Complete Active Learning Guide 2019

Complete Guide to Active Learning

This guide to Active Learning includes an introduction, examples of the technique, strategies for its successful application and a review of theory and statistics.

Introduction to Active Learning

How to best teach students is a question on the forefront of any decent teacher’s mind. It is also usually the source of every teacher’s frustration. Why won’t this student pay attention? Why aren’t they engaged? How do I make them care about what I’m teaching? The solution is Active Learning.

Imagine your least favorite class in high school. I bet mine was pretty similar and that’s because everyone’s is pretty similar. The desks are organized in a grid and the teacher is in front of the room talking. Every once in a while he/she writes something on the board for you to scribble down. Your mind drifted to the latest drama in the class or the next basketball game this weekend. As good teachers, this is exactly what we are trying to avoid.

Now imagine your favorite class. Mine was always science and especially the labs. It’s obvious why when comparing it to the least favorite class. I was experimenting and finding things out for myself. Engaged students learn and understand concepts. This is what this Active Learning is all about.

Lab Students Collaborating
Image by felixioncool from Pixabay

Active Learning Definition

Active Learning is defined as any method to engage students in meaningful learning activities (Prince, 2004). It involves any technique where students explore the information they are learning.

Students are not simply handed the information. That is Passive Learning. In a school day, students face lecture after lecture for hours on end. Most information goes in one ear and flies out the other, without having an impact on their brains. The lower retention of Passive Learning results in lower test scores and less understanding.
With Active Learning, we are trying to engage their intellect. This method demands that they think about the information instead of letting it fly by. But what does Active Learning actually look like?

Examples of the Active Learning

Active Learning - Group discussion
Image by andros1234 from Pixabay

To begin discussing examples of active learning, consider that students might:

These practices should be incorporated into every aspect of course work.

Before we provide an exhaustive list of active learning techniques below, you should consider that it takes an immense amount of preparation to incorporate Active Learning into your lesson plans. Thus consideration of their complexity is key

Complexity Spectrum of Active Learning Activities

Active learning techniques can be simple or quite complex. The following image presents a complexity spectrum. This complexity is designed to engage students, not just be complex for the sake of complexity. Usually, the complexity also leads to a larger amount of class time usage.

Complexity of Active Learning Techniques

Active Learning Example Activities

Listed below are some activities that are great to incorporate into the classroom:

Activity Description


This is great for reviewing before a test. Favorites include: Jeopardy (online sources allow you to create boards for free), ‘Pick a question out of a bag’, and others…

Clarification Pauses:  

This is a simple technique ensures students understand an important concept or term. This allows for the information to ‘sink in’ and also gives time to the student to ask questions. This is easy to incorporate and does not take up much class time.

Interactive Lectures:  

Having students interact with something discussed in lecture. For example in Geography or Earth Science may include rocks and minerals. As the teacher describes different rocks and minerals the students are holding them.  

Role Playing:  

Students act out different scenarios. This can demonstrate molecules, animals or chemical reactions  

Inquiry Learning:  

A teacher poses a concept and students do research to uncover the answer. An example would be a research paper.


Have students attempt to ‘predict’ things you will cover in class. (Example: What do you think some possible benefits of this adaptation are?)  

Jigsaw Discussion:  

A complex topic is divided into many sub-topics or facets and assigned to a puzzle piece.  Each student then receives a piece of the puzzle.  The student must become an expert in the topic. Each student must teach the class about their specific topic.  As the students educate the class, the topic will be thoroughly addressed.  

Writing Activities:  

At appropriate times in the lecture, it may be a good idea to ask students to engage in some writing. They could: list topics covered or grapple with a particularly complex theme.  

Self Assessment:  

An ungraded quiz provides students with feedback on their understanding of the unit. (Example: How well do you understand this topic? What steps would you take to complete this problem?) These can even be anonymous!  

