Active Learning Strategies

What is active learning?

Active learning refers to the robust research finding that learning is more durable and lasting when students are cognitively engaged in the learning process. Long-term retention, understanding, and transfer is a result of mental work on the part of learners who are engaged in active sense-making and knowledge construction. Accordingly, learning environments are most effective when they elicit effortful cognitive processing from learners and guide them in constructing meaningful relationships between ideas rather than encouraging passive recording of information.

Mayer notes that there are three primary cognitive processes involved in active learning: selecting relevant material to attend to, mentally organizing attended material into meaningful representations, and integrating these representations with prior knowledge. Effective active learning techniques engage learners in one or more of these cognitive activities. The emphasis on appropriate mental processing is critical as physical activity is neither necessary nor sufficient to promote successful learning. In fact, well-designed lectures can promote active learning if they stimulate appropriate cognitive activity.

Why is active learning important?

Few educational interventions can match the power of active learning when it comes to improving student academic outcomes. Researchers have consistently found that higher student achievement and engagement are associated with instructional methods involving active learning techniques. Also, students employing active learning strategies in the planning, monitoring, and evaluation of their learning progress have been found to outperform peers lacking these skills.

And although educators have been encouraged to incorporate active learning strategies into their teaching for decades, little has changed in how we teach students in higher education. Both traditional face-to-face and online instruction continue to be characterized by information transmission models relying almost exclusively on passive lecturing and textbook reading. This instructional approach affords little opportunity for students to engage in the types of active processing required to create enduring and transferable knowledge. In addition, surveys of college student behaviors reveal an overwhelming reliance on passive learning strategies during the study. Common techniques such as rereading, summarizing, and highlighting, for instance, involve minimal mental effort on the part of students and are significantly less effective than more active alternatives.

Multiple active learning strategies may be used in each of the active learning designs. Here’s an annotated list of active learning strategies.

Learning styles

This chart helps you determine your learning style; read the word in the left column and then answer the questions in the successive three columns to see how you respond to each situation. Your answers may fall into all three columns, but one column will likely contain the most answers. The dominant column indicates your primary learning style.

When you.. Visual Auditory Kinesthetic & Tactile
Spell Do you try to see the word? Do you sound out the word or use a phonetic approach? Do you write the word down to find if it feels right?
Talk Do you sparingly but dislike listening for too long? Do you favor words such as see, picture, and imagine? Do you enjoy listening but are impatient to talk? Do you use words such as hear, tune, and think? Do you gesture and use expressive movements? Do you use words such as feel, touch, and hold?
Concentrate Do you become distracted by untidiness or movement? Do you become distracted by sounds or noises? Do you become distracted by activity around you?
Meet someone again Do you forget names but remember faces or remember where you met? Do you forget faces but remember names or remember what you talked about? Do you remember best what you did together?
Contact people on business Do you prefer direct, face-to-face, personal meetings? Do you prefer the telephone? Do you talk with them while walking or participating in an activity?
Read Do you like descriptive scenes or pause to imagine the actions? Do you enjoy dialog and conversation or hear the characters talk? Do you prefer action stories or are not a keen reader?
Do something new at work Do you like to see demonstrations, diagrams, slides, or posters? Do you prefer verbal instructions or talking about it with someone else? Do you prefer to jump right in and try it?
Put something together Do you look at the directions and the picture? Do you ignore the directions and figure it out as you go along?
Need help with a computer application Do you seek out pictures or diagrams? Do you call the help desk, ask a neighbor, or growl at the computer? Do you keep trying to do it or try it on another computer?

