Active Learning

What is it?

Active learning is an instructional approach that introduces activities into the classroom that engage students in the learning process. In short, active learning involves students in doing meaningful learning activities and thinking about what they are doing (Bonwell 1991). The classroom shifts from a teacher-centric approach to a student-centric approach, where students are transformed from the passive listener into the active learner. This approach provides opportunities for students to meaningfully talk and listen, read and write, and reflect on discussion. Active learning places less emphasis on the transmission of information and greater emphasis on the development of students’ higher order thinking skills. Active learning fosters student involvement by keeping students mentally, and often physically, engaged in the learning process by requiring them to do meaningful activities and think about what they are doing.   

In a report published in June 2014, researchers from the University of Washington and the University of Maine completed a meta-analysis of studies that examined the use of active learning in STEM related collegiate courses. After compiling data from 225 different studies on active learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics related courses, the researchers found that students in lecture-based courses were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that utilized active learning. Across the studies, the average failure rates were 21.8% in classes that employed active learning and 33.8% in traditional lecture classroom environments. The research data indicates that incorporating active learning strategies can positively impact student learning.  

Who is doing it?

“Active learning has received considerable attention over the past several years” (Prince 2004) and become increasingly common. It is being adopted by university campuses across the nation. It can be incorporated into any course regardless of the discipline or level of instruction. 

Why is it significant?

Active learning leads to a multitude of positive outcomes for students including more favorable attitudes toward learning, greater motivation, increased retention of course material, and improved academic performance (Faust 1998). Active engagement in the learning process enhances students’ development of critical thinking and problem solving skills, as well as helps students make relevant connections between course material and broader contexts. In addition, active learning techniques provide an “effective means of communication between the instructor and students” (Faust 1998) and create a platform for the instructor to assess the students’ understanding of course content. 

What are the downsides?

As with all instructional methods, there are perceived downsides. However, these downsides are often misconceptions. Bonwell and Eison (1991) identified several obstacles preventing instructors from incorporating active learning into classrooms. Listed below is a synthesis of a few of the obstacles listed in the research, as well as suggested strategies to overcome the obstacles.

  • Instructors cannot cover as much material in the time available.
           Instructors can use alternate forums to ensure the content is covered in the available time.
           For example, out of class reading and writing assignments and group projects.

  • Incorporating active learning strategies requires too much pre-class preparation.
           Developing active learning techniques to incorporate into a course lecture should not take
           any longer than the standard process to create a thorough new lecture.

  • Large class sizes inhibit implementation of active learning strategies.
           Regardless of the class size, the class can be divided into small groups to complete the
           active learning exercises.

  • Using active learning strategies involves risk.
           If active learning exercises are executed correctly, students will participate actively and
           enjoy the experience. Instructor confidence in the students’ ability to learn content without
           the traditional lecture will increase over time. Instructors will learn to be comfortable without
           having sole control of the classroom conversation. 

Where is it going?

Although it is not a new discipline, active learning has received extensive consideration over the recent years as a way to enhance the traditional lecture. Jennifer Faust and Donald Paulson suggest that “the lecture is a very efficient way to present information, but that using lecture as the sole mode of instruction presents problems for both the instructor and the students” (Faust 1998). Active learning techniques are not intended to substitute the traditional lecture method of instruction; however, they are a practical alternative when combined with the lecture. If research continues to highlight the benefits of active learning, the focus of the classroom will continue to shift from a teacher-centric approach to a student-centric approach, where students will become the active learner instead of the passive listener in a lecture. Barbara J. Millis, Director of The Teaching and Learning Center at The University of Texas at San Antonio suggested that “active learning – because it is grounded solidly in the biological basis of learning and because it has been increasingly researched and reviewed – is not just the latest academic fad. On the contrary, active learning is a well-tested approach that teachers committed to student learning should consider adopting” (Millis 2012).

What are the implications for teaching and learning?

With the shift in instructional approach, the traditional classroom environment will need to be restructured. Standard lecture will be replaced with a blended pedagogical approach where active learning techniques are introduced to engage students in the learning process. Instructors will design courses with the active learning exercises that align best with course objectives and goals. “Actively engaging students in the classroom will help them think more deeply about the course content, bring additional energy to the classroom, and help identify the extent they may be struggling with the material” (UNC 2009). Active learning fosters student involvement by keeping students mentally, and often physically, engaged in the learning process by requiring them to do meaningful activities and think about what they are doing. Ultimately, “Teaching cannot be reduced to formulaic methods and active learning is not the cure for all educational problems. However, there is broad support for the elements of active learning most commonly discussed in the educational literature” (Prince 2004).

Want to learn more?

More Evidence for Active Learning
Dr. Oliver Dreon, Associate Professor & Director for the Center for Academic Excellence

Active Learning Resources
CAE Reference Library


Bonwell, C. C. and J. A. Eison. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom.
       ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, DC: The George Washington
       University, School of Education and Human Development.

Faust, J.L and D.R. Paulson (1998). Active Learning in the College Classroom. California State
       University. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching: 1-24. Los Angeles, CA.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., and M. P.
       Wenderoth. (2014). Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering,
       and Mathematics
. PNAS. Vol. 111 no. 23.

Millis, B.J. (2012). Active Learning Strategies in Face-to-Face Courses. The University of Texas at
       San Antonio. The IDEA Center: 1-8. Manhattan, KS.

Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Bucknell University:
       1-10. Lewishburg, PA.

Scales, A.Y. and T.E. Varnado. Examining Active Learning: Review and Current Thinking. 66th
       EDGD Mid-Year Conference Proceedings.

UNC Center for Faculty Excellence. (2009). Classroom Activities for Active Learning: 1-4. Chapel
       Hill, NC.