity.

Teach again for another 10-15 minutes and follow that up with another practice activity (could be the same one or something new). You repeat this cycle until the content is fully taught or you start to get close to the end of the class.


  • Assigned reading
  • Video
  • Screencast
  • Jigsaw
  • Learning Objects
  • Lecture
  • OER
  • Guest Speaker
  • Audio clip
  • Infographic
  • Pictures

Practice Activities

  • Branching scenarios
  • Think, pair, share
  • Role play
  • Self-test
  • Memory matrix
  • Paraphrase/summary
  • Problem solving/problem-based learning
  • Headline activity
  • Electronic bulletin board (Padlet)
  • Debates
  • Discussion
  • Concept Map
  • Case Study

Finally, you do a summary activity to synthesize or consolidate all of the lessons and practice. 

  • Muddiest point
  • I used to think… but now I think…
  • Minute paper
  • One sentence summary
  • Student generated test questions
  • 3-2-1 exit slip
  • Connect, extend, challenge

Active Learning Strategies: Ideas

Line graph of Active Learning Strategies showing Simple at the beginning through the completion of tasks such as writing a minute paper and progressing to large group discussion, informal groups, group evaluations, case studies, interactive lecture, role play, and jigsaw discussion before conlucing with Complex tasks such as experiential learning (site visits). The learning tasks are supported by activities below the line graph through Simple activities such as pausing for reflection, and progresses to self-asssessment, think-pair-share, triad groups, peer review, brainstorming, hands-on technology, active review sessions (games or simulations), inquiry learning, before concluding with Complex activities such as forum theatre.