Sit & talk with peers nearby

Collaborative Learning: Group Work and Study Teams

General Strategies

  • Plan for each stage of group work. When you are writing your syllabus for the course, decide which topics, themes, or projects might lend themselves to formal group work. Think about how you will organize students into groups, help groups negotiate among themselves, provide feedback to the groups, and evaluate the products of group work.
  • Carefully explain to your class how the groups will operate and how students will be graded. As you would when making any assignment, explain the objectives of the group task and define any relevant concepts. In addition to a well-defined task, every group needs a way of getting started, a way of knowing when its task is done, and some guidance about the participation of members. Also explain how students will be graded. Keep in mind that group work is more successful when students are graded against a set standard than when they are graded against each other (on a curve). See “Grading Practices.” (Source: Smith, 1986)
  • Give students the skills they need to succeed in groups. Many students have never worked in collaborative learning groups and may need practice in such skills as active and tolerant listening, helping one another in mastering content, giving and receiving constructive criticism, and managing disagreements. Discuss these skills with your students and model and reinforce them during class. Some faculty use various exercises that help students gain skills in working in groups (Fiechtner and Davis, 1992). See “Leading a Discussion” for examples of guidelines for participating in small groups. (Sources: Cooper, 1990; Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991)
  • Consider written contracts. Some faculty give students written contracts that list members’ obligations to their group and deadlines for tasks (Connery, 1988).

Designing Group Work

Create group tasks that require interdependence. The students in a group must perceive that they “sink or swim” together, that each member is responsible to and dependent on all the others, and that one cannot succeed unless all in the group succeed. Knowing that peers are relying on you is a powerful motivator for group work (Kohn, 1986). Strategies for promoting interdependence include specifying common rewards for the group, encouraging students to divide up the labor, and formulating tasks that compel students to reach a consensus. (Source: Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991)

Make the group work relevant. Students must perceive the group tasks as integral to the course objectives, not just busywork. Some faculty believe that groups succeed best with tasks involving judgment. As reported by Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (1991), for example, in an engineering class, a faculty member gives groups a problem to solve: Determine whether the city should purchase twenty-five or fifty buses. Each group prepares a report, and a representative from each group is randomly selected to present the group’s solution. The approaches used by the various groups are compared and discussed by the entire class. Goodsell, Maher, Tinto, and Associates (1992, pp. 75-79) have compiled a detailed bibliography of discipline-specific efforts in collaborative learning that can be useful for developing tasks and activities.

Create assignments that fit the students’ skills and abilities. Early in the term, assign relatively easy tasks. As students become more knowledgeable, increase the difficulty level. For example, a faculty member teaching research methods begins by having students simply recognize various research designs and sampling procedures. Later, team members generate their own research designs. At the end of the term, each team prepares a proposal for a research project and submits it to another team for evaluation. (Source: Cooper and Associates, 1990)

Assign group tasks that allow for a fair division of labor. Try to structure the tasks so that each group member can make an equal contribution. For example, one faculty member asks groups to write a report on alternative energy sources. Each member of the group is responsible for research on one source, and then all the members work together to incorporate the individual contributions into the final report. Another faculty member asks groups to prepare a “medieval newspaper.” Students research aspects of life in the Middle Ages, and each student contributes one major article for the newspaper, which includes news stories, feature stories, and editorials. Students conduct their research independently and use group meetings to share information, edit articles, proofread, and design the pages. (Sources: Smith, 1986; Tiberius, 1990)

Set up “competitions” among groups. A faculty member in engineering turns laboratory exercises into competitions. Students, working in groups, design and build a small-scale model of a structure such as a bridge or column. They predict how their model will behave when loaded, and then each model is loaded to failure. Prizes are awarded to the groups in various categories: best predictions of behavior, most efficient structure, best aesthetics. (Source: Sansalone, 1989)

Consider offering group test taking. On a group test, either an in-class or take-home exam, each student receives the score of the group. Faculty who have used group exams report that groups consistently achieve higher scores than individuals and that students enjoy collaborative test taking (Hendrickson, 1990; Toppins, 1989). Faculty who use this technique recommend the following steps for in-class exams:

  • Assign group work at the beginning of the term so that students develop skills for working in groups.
  • Use multiple-choice tests that include higher-level questions. To allow time for discussion, present about twenty-five items for a fifty-minute in-class exam.
  • Divide students into groups of five.
  • Have students take the test individually and turn in their responses before they meet with their group. Then ask the groups to arrange themselves in the room and arrive at a group consensus answer for each question. Score the individual and group responses and prepare a chart showing the average individual score of each group’s members, the highest individual score in each group, and the group’s consensus score. Ninety-five percent of the time, the group consensus scores will be higher than the average individual scores (Toppins, 1989).

