Active learning is based on constructivism, a learning theory that asserts that learners construct their own understanding of a topic by building upon their prior knowledge. Implementing active learning therefore means shifting the focus of instruction away from knowledge transmission to learners' knowledge construction through the creation of guided tasks, interactions, assignments, and environments that cultivate deep, meaningful learning. A closely related theory—social constructivism—holds that active learning best takes place when the construction of knowledge occurs in collaboration with others.
So what counts as active learning? According to Bonwell and Eison (1991), active learning is "anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing" (p. 2), and Felder and Brent (2009) define active learning as "anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening, and taking notes" (p. 2).
Active learning is related to other instructional methods that closely involve students in the knowledge constructions process, including:
- Student-centred learning, where the diverse learning needs of students, rather than the need to push through content, are at the centre of the learning process.
- Problem-based learning, where students are given a problem or scenario that requires students to formulate questions, analyze evidence, connect evidence to pre-existing theories, derive conclusions, and reflect on their learning.
- Experiential learning, where students learn by engaging in authentic learning activities, that is, ones that replicate situations or problems they might encounter in real life or in a work situation.
Active learning fosters understanding rather than memorization of facts; it encourages students to apply learning to different problems and contexts; it gives students more autonomy over their learning; and it helps students learn how to learn.
Listed below are numerous active learning activities that can be employed in almost any course.
- The instructor tells the students they are about to begin a discussion of a specific issue or problem, but they are allowed to contribute only if they are holding the “discussion mitten” (or a similar item such as a stuffed toy).
- The instructor begins the discussion by tossing the mitten to one of the students. After contributing to the discussion, that student throws the mitten to another student, who also contributes. That student then throws the mitten to yet another student, and the discussion continues in this way until the issue or problem has been sufficiently explored.
- Gamifying the discussion in this way encourages reticent students to contribute to the discussion.
- This activity prevents one or two students from dominating the discussion.
- If a student catches the mitten but has nothing to contribute, he or she can toss the mitten to someone else but then has to post a relevant contribution to the course’s online discussion forum at a later time.
- At the end of the mitten throwing, the instructor can ask if there was anyone who didn’t catch the mitten who would still like to speak.
- The instructor introduces an issue or scenario such as the following: while buying groceries, a dermatologist notices that an elderly man standing next to her seems to have a cancerous mole on the back of his neck; should she inform him of this concern?
- The instructor then asks the students to line up according to where they stand on the issue: one end of the classroom represents “Yes, she should absolutely tell him,” the opposite end represents “No, she absolutely should not tell him,” and the space in between represents positions such as “I’m not sure,” “It depends,” “Probably yes, “Probably no,” and so on.
- Once the students have finished lining up, the instructor asks them to discuss their opinion with those around them. Or, alternatively, the instructor asks each student to pair up with a student who is “far away” to discuss their diverging opinions with each other.
- Getting students to discern their position on an issue in relation to their peers encourages them to think about and clarify their reasons for holding that position.
- For more complex issues, all four corners of a room can be used to represent varying opinions.
- The instructor provides the students with a question or problem, and then gives each of them three or four sticky notes.
- On each of their sticky notes, students write down one idea.
- Students stick their notes onto a wall or whiteboard, and then collaborate on moving them around in order to sort the ideas into categories.
- This activity combines brainstorming (jotting down the ideas) with critical thinking (organizing the ideas into categories).
- The instructor might consider taking a picture of the categorized sticky notes and posting it the course’s discussion forum so that students can refer to it later.
- The instructor discusses an issue or case study with students until they have generated a handful of different perspectives.
- The instructor writes each perspective onto a large sheet of paper, and hangs each sheet in a different part of the classroom.
- The instructor gives each student five (or so) sticky dots and the students walk to each sheet to allocate their dots according to how strongly they support a given perspective: if they totally support one perspective, they can put all of their dots on that sheet; if they support several perspectives, they can place two sticky dots on one sheet and three on another, or even one sticky dot on each sheet.
- Students visually assess the distribution of sticky dots.
The distribution of sticky dots represents the opinion of the class as a whole and can be used as a prompt for further discussion, or as a way of narrowing down which perspectives will receive further attention in class.
Instead of sticky dots, students can simply be told that they have five checkmarks to allocate as they wish, using markers located beside each sheet of paper.
- The instructor asks for four or five volunteers from the class to step forward to perform a given task. The task might be a physical procedure such as preparing a specimen slide for a microscope, or an analytic activity such as debating the pros and cons of an issue.
- As the group of volunteers engage in the task (in a virtual “fishbowl”), the other students observe, taking notes or assessing their performance. The instructor can ask the observing students to focus on specific aspects – for example, if the students in the fishbowl are engaging in a debate, the instructor might ask the other students to jot down the assumptions that those students are tacitly making. Or, if the task is a physical procedure, the instructor might ask the observing students to identify ways that the task could be performed more effectively, or simply differently.
- After the students in the fishbowl have completed their task, the other students report on what they observed or what they learned from watching.
The fishbowl activity works well in large classes where it might not be possible for everyone to engage in the same task: the students in the fishbowl act as proxy learners for their peers.
The observing students learn not by doing the task but by reflecting on how the task is being done.
- Instead of reporting on what they observed immediately after the fishbowl task has been completed, students could do so at a later time in an online discussion group.
