Active Learning Strategies

The idea that students learn best when they can actively work with the new knowledge they are acquiring is nothing novel. Decades of research now demonstrate that active learning strategies are more effective for student learning, retention, and classroom equity than lecture alone. Moreover, studies have shown active learning can especially benefit first-generation college students and under-represented minorities.

This might be as simple as asking students to think about a question in class and having them briefly write about it and/or discuss it with one or more of their peers. This “think-pair-share” activity is one of the three most common, adaptable, and powerful strategies we describe below.

It is also important to consider that these strategies work best when you and your students create a supportive classroom and the activities are consistent and predictable. It is crucial to explain why you are using active learning and point out moments when active learning activities benefit the class. Sharing rubrics or Bloom’s taxonomy can help students understand more sophisticated types of thinking. Engaging students in active learning exercises on the first day can help them set accurate expectations.

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Selected Resources

For more information on active learning techniques, see:


McKeachie, W.J. 2014. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. Wadsworth Cengage Learning: Belmont, CA.

Tanner, K. (2013). Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity. CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol. 12, 322–331.

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M.W., Lovett, M. C., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M.K. 2010. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.

Armbruster, P., Patel, M., Johnson, E. & Weiss, M. 2009. Active Learning and Student-centered Pedagogy Improve Student Attitudes and Performance in Introductory Biology. CBE--Life Sciences Education, Vol 8, 203-213.

Eddy, S. L. & Hogan, K.A. (2014) Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work? CBE—Life Sciences Education Vol. 13, No. 3. Published Online:13 Oct 2017.

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 mathematics. PNAS, 111 (23) 8410-8415.

Hake, R. R. (1998) Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics 66(1), 64-74.

M.K. Smith, M. K., Wood, W.B., Krauter, K., Knight, J.K. (2011). Combining Peer Discussion with Instructor Explanation Increases Student Learning from In-Class Concept Questions. CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol. 10, No. 1 Published Online:13 Oct 2017.

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2012). Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.