Organizing Learning Groups

Decide how the groups will be formed. Some faculty prefer randomly assigning students to groups to maximize their heterogeneity: a mix of males and females, verbal and quiet students, the cynical and the optimistic (Fiechtner and Davis, 1992; Smith, 1986). Some faculty let students choose with whom they want to work, although this runs the risk that groups will socialize too much and that students will self-segregate (Cooper, 1990). Self-selected groups seem to work best in small classes, for classes of majors who already know one another, or in small residential colleges (Walvoord, 1986). Still other instructors prefer to form the groups themselves, taking into account students’ prior achievement, levels of preparation, work habits, ethnicity, and gender (Connery, 1988). They argue for making sure that members of each group are exclusively graded students or exclusively pass/ not pass students and that well-prepared students be placed in groups with other well-prepared students. Other faculty, however, try to sprinkle the more able students evenly among the groups (Walvoord, 1986). A middle ground, proposed by Walvoord (1986), is to ask students to express a preference, if they wish, then make the assignments yourself. You could, for example, ask students to write down the names of three students with whom they would most like to work.

Be conscious of group size. In general, groups of four or five members work best. Larger groups decrease each member’s opportunity to participate actively. The less skillful the group members, the smaller the groups should be. The shorter amount of time available, the smaller the groups should be. (Sources: Cooper, 1990; Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991; Smith, 1986)

Keep groups together. When a group is not working well, avoid breaking it up, even if the group requests it. The addition of the floundering group’s members to ongoing groups may throw off their group process, and the bailed-out troubled group does not learn to cope with its unproductive interactions. (Source: Wolvoord, 1986)

Help groups plan how to proceed. Ask each group to devise a plan of action: who will be doing what and when. Review the groups’ written plans or meet with each group to discuss its plan.

Regularly check in with the groups. If the task spans several weeks, you will want to establish checkpoints with the groups. Ask groups to turn in outlines or drafts or to meet with you.

Provide mechanisms for groups to deal with uncooperative members.

Walvoord (1986) recommends telling the class that after the group task is completed, each student will submit to the instructor an anonymous assessment of the participation of the other group members: who did extra work and who shirked work. If several people indicate that an individual did less than a fair share, that person could receive a lower grade than the rest of the group. This system works, says Walvoord, if groups have a chance in the middle of the project to discuss whether any members are not doing their share. Members who are perceived as shirkers then have an opportunity to make amends. Here are some other options for dealing with shirkers:

  • Keep the groups at three students: it is hard to be a shirker in a small group.
  • Make it clear that each group must find its own way to handle unproductive group behavior.
  • Allow the groups, by majority vote, to dismiss a member who is not carrying a fair share. Students who are dropped from a group must persuade the group to reconsider, find acceptance in another group, or take a failing grade for the project.

Perhaps the best way to assure comparable effort among all group members is to design activities in which there is a clear division of labor and each student must contribute if the group is to reach its goal. (Sources: Connery, 1988; Walvoord, 1986)

Evaluating Group Work

Ensure that individual student performance is assessed and that the groups know how their members are doing. Groups need to know who needs more assistance in completing the assignment, and members need to know they cannot let others do all the work while they sit back. Ways to ensure that students are held accountable include giving spot quizzes to be completed individually and calling on individual students to present their group’s progress. (Source: Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991)

Give students an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of their group. Once or twice during the group work task, ask group members to discuss two questions: What action has each member taken that was helpful for the group? What action could each member take to make the group even better? At the end of the project, ask students to complete a brief evaluation form on the effectiveness of the group and its members. The form could include items about the group’s overall accomplishments, the student’s own role, and suggestions for changes in future group work. Rau and Heyl (1990) have developed a form that can be used for an interim or final evaluation. (Sources: Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991; Walvoord, 1986)

