Active Learning

The 21st century learner is more hands-on or kinesthetic in their learning, so traditional lecture approaches may not always align to their learning needs. Our learners need to feel engaged in their learning. Active learning techniques can be used to engage and focus a class.

Charles C. Bonwell and James A. Eison describe active learning in their paper Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom (1991) as follows:

Analysis of the research literature (Chickering and Camson 1987) ... suggests that students must do more than just listen: they must read, write, discuss, or be engaged in solving problems. Most important, to be actively engaged, students must engage in such higher-order thinking tasks as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Within this context, it is proposed that strategies promoting active learning be defined as instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing.

The following are just a few active learning techniques that can be easily customized for use in your teaching.



  • Present a question to answer or a statement/quote for reflection.
  • Give students two to three minutes to think about or write their responses.
  • Have students then share their answers or responses with a neighbor.
  • After a few minutes, signal for students to stop.
  • Debrief by calling on a few pairs to share their thoughts or answers with the class.
  • Reflect on students' answers to gauge student progress and relate their responses to the next part of your class.

Minute Paper

  • Think about the class learning outcomes. What should students in your class know or be able to do?
  • Design a prompt based on your learning outcomes. (For example: What are the most important points of today's lecture? What are two ways you could you apply [concept] to a real-world situation?).
  • Check the effectiveness of your question and anticipate various responses.
  • Give students enough time to respond (2-10 minutes depending on the prompt).
  • Collect all responses for review or select a sample for larger class sizes.
  • If checking individual student comprehension/writing, ask students to write their names on the papers; if checking general comprehension of the class, make it anonymous.
  • Review the responses for themes or commonly made errors.
  • Provide feedback in the next class; comment on papers directly, or summarize main themes to the whole class.

Problem Solving or Case Study

  • Present a problem or case study for review on an overhead.
  • Students work in pairs or small groups to come up with an answer (or answers-depending on your prompts).
  • Give students a set time, or allow students to work until the first group comes up with the solution(s).
  • Debrief the answer(s) as a class.
  • To motivate and energize, add a bit of healthy competition; the first group who comes up with the right solution(s) gets an extra point on the next test/exam.

Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT)

  • Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT) is a multiple-choice learning and assessment system.
  • Assign your students a reading, video, or some other content for homework.
  • In class, give the students a multiple choice quiz based on that assignment to be completed individually. Have the students hand-in the individual quiz.
  • Next, hand out the scratch-off IF-AT cards and have the students retake the quiz in groups. When they come to a consensus on the answer, they will scratch off the answer on the card.
  • Partial points can be awarded to questions that take more than one scratch or try to find the correct answer.

IF-AT Card

Active Learning and Technology

Student Response Systems 

  • Create questions that students can answer individually and anonymously, or as a pair or small group.
  • Show the responses on screen as they roll in using presentation technology.
  • Strike a balance between asking questions and other lecture activities ... asking too many can be distracting.


  • Do a pre-viewing activity (have students predict a situation or brainstorm ideas about the topic).
  • Show a video; consider providing guiding questions or prompts (find the error, spot the critical moment, etc.).
  • Post-video, students work individually, or in pairs/groups to reflect on what they saw or discuss what they noticed (see Think, Pair, Share activity above).
  • Debrief as a class by asking a few students to share.

Mobile Devices or Laptops

  • Ask students to check/clarify information by searching online in pairs or small groups.
  • Ask students to find a video that illustrates the lecture's main point.
  • Have students create and evaluate questions using backchanneling and question generation technologies.

Incorporating Active Learning

  • Use activities to draw attention to issues and content you feel are most critical.
  • Incorporate activities or change things up every 15-20 minutes (once or twice in a 50-minute class or twice or thrice in a 75-minute class).
  • Variety is important; having a handful of different activities can keep class less predictable.
  • Set aside time before and after each activity to introduce it and define the takeaway.
  • If you are implementing a new technique or introducing a new theme, consider surveying students to determine its effectiveness.
  • Make a consultation appointment with an instructional designer in the Center for Learning and Teaching for assistance in planning your first active learning implementation.