University Teaching Center

Active Learning

Active learning is defined as the activities that students do to construct knowledge and understanding. The activities vary, but they require students to use higher order thinking. Despite it not always being noted, metacognition - students thinking about their own learning - is the key to active learning, as it creates the link between activities and learning.

Will Daggett Quote on Active LearningInstructional strategies that promote active learning focus more on developing students’ skills rather than on transmitting information. These strategies require students to use higher-order thinking when completing a task and emphasize students’ explorations of their own attitudes and values.

The definition of Active Learning is very broad. Bonwell and Eison (1991) acknowledge that it consists of a spectrum of activities ranging from very simple (e.g., pausing a lecture to allow students to clarify and organize their ideas by discussing with their peers) to more complex (e.g., using case studies as a focal point for decision-making). In their book, Scientific Teaching, Handelsman, Miller and Pfund also note that the line between active learning and formative assessment can be difficult to define because active learning asks students to do or produce something, which can also help assess understanding (2007).

Easy Lecture Activities to Engage Students

The Pause Procedure - Pause for 2 minutes every 12 to 18 minutes, encouraging students to discuss and rework notes in pairs. This approach encourages students to consider their understanding of the lecture material, including its organization. It also provides an opportunity for questioning and clarification and has been shown to significantly increase learning when compared to lectures without the pauses (Bonwell and Eison, 1991; Rowe, 1980; 1986; Ruhl, Hughes & Schloss, 1980).

Retrieval Practice - Pause for 2 or 3 minutes every 15 minutes, having students write everything they can remember from the preceding class segment and encourage questions. This approach prompts students to retrieve information from memory, which improves their long-term memory, ability to learn subsequent material and ability to translate information to new domains.

Demonstrations - Ask students to predict the result of a demonstration, briefly discussing with a neighbor. After the demonstration, ask students to discuss what they observed and how it may have differed from their prediction, follow-up with questions and further explanation if necessary. If feasible, having students actively participate in the demonstration itself can be a very powerful learning experience. This approach test students understanding of a system by predicting an outcome. If their prediction is incorrect, it helps them see the misconception and prompts them to restructure their mental model.

Think/Pair/ShareBloom's Taxonomy 6 Levels of Learning
This activity can help to organize prior knowledge, brainstorm questions or summarize, apply or integrate new information.

It is a three-step process where students have the opportunity to think about it independently first, discuss it with a peer second (pair) and then share it with the larger group. The procedure is as follows:

    1. Students reflect (and perhaps jot down some notes) for one minute in response to a question
    2. Students pair up with someone sitting near them and discuss their thoughts or work together to create a synthesis of ideas or come to a consensus
    3. The instructor randomly chooses a few pairs to share what they discussed

Question and Answer Pairs - This activity helps actively engage students with passive content by having them prepare and ask questions of their peers. It deepens their level of analysis by having them explain new concepts and consider how and when to apply them.

    1. Students develop one or two questions about the content; i.e., lecture, presentation, video, panel, readings (this can be done as homework or in class)
    2. The students pair up and ask each other the questions they developed
    3. The instructor circulates the room listening for questions that s/he can use as a starting point for the group discussion

Peer Instruction - This modification of think-pair-share involves personal response devices (e.g., clickers) and peer-instruction. Using this method, the instructor poses a conceptually based multiple-choice question, asks students to think about their answer, vote on a response and then turn to a neighbor to discuss. If the two individuals disagree on the correct answer, one may encourage the other to change his/her answer after the discussion. The instructor can share responses before and after the “share” discussion, which becomes the stimulus for class discussion. This approach is particularly well-adapted for large classes and can be facilitated with a variety of tools (e.g., Echo360, TurningPoint, Poll Everywhere, TopHat). More information: An Introduction to Evidence-Based College STEM Teaching. (Fagen et al., 2002; Crouch and Mazur, 2001).

Kathy Shan Testimonial

Minute Papers - Ask students a question that requires them to engage in critical thinking and provide them with one minute to write. Ask students to share responses to stimulate discussion or collect all responses to inform future class sessions. Like the think-pair-share approach, this approach encourages students to articulate and examine newly formed connections (Angelo and Cross, 1993; Handelsman et al., 2007).

Strip Sequence Example MSU

Strip Sequence

Give students the steps in a process on strips of paper that are jumbled; ask them to work together to reconstruct the appropriate sequence. This approach can strengthen students’ logical thinking processes and test their mental model of a process. (Handelsman et al., 2007)

Here’s an example from the Office of Medical Education Research and Development at MSU (Source:





Concept MapConcept Map - Concept maps are visual representations of the relationships between concepts. Concepts are placed in nodes (often, circles) and the relationships between them are indicated by labeled arrows connecting the concepts. This activity allows students the opportunity to determine the general relationship between the concepts and to arrange them, two at a time, drawing arrows between related concepts and labeling with a short phrase to describe the relationship. By asking students to build an external representation of their mental model of a process, this approach helps students examine and strengthen the organization within the model. Further, it can emphasize the possibility of multiple “right” answers.