Decide how to grade members of the group. Some faculty assign all students in the group the same grade on the group task. Grading students individually, they argue, inevitably leads to competition within the group and thus subverts the benefits of group work. Other faculty grade the contribution of each student on the basis of individual test scores or the group’s evaluation of each member’s work. If you assign the same grade to the entire group, the grade should not account for more than a small part of a student’s grade in the class (perhaps a few bonus points that would raise a test score from a B – to a B). (Sources: Cooper, 1990; Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991)


  1. Define “Think-Pair-Share.” Explain to students that a Think-Pair-Share allows them to activate their prior knowledge and share ideas about content or beliefs with peers. This structure gives students a chance to organize their ideas—first in their own minds, then in a smaller group setting before sharing with the entire group. In a Think-Pair-Share, students Think individually about the question or idea(s) put forth, Pair up with someone to discuss their thinking, and then Share their conversation with their table group, and then finally with the whole group.
  2. Display Think-Pair-Share prompts about a concept or topic. Give students 1-2 minutes to think about the prompt on their own. Then discuss with a partner for another few minutes.
  3. Facilitate a whole group discussion.
  • Listen to their responses.
  • Ask students to elaborate on their thinking by providing explanations, evidence, or clarifications. Suggested probing questions:
    • What makes you think that?
    • Please give an example from your experience.
    • What do you mean?
  • Try to stay neutral in your reaction to students’ comments.
  • Invite others to react and respond to ideas by providing alternative viewpoints, agreements or disagreements. Suggested probing questions:
    • Can anyone add something to that comment?
    • Who would like to share an alternative opinion?

Quick Write

A prompt is posed for students to respond to in writing. Taking only 5 minutes or so, this is a quick way to accomplish one or more of the following: determine whether or not students have done the homework assignment, engage students in thinking about the topic that will be covered in the session, provides the opportunity for students to access their prior knowledge on a topic. The quick write can be graded to encourage students to do their reading assignment, or collected to serve as an attendance check.

Turn and Talk

In a turn and talk, a question is posed to the class and students simply turn to the person next to them to discuss. This can serve as a comfortable way for students to share their ideas with others and set the stage for them sharing with the larger group. The instructor doesn’t need to hear all (or any) of the ideas shared– the important aspect of this strategy is for the peers to share and for individuals to access their prior knowledge about a topic. Example prompt: Ask students to turn to someone next to them and discuss their responses to the following question. Tell them to take two minutes to discuss this with their partner with each person getting some time to talk.

  • Part of the challenge of communicating climate change with the public is that there is disparity between what scientists and the non-scientist public think and know about climate change.
  • Why do you think there is such a disparity


Having students vote anonymously on what they perceive as the best explanation/answer to a question,followed by opportunities to discuss their ideas with peers, and then to vote again leads to greater learning of the material. It is important to have students discuss why they think their explanation is the most accurate and also why the other explanations proposed are not accurate. It is also important that the teacher looks at the polling results and listens to the reasoning of the students in order to determine what further explanations and summary might need to be made in lecture. There are various tools that can beused for polling, including Clickers, and

Individual plus Group Quizzes

Give students a quiz that they complete individually and turn in to be graded. Immediately following the individual quiz, put students in small groups and have them take the quiz again, but this time they discuss the answers in their group and turn it in for a group score. Both quizzes are graded and if the group score is higher, the two grades are averaged. The group score can’t hurt someone if they have a higher individual score. This encourages individual accountability, and also helps students to better understand the material as they discuss it with peers. In this way, they keep up with the material, rather than realizing they don’t totally understand it when they reach the midterm.

Tests/Quizzes with Common Preconceptions as Distractors

Design assessments to include common preconceptions (or misconceptions) that students often hold. Allow students to answer the question on their own and then discuss their answer and rationale with a partner. Have them answer the question again after the peer discussion. Elicit a whole group discussion about why the correct answer is correct and why the others are not. Common misconceptions students have about STEM topics and concepts can be found at AAAS, and assessment questions including common misconceptions as distractors can be found at Braincandy.


Students work in small groups to read information that has been organized into sections. Each student inthe group reads one section of the material and then shares that information with the rest of their group.As they read and share information, they refer to prompts such as: what do you think each idea means?What is the big idea? How can this idea be applied to help understand the concept(s)? What questions do you have about what you read? What do you agree/not agree with?