Experimental or Site visits:  

For most STEM teachers, using experiments its obvious, but site visits are not so obvious. Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Engineering etc. teachers can easily put in place experiments. Some schools even require lab time in these courses. Site visits and field trips are also an exciting way to engage students at any age!  


Students debate two sides of an argument in class  

Group Evaluations:  

Have students evaluate other students for a group project or presentation  

Large/Small Group Discussion:  

These can help further thought on topics from class


Students will attack a problem or reflect on something from class. Then they will be paired up and discuss the problem together. Then they will come up with a synthesized answer to share with the class.  

Case Studies:  
Use real life examples to have students grapple with difficult topics  

Hands on Technology:  
This is especially useful for classrooms and labs with few resources. There are many online simulations to show tangible and intangible concepts. Some even have pre-made worksheets.  

Peer Evaluation:  

Students, on the day the assignment is due, will submit one copy to the teacher and another copy to a student in class. Students will then share their assessment of the others work.

Active Learning Strategies

Before starting to use active learning, we recommend you review the following 8 strategies. They will greatly improve your chances of success.

Goal Orientation for Accuracy and Effectiveness

To ensure that your active learning is successful, start by asking yourself what students should learn that day? What are the salient concepts, words, and topics the student should walk away with? Once your objectives are clear, then consider where students might falter.

What are some common mistakes a student might make or ideas they may struggle with most? Is there a certain type of math problem that is particularly difficult?  Is there a technique in the laboratory that might cause issues?

Is there a way to practice these difficult ideas before the class, test or quiz? Is there an even more engaging way to carry out these ideas? Planning for and foreseeing complications is crucial to a successful active learning classroom. If you are jumping too soon into a game, students may be drilling in incorrect techniques.

Be excited about the concepts as much as the activity. If this happens, it is easier to get carried away. When you ask yourself these questions, it becomes easier to pick the activity. If you want students to learn about medical ethics (e.g. physician assisted suicide), a trivia style game may not be ideal. If you are drilling derivatives, a debate-style discussion may not be appropriate. Keeping in mind the goals and difficulties of the topic can highlight a choice of activity. This is the foremost of our Active Learning Strategies.

Communicate Objectives to the Students

Students want to know where class is headed and how they can stay on track. This doesn’t have to be long or drawn out. It can be as simple as saying “Today we are practicing derivatives. It’s simply a review day so you can be familiar with all the material. If you are still struggling with the derivatives covered in class today, you can come talk to me after.” This tells the students where they should be at at the beginning of class (familiar with all the material).  Then you tell them that by the end of class this is where you should be and if you’re not, what should they do.

For example, ‘Today we are covering photosynthesis in class. You may have never seen this before, so let me know if you have any questions or tell me if I’m going too fast. By the end of class, you should be able to complete the worksheet for homework. If not, you can work with each other or use your textbook or the internet to help you.’

Ensure your students are on task

Especially today, students think and juggle 700 things at once. They may watch TV, eat dinner, do their homework and scroll through their phone. It all seems to happen at the same time and it is no surprise that students have a hard time focusing.

If you make the student accountable for their own work, they are more likely to do it. This doesn’t mean you have to grade everything they put their pencil on. If they are discussing in small groups, one student can share with the class what their group discussed.  Think about a reading quiz: you have to write, use class time to give, and then grade. Instead, ask a random student to summarize the reading from last night. This is much easier and less time consuming for you. It also encourages the students to actually invest thought into the reading. Students receive quizzes (and bad grades) almost everyday. Most students do not articulate their thoughts in front of their peers daily. It also becomes much harder for the student who didn’t do the reading to fake their way through it. Students tend to stay on task when the activity is short and the object clear. Something as simple as ‘discuss your thoughts’ can allow students to process the information they have been given. But when you give them a specific task or goal and even a period to do so, the effect is dramatic.

For example, consider the following instructions.

  1. Discuss photosynthesis with your partner.
  2. Walk through the important steps of photosynthesis (including both inputs and outputs of each) in 5 minutes.

