Active Learning has become a way to describe the types of instruction and pedagogy that calls for students to participate more fully with the course content. It requires teachers to develop new ways of getting students to  reflect deeply on concepts, issues and problems that are key aspects of the course content (cognitive engagement), to engage respectfully with peers (social engagement) and to care about the process (emotional engagement). To achieve cognitive engagement, activities should take into account a range of thinking skills. This can be achieved by using Bloom’s taxonomy educational goals. It is made up of six hierarchical  levels of learning objectives increasing order of complexity.

Social Engagement

To achieve social engagement, activities should consider how to keep students working together collaboratively and use what are evidence-based strategies that elicit student interaction. This  often  means  designing  tasks  that  call  for  the development  of  mutual accountability and mutual responsibility. Not  all  active  learning  activities  can  elicit  emotional engagement. But, if  you  can  design an activity that draws  the  students  into  the  work  involved  because its  outcome serves  a  higher  purpose (e.g., it can help someone) then you have something special!

What’s Involved in Teaching for Active Learning?

Student-Centered Instruction

You might have heard the phrase “from sage on the stage to guide on the side” used to describe the type of transformative thinking required in Constructivist classrooms. Active learning puts students at the center of the instruction, requires them to be engaged and active participants in their own learning, and requires them to be accountable for their learning. This means that active learning shifts both the teacher’s and the students’ expectation of how they are suppose to act in the classroom.

These new roles may be characterized by the following:

1. Rethinking the distribution of authority. Active Learning means that the teacher redistributes authority within the classroom — what is also called “student-centered” instruction.

2. Rethinking the role of the learner. In taking center stage, the role of the learner changes. They need to become more active participants in their own learning — this is sometimes referred to as “epistemic agency.” To achieve these goals, learning activities and classroom environments must be designed to encourage participation.

New Roles for Teachers

Teaching for active learning also involves using methods of teaching that model the desired ways of doing and thinking. This approach is grounded in what is called Cognitive Apprenticeship, which suggests that teaching is enlisting students as apprentices in the discipline. It proposes three factors to promote the development of the apprentice:

1. modeling the practices & thinking of the discipline
2. coaching students as they engage in the practices & thinking of the discipline
3. scaffolding (supporting) students as they attempt to use the practices and thinking of the discipline

Creating Learning Opportunities

Teaching for active learning involves creating opportunities for students to engage with the course content in “meaningful ways.” What this means is, the content should be embedded in authentic problems and situations. Such embedding allow students to understand how the content is used, and allows them to understand how the underlying rules of the discipline are used to make the knowledge of the discipline. This may sound convoluted but we often forget that the rules of the discipline are like the “rules of the game” and are not transparent, in fact are often misunderstood by students. For instances, “knowledge” in science involves experimental rigor and repeatability, while “knowledge” in humanities involves broadening of perspectives and interpretations.

Active Learning “Strategies” versus “Activities”

Active Learning (AL) strategies can be considered a well-established and coherent sequence of tasks (or script) designed to achieve a specific learning goal. Generally, they have been the subject of research and have evidence of their effectiveness (e.g., Peer Instruction, Jigsaw). AL strategies are free of content. Therefore, regardless of the discipline, any instructor can potentially adopt and/or adapt an AL strategy.

Active Learning activities consist of workflows that make use of AL strategies. AL activities are dependent on content. The sequence of the tasks and strategies used should consider the difficulties related to learning the content. In essence, the nature of what is to be learned should determine the type and potential sequencing of strategies incorporated into the workflow.

This website has been designed specifically to feature these differences and help educators build better Active Learning Activities by using known Active Learning Strategies.

How do we Create Active Learning Opportunities?

Here are a variety of ways to create opportunities for students to be active participants in a classroom. Such ways include the following:

Think-Pair-Share Strategies

These involve giving students a question or problem to solve. Allow them a few minutes to think about the problem alone (think), then discuss with another student or group of students (pair). Then provide an opportunity for the thinking to be shared in a public forum (share).

  • Examples of teaching approaches that use this format are: Peer Instruction.

Analysis and Problem Solving Strategies

These involve using case studies, mini research proposals or projects. They are generally types of strategies that are planned well in advance and structured so as to involve several stages, planning or problem definition, experimentation or other forms of data collection, analysis of the evidence, discussion and presentation of findings or some artifact. Often, these strategies are designed in a jigsaw approach which means that different groups do different aspects of a larger problem — this creates a sense of interdependency and mutual accountability.

  • Examples of teaching approaches that use this format are: Problem Based Learning (PBL), Project-Based Learning, Learning by Design (LBD), Inquiry-Based Instruction.

Visualization Strategies

Generally these involve the use of simulations, and other technology driven tools. However, they could also be non-computer games. Such strategies allow students time with other ways to conceptualize the content knowledge. They also allow students to experiment and “play” with the ideas (knowledge) and/or tools of the discipline. Visualizations are best used along with the presentation of content knowledge.

  • Examples of such strategies: use of simulations, games, concept maps

Less Structured Strategies

These may involve students working alone or in some form of collaborative groupings. Generally, the object of these types of strategies are to engage students in some types of reflection to allow them some time to integrate their knowledge.

  • Examples of such strategies: Just in Time Teaching, reflective journals, other writing exercises done in close proximity to the presentation of some content knowledge.

Important to Remember

What is important to remember is that it is not sufficient to simply allow some students to engage in activities that use AL strategies. ALL students must have an opportunity to engage. Richard Felder and Rebecca Brent, from North Carolina State University, put it directly:

You are doing active learning in your class when you ask a question, pose a problem, or issue some other type of challenge; tell your students to work individually or in small groups to come up with a response; give them some time to do it; stop them, and call on one or more individuals or groups to share their responses. You are not doing active learning when you lecture, ask questions that the same few students always answer, or conduct discussions that engage only a small fraction of the class.


In well-designed activities (based on evidence-based strategies), when working with peers, students have the opportunity to:

  • practice  the  new  vocabulary (terms and  concepts) of  the discipline as they talk with peers;
  • explain  their  understanding to others and  listen to  the explanation of others as  they apply their knowledge in the context of working with peers;
  • evaluate  the  quality of  these  explanations, and whether they  stand up to  the  test of being correct and/or appropriate, respective to the norms of the discipline in question;
  • reflect on  the  chain of  steps taken and consolidate the process –  i.e., what do I know, what and  how do others’  know  the  same  thing,  and  how are  these  two  understandings the same or different. In  doing  this  type of  intellectual work, the student has an opportunity to  construct new understanding, or  deepen their  existing  understanding. Such thinking is considered a metacognitive process, which is a critical part of meaningful learning. – i.e., the compare and contrast tasks as well as reflections on what one knows (metacognition), that are critical to deep learning.

For More Information

Active Learning strategies will be found here.