There are various permutations of jigsaws. One such model include expert and cooperative groups: Each group can be assigned a particular aspect/part of the overall information – they read it individually and then discuss in their small “expert” group to make sure they all understand it. Then new “cooperative”groups are formed made up of one-two students from each of the original expert groups. In this way, the new groups have an “expert” representative from each of the original groups so that all of the information is now represented in the new cooperative group. The “expert” has had a chance to practice sharing and hearing other viewpoints about the information in their original group, and therefore likely feels more comfortable sharing in the new group.

Sorting Strips

Small bits of information are separated into strips so that students can sort the strips into various categories, or organize them into a sequence depending on the topic. This strategy encourages discussion of competing ideas or organizations or order in which a process would take place. In this case, it is often the discussion and sharing of ideas that is the most important outcome of the activity.

Partial Outlines/PPTs Provided for Lecture

Research has shown that students have a better understanding, do better on exams, and stay more engaged with the content during lecture when they are provided with partial, rather than complete lecture notes or PowerPoints.

Pausing in Lecture

These strategies work towards inserting wait time in lectures for students to reflect on, discuss and apply ideas just presented and to encourage them to engage actively in the lecture rather than passively taking notes. These strategies also help students to understand what they do and don’t understand about the lecture.

  • ask students to not take notes as you work through a problem on the board with the class,followed by 5 minutes for them to copy down board and discuss the problem/chemical reaction/process with peers
  • pause 6-10 seconds after asking a question before calling on a student to respond  have students do a quick write about a concept just covered in lecture (e.g. their understanding, two questions they have about the concept as presented, what they would like to know more about etc.); optional, collect the quick write to help you better understand what they understood from the lecture and the questions they have and to keep them engaged
  • turn and talks – ask peers to talk to each other about what they do and don’t understand and/or share with each other what they wrote down in their notes about a particular concept just covered in lecture. Encourage students to add to their notes from the discussion
  • have students apply their understanding of a concept just covered by working with a small group around a huddle board. Optional, have a few groups share their work and elicit reactions and reviews from other students. Summarize findings and scientific normative explanations.
  • have students do think-pair-shares, polling to keep their mind engaged in the topic and to share their ideas with their peers for greater meaning-making opportunities.

Requires Students Moving Around

Give groups of students an assignment that they need to work on together and present their ideas on a sheet of chart paper. Once they have completed their poster, have them display it on the wall, much like at a scientific poster session. One of their group will stay with the poster and help to explain it as the class circulates to look at all of the posters. Students take turns standing by their poster so that each of them have the chance to visit the other groups’ posters. This sets up a more interactive way of presenting as compared to ppt presentations.

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: the entire class needs to take part in the inner circle conversation by the end of the class period.

Idea Line Up

The idea line up is a structure that allows a teacher 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 which ensue.

How it works: The teacher 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.

The question is displayed prominently for students to consider. Students are directed to position themselves on a line to indicate their level of agreement in response to the question. After the students line up, have students 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 teacher can then use their 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 other’s 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.

Four Corners

Four corners is used for the same reasons as the idea line up. The only difference is that students are considering several claims (responses to a question). For example, a teacher might ask, “Where does most of the mass in a plant come from?” Claims for consideration might include, “soil,” “air,”“water,” and “sunlight.”

How it works: The teacher displays the question prominently for all to consider. Each corner of the classroom is assigned one claim, also prominently displayed. Students are asked to go to the corner of the classroom that has the claim they agree with most. If they think more than one answer is correct,they should just pick one of the corners they agree with. If they don’t agree with any claims, they should go to the middle of the room. Once in their corners, students should discuss with others why they chose that corner to help clarify their thinking. Have them share and record evidence that supports that claim and why the other claims are not supported. Optional: have them visit the other corners to see what others thought about the ideas and the evidence they put forth.

Just as in the idea line up the teacher can use the student positions around the room to form groups with a diversity of ideas. The rest of the instructions are the same as for the idea line up.