Active Learning

Active learning methods ask students to engage in their learning by thinking, discussing, investigating, and creating. In class, students practice skills, solve problems, struggle with complex questions, make decisions, propose solutions, and explain ideas in their own words through writing and discussion. Timely feedback is critical to this learning process either from the instructor or peer feedback from fellow students. Education research shows that incorporating active learning strategies into university courses significantly enhances student learning experiences (Freeman et al., 2014; Theobald et al., 2020).

Benefits of active learning

  • Opportunities to process course material through thinking, writing, talking, and problem solving give students multiple avenues for learning.
  • Applying new knowledge helps students encode information, concepts, and skills in their memories by connecting it with prior information, organizing knowledge, and strengthening neural pathways
  • Receiving frequent and immediate feedback helps students correct misconceptions and develop a deeper understanding of course material
  • Working on activities helps create personal connections with the material, which increases students’ motivation to learn
  • Regular interaction with the instructor and peers around shared activities and goals helps create a sense of community in the classroom
  • Instructors may gain more insight into student thinking by observing and talking with students as they work
  • Knowing how students understand the material helps instructors target their teaching in future lessons

Considerations

  • Design activities around your learning outcomes, especially with topics students typically find confusing
  • Be clear about how activities relate to learning outcomes since students do not always make that connection on their own
  • Be aware that you will need to cut content from your lectures to make room for discussion and activities; review your lectures and remove the least important parts; also consider asking students to read before the class meets and take a low-stakes online quiz or complete an online discussion board post so that they come to class ready to learn more advanced topics
  • Plan to pause your lecture 2 or more times for activities; these can be as simple as asking students to discuss their thoughts on a question with someone sitting next to them
  • Use active learning consistently so students know what to expect in class
  • Build-in accountability for individual and group work (offering participation points is one way to show your students that you value the activities and their participation); for example, ask students to answer polling questions, upload a photo of their worksheet to Canvas, or turn in an index card with a response to a short writing prompt at the end of class
  • When students are working on an activity in class, it is helpful for you and/or your TAs to move around the classroom to answer questions and interact with students to learn more about how they are thinking; these interactions can inform ways to follow up after an activity with clarification or to highlight student ideas
  • Be sure to offer timely feedback to students after an activity; in large classes, one option is for you to explain both the correct and incorrect answers (some students will have guessed)
    • Also, consider the value of peer feedback, such as in the form of a think-pair-share discussion with someone sitting near them

Talking to students about active learning

Many students are beginning to expect their classes should include some interaction and opportunities to practice, discuss, or apply what they are learning. The best way to ensure that you and your students have a positive experience with active learning is to be transparent about how you will use it and why.

On the first day of class:

  • let students know that your course uses active learning and that they will be expected to participate (add this to your course description and syllabus too)
  • explain why you are using active learning and how it will help them succeed in your class (connect it to skills they will need beyond Cornell)
  • point them to the latest research on learning demonstrating that students learn more and earn higher grades with active learning (e.g., Deslauriers et al., 2019)
  • use a quick icebreaker or two to help students become comfortable working with one another
  • introduce an active learning activity to set the expectation for an interactive class

Getting started

Our Active learning techniques page offers a range of ideas that instructors can adopt whether they are just starting out with active learning or are looking for new strategies. Instructors across Cornell (from the humanities to STEM) are using these techniques, which can be adapted to almost any course.

Since 2014, Cornell has encouraged the adoption of high-impact practices across the university through its Active Learning Initiative (ALI). Funding from the Initiative has helped faculty redesign their courses and implement active learning teaching strategies. ALI has a broad network of faculty who have implemented active learning in different ways and who meet to share their ideas and experiences.

The best way to learn about active learning is to see it in action. If you have a colleague who uses active learning, ask to observe their class, or contact CTI for information on courses where active learning is being used.

Resources

Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroomProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences116(39), 19251–19257.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematicsProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences111(23), 8410–8415.

Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E. N., Behling, S., Chambwe, N., Cintrón, D. L., Cooper, J. D., Dunster, G., Grummer, J. A., Hennessey, K., Hsiao, J., Iranon, N., Jones, L., Jordt, H., Keller, M., Lacey, M. E., Littlefield, C. E., … Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences117(12), 6476–6483.