A group of students working in an engineering lab

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. 


CTE teaching tips

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teaching tipsThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Active Learning Activities. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.