Mini-Maps - Mini-maps are like concept maps, but students are given a list of 8-10 terms to incorporate into their map. To use this approach, provide students with a list of major concepts or specific terms and ask them to work in groups of two or three to arrange the terms into a logical structure, showing relationships with arrows and words. Ask groups to volunteer to share their mini-maps and clarify any confusing points. Mini-maps have many of the same strengths as concept maps but can be completed more quickly, which can be highly beneficial in larger classes (Handelsman et al., 2007).

Categorizing Grids - Present students with a grid made up of several important categories and a list of scrambled terms, images, equations or other items. Ask students to quickly sort the terms into the correct categories in the grid. Ask volunteers to share their grids and answer questions that arise. This approach allows students to express, and thus interrogate, the distinctions they see within a field of related items. This method can be particularly effective at helping instructors identify misconceptions (Angelo and Cross, 1993).

Student-Generated Test Questions - Provide students with a copy of your learning outcomes for a particular topic/lecture and a figure summarizing verbs associated with each category of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Challenge groups of students to create test questions corresponding to your learning goals and different levels of the taxonomy. Consider having each group share their favorite test question with the whole class or consider distributing all student-generated questions to the class as a study guide. This approach helps students consider what they know as well as implications of the instructor’s stated learning goals (Angelo and Cross, 1993).Bloom's Taxonomy Learning In Action

Decision-Making Activities - Ask students to imagine that they are policy-makers who must make and justify tough decisions. Provide a short description of a theory or problem, ask them to work in groups to arrive at a decision and then have the groups share their decisions and explain their reasoning. This highly engaging technique helps students to critically consider a challenging problem and encourages them to be creative in considering solutions. The “real-world” nature of the problems can provide incentive for students to dig deeper into the problems (Handelsman et al., 2007).

Content, Form and Function Outlines - Students in small groups are asked to carefully analyze a particular artifact (i.e., a poem, painting, essay, billboard, image, graph, etc.) and identify the "what" (the content), the "how" (the form) and the function (the "why"). This technique is great for helping students consider differences in how meaning is constructed and communicated in different genres and perhaps interpreted based on prior knowledge, preconceived notions or personal beliefs (Angelo and Cross, 1993).

Reciprocal Questioning (ReQuest) - Reciprocal Questioning (ReQuest) is a variation of the Reciprocal Teaching strategy, in which students take on the role of the instructor by formulating their own list of questions about a reading selection and the instructor answers the students' questions. This exercise reinforces reading comprehension and learning but it could also be used to challenge students to think critically about what they are reading and develop higher-order questions, perhaps ones that synthesize the material or are application-based. 

Steps to ReQuest Procedure:

    1. Divide the class into small groups and assign each group with a reading selection.
    2. Explain the ReQuest process: students read a selection and develop discussion questions directed toward the teacher (this could be modified where students are assigned a reading selection and asked to prepare questions for the next class session; skip to #4 reading is assigned as homework).
    3. Allow time for students to read their selections independently and to write a list of potential questions.
    4. Have the groups combine and revise the team members' questions into a final form.
    5. During the class discussion, a spokesperson for each group asks the questions to the teacher. The teacher answers the questions to reinforce learning.
    6. In a post-exercise discussion, ask students to identify strategies they used in writing and refining questions.

Jigsaw - Jigsaw involves students doing individual research on a subset of a given subject area, and then piecing their research together with other students to create the whole picture. The jigsaw exercise challenge students to engage in reciprocal teaching and can be a popular activity for courses that rely on heavy transference of information.

Jigsaw is a variation on a simpler activity in which students come and present directly to their group on a topic of research. Adding the intermediate task of meeting as an "expert group" ensures some quality of ideas and materials. This technique also gives individual students a chance to build confidence in a subject area before presenting to their peers.

Jigsaw requires a moderate to high amount of faculty preparation and takes a fair amount of class time, so it is recommended that instructors only use this method once or twice per semester; however, it can be used in a single class session or across multiple sessions.

How does it work?

    1. Identify a concept area (the whole puzzle) that contains roughly 4-6 subtopics (pieces of the puzzle).
    2. Divide the class into teams of 4-6 students (the number of students on a team should be equivalent to the number of subtopics).
    3. Assign each student a different subtopic. Allow sufficient time for students to "develop expertise" by doing their own reading and research on the assigned subtopic. Note: this strategy falls apart if students are not well-prepared - assigning questions, reading logs, study guides or reaction papers helps to ensure preparation. If you are spreading the strategy out over multiple sessions/class periods, you may consider asking for a summary of their readings by a certain date.
    4. Students return to class and consult with the same content experts from the other teams. They are asked to discuss the topic as a group and how to best present it to their respective teams, possibly through creating review sheets, summary guides, examples, lists of resources, etc.

