Active learning

Active learning engages students in the learning process and leads to a more engaged form of learning and to more attention from students. Active learning can be incorporated into existing courses relatively easily. This