The first discussion is somewhat lost on the student. It’s possible that they could just list the steps, out of order and then talk about whatever they want. The second has clear goals and a time. If the students need more time, feel free to give it to them. Keeping your students accountable and making sure they feel valued is critical to active learning models. Also be sure to include specific instructions to keep students on task.

Active Learning - Brainstorming
Image from Pixabay

Concluding and Summarizing

Concluding the activity is vital to every classroom. Students may get excited  and forget the actual information they learned. A simple review for 5 minutes ensures that students process the information. Coming back to your objectives from the beginning of the activity is a great way to end the class well. For example: ‘I hope you all are comfortable with the derivatives we practiced today’. Telling students how they will use these skills practiced will help them understand why they are important. For example, you may finish a lab by saying the following. ‘Today, we used various techniques to mix solutions. We then observed what happened when we mixed them. Next week, you have a lab practical with the same solutions. You will need to identify them without being told what they are’. This makes the practice more real. It also allows the students to better review the material in preparation.

Consistency is Key

It is important to practice these ideas throughout the course. Students and teachers fall into a rhythm in the classroom. If you begin the semester with engaging thoughtful activities, students are likely to keep the energy up through the semester. If you try to introduce these techniques after week 5, students may not respond as well.

Be open to discussions and criticisms

Keep up a dialog with the students about the activity. You may hear that some students didn’t like the discussion questions. Or the material was not understood. They can tell you which concepts were confusing, or which activities were too long and too short. This feedback will let you know how to adjust the activities for a specific class and improve for next time.

Staging and Timing of Active Learning

There are two outlines to consider when adding active learning into your class. These can change as a result of the material, activities or students in the class. The first is when activities or discussion questions are mixed throughout the lecture. The other is when the teacher finishes the lecture first. Then active learning tasks take place.  e.g.: note taking, activities and discussion questions. An easily distracted class may benefit from engagement throughout the lecture. Another class may stray off topic and the teacher must lecture first to finish material on time. Some active learning activities need a lot of classroom time to finish. Both outlines have strong and weak points. It is up to the discretion of the teacher to weigh both against their lesson plan. But don’t be afraid to stretch your comfort zone because great things may await.

Theory and Statistics

The support behind Active Learning spans different subjects and different levels. Hake showed that interactive course work was almost twice as effective at internalizing conceptual topics for students in introductory physics (Hake, 1998). In 2014, across 225 studies covering different STEM disciplines, Freeman showed that test scores could be improved by 6% and students who did not benefit from Active Learning were 1.5 times more likely to fail. When employing Active Learning models, students are more likely to retain and understand information rather than just hear it. The National Survey and Student Engagement (NSSE) surveyed over one hundred thousands students from 1600 colleges across the USA since 2000. The results? Consistently, hands on, interactive, collaborative learning leads to higher levels of student achievement.







Drafted by: Mackenzie Brandt ; Edited by Earl D’Souza

General FAQ

What is Active Learning?

Active Learning is defined as any method to engage students in meaningful learning activities. It involves any technique where students explore the information they are learning. Students are not simply handed the information as in the case of Passive Learning.

What are Active Learning Strategies for successful implementation in the classroom?

1) Set your objectives
2) Foresee student difficulties
3) Consider Staging and Timing
4) Communicate Objectives to the Students
5) Ensure your students are on task
6) Concluding and Summarizing
7) Be Consistent in your approach
8) Be open to discussions and criticisms

What are examples of Active Learning in the classroom?

– Games
– Clarification Pauses
– Interactive Lectures
– Role Playing
– Inquiry Learning
– Brainstorming
– Jigsaw Discussion
– Writing Activities
– Self Assessment
– Experimental or Site visits
– Debate
– Group Evaluations
– Large/Small Group Discussion
– Think-Pair-Share
– Case Studies
– Hands on Technology
– Peer Evaluation

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