Fish Bowl - A fish bowl allows a small group of students to engage in a discussion about ideas or concepts that have alternative explanations while the rest of the class observes and takes notes. An inner circle of students engages in the discussion, while the rest of the class either sits in an outer circle, or remains in their regular seats and observes. If you have your class organized into small groups, then the members of each group can tap their respective teammate and replace them in the inner circle to expand on or provide additional evidence to support an explanation. Optional: you can require that the entire class takes part in the inner circle conversation by the end of the class period.

Four Corners - The instructor displays the question prominently for all to consider. Each corner of the classroom is assigned an answer, which is also prominently displayed. Students are asked to go to the corner of the classroom that has the answer with which they agree most. If they do not agree with any answers provided, they should go to the middle of the room. Once in their corners, students should discuss with others at their designated corner why they chose that answer, to help clarify their thinking. Have them share and record evidence that supports their understanding and disputes other answers. Optional: have them visit the other corners to see what others thought about the ideas and the evidence they put forth. Another idea would be to assign students to a corner and then, once there, they would have to decide among themselves if the answer was correct or not; in this scenario, they may have to convince others who may not agree.

Idea Line-Up - The idea line-up is a structure that allows an instructor to use the diversity of perspectives in the classroom to generate heterogeneous groups of students for discussion. This diversity of thinking is a good place from which to develop a classroom climate that supports argumentation. More student-initiated science talk happens when students are connected with peers who have opposing perspectives (Clark & Sampson, 2007). The question should be one about which students have enough prior knowledge/experience to have some evidence to bring to bear in the discussions that ensue.

    1. The instructor provides a question that s/he knows may have a continuum of responses, especially if it is asked prior to collecting significant amounts of evidence or before students have the opportunity to synthesize the evidence they have already collected.
    2. The question is displayed prominently for students to consider.
    3. Students are directed to position themselves on a line to indicate their level of agreement in response to the question.
    4. After the students line up, have them talk to the person next to them so they can clarify their own thinking on why they positioned themselves on the line in a particular spot.

Student positions on the line typically indicate a diversity of thinking. The instructor can then use the students' positions to form groups of students with differing ideas about the question. Students then discuss their thinking and reasoning for their responses with the peers with whom they have been matched. Students should be prompted to listen carefully to each others' claims and evidence and respond with evidence to counter or support the claims of other students in their group. A group 'claims and evidence' chart or small whiteboards can be used to collect student thinking.

If the activity is used prior to an investigation, students can use the ideas from the initial discussion to continually weigh against the evidence they gather from their investigations. If the activity is used after an investigation, but prior to a whole-group meaning-making discussion, ideas from the small group discussions can be used to prepare for a whole-group discussion.

Case-based Teaching and Problem-based Learning

Case-based Learning

Much like decision-making activities, case-based learning presents students with situations from the larger world that require students to apply their knowledge to reach a conclusion about an open-ended situation. Students develop skills in analytical thinking and reflective judgment by reading and discussing complex, real-life scenarios. Give groups of students (3-5 per group) a case and ask them to decide:

    • What they know is relevant to the case
    • What other information they need to know
    • What impact their decisions may have

Explain that they need to consider the broader implications of their decisions. Circulate the room as students work to ask questions and provide feedback as needed. Provide opportunities for groups to share responses; the greatest value from case-based learning comes from the complexity and variety of answers that may be generated.

This article from the Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning describes the rationale for using case studies, the process for choosing appropriate cases and tips for how to implement them in college courses: Teaching with Case Studies

This article offers tips for teachers on how to be successful using the Case Method in the college/university classroom and includes information about the Case Method values, uses and additional resource links: The Case Method (NEA Journal Article)

Please use the following links to learn more about case-based learning, including how to use cases in your teaching, and collections of cases for the natural sciences, social sciences and other disciplines:

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning (PBL) is both a teaching method and an approach to the curriculum. It consists of carefully designed problems that challenge students to use problem-solving techniques, self-directed learning strategies, team participation skills and disciplinary knowledge. The articles and links in this section describe the characteristics and objectives of PBL and the process for using PBL.

These articles summarize the benefits of using problem-based learning, its historical origins and the faculty/student roles in PBL. Overall, these are easy-to-read introductions to problem-based learning.

Getting Started

Start small, start early and start with activities that pose low risk for both you as the instructors and your students.

As you consider additional active learning techniques to use, begin with your student learning outcomes (SLOs) and consider how you will know if students have successfully met them - that is, how you will assess their learning. Choose strategies that help students achieve the SLOs for your course.

Students typically have positive responses to active learning activities that are meaningful, appropriately challenging and clearly tied to SLOs and assessment measures (Lumpkin et al., 2015). Think about the students you are teaching - Are they first year? Is the class a mix of undergraduate and graduate level? Are there a number of non-traditional students in your course? Then, focus on your content. Don’t pick a strategy and then try to force your content into it; rather, think about what you want your students to learn and how they might they learn it in a more active and engaging way.  

Many great sites provide examples of active learning activities. Here are just a few to help you get started:

As always, if you would like additional assistance as you design and implement active learning strategies into your classes, contact the University Teaching Center ( - 419.530.4508).


Article on Active Learning: Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom

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Last Updated: 9/11/19