- The instructor writes a different issue, question, or problem onto four or five large sheets of paper, and then hangs those sheets around the classroom.
- The instructor asks the students to form groups of about five members each.
- Each group goes to a different sheet of paper and for three or four minutes they jot down some ideas pertaining to the issue that is written on it.
- Each group then rotates around to the next sheet of paper and they jot down their ideas pertaining to that issue. They can add new ideas, they can propose counterpoints to the ideas written by the previous group, or they can endorse an idea written down by the previous group by putting a check mark beside it.
- The groups keep rotating from sheet to sheet until each group has commented on all the issues. Each group then returns to its original sheet and assesses or synthesizes what has been written there.
- A member from each group reports back to the class as a whole.
This collaborative activity promotes deep learning by encouraging students to build on or critique each other’s ideas.
Cumulative brainstorming can also be done in a small group: each student in the group jots down an idea pertaining to a different problem or issue. Each student then hands their sheet of paper to the student on the left (clockwise), who adds an idea or comment to the sheet of paper they have just received. This continues until all the students have commented on all the sheets.
- Tell your students that you will write onto the whiteboard everything they know, or think they know, about a given topic. You can have them call out the information or, for a more orderly approach, have them raise their hands before speaking (or use the mitten discussion activity described above).
- For example, on the first day of Shakespeare course, the instructor might ask students to share everything they know about that author. One student might comment that he was born in the sixteenth century. Another student might say that he lived at the same time as Queen Elizabeth I. Another might add that he wrote Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. Even if a student contributes something that’s incorrect – such as, "Shakespeare visited North America" – the instructor writes it down on the whiteboard.
- The activity continues until the students can’t think of anything further, or until the topic is sufficiently explored for the time being.
- The instructor then asks the students to organize the information into categories – such as Shakespeare’s life, his plays, sixteenth century politics, and so on.
- The instructor then comments on the various pieces of information that students have contributed, making connections, elaborating, and correcting any errors.
This activity helps students feel involved and engaged in the process of accumulating and then synthesizing information.
This activity could be done online by means of a wiki (such as a Google document): many students can add information to the document at the same time.
- The instructor projects a multiple-choice question onto the classroom’s screen.
- Without consulting a peer, students use their clickers to respond to the question.
- The clicker system turns the responses into a bar graph: how many chose “A,” how many chose “B,” and so on. The instructor projects the bar chart onto the screen for the students to consider.
- The instructor projects the same question, but this time asks students to discuss it in small groups for a few minutes.
- The students use their clickers to again respond to the question.
- The instructor projects the new bar graph and explains what the correct response is and why.
This activity leverages peer instruction: students explain their reasoning to each other, and learn from each other (studies have shown that peer instruction does help students learn).
The clickers help to “gamify” the activity, making it more enjoyable to students.
The results of the second bar graph can help the instructor decide what to do next: if most of the students chose the correct response, then the instructor can briefly explain why it is correct; but if most of the students still chose the incorrect response, then the instructor will probably spend more time reviewing the material before proceeding.
This activity works best when it’s done recurrently in a class: the instructor briefly explains a concept, then does the clicker activity as described above, then briefly explains the next concept, then does another clicker activity, and so on. Typically, in an hour-long class, an instructor might ask three to five clicker questions.
- Pose a question, problem, or scenario to your students and ask them to think about it individually for a few minutes.
- Next, have your students form pairs in which they discuss their respective ideas.
- Invite students to share the results of their paired thinking with the entire class.
Having students explain their ideas to a peer helps them clarify their own thinking.
Students are more willing to share an idea with the whole class after first sharing it with a peer.
You can take the activity further: after the students have finished their paired discussion, each pair can join with another pair of students to further discuss their ideas.
- Give your students one minute to jot down a response to a question such as “What was the most important thing you learned during this class?”, “What is still unclear?”, or “Summarize the unit we just completed in one sentence.”
- Invite (but don’t require) your students to leave their responses with you as they leave the class.
Getting students to distill a presentation or unit of learning into a single statement or question helps them deepen their learning.
The one-minute reflections, if students share them with the instructor, can give that instructor a “snapshot” of what they are thinking, what they have learned, and what aspects of the topic are still unclear.
One-minute reflections tend to be conducted at the end of a class, but they are also effective at other times, such as when a unit of material has been completed and another one is about to be undertaken.
- The instructor selects four students to represent the pro side of an issue and four for the con side. The remaining students serve as the audience or “judges” of the debate.
- The two teams take turns putting forth arguments, making rebuttals, and summarizing, as in any standard debate format.
- After the debate is over, the students who are acting as judges report on their assessment of the debate.
A structured debate gives the debaters practice in finding evidence and devising arguments; it also gives the students who are watching the debate practice in critically assessing evidence and arguments.
It’s a good idea to provide the students who are acting as judges with a rubric that will help them identify and assess the various aspects of the debate.
CTE teaching tips
- Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.
- Petty, G. (2002). 25 ways for teaching without talking (DOC). Sutton Coldfield College.
- Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of engineering education, 93(3), 223-231.
- Silberman, M. (1996). Active Learning: 101 Strategies To Teach Any Subject. Prentice-Hall, PO Box 11071, Des Moines, IA.
- Teaching College-Level Science and Engineering. (2017). MIT OpenCourseWare. This playlist of brief YouTube videos provides an overview of active learning as well as specific examples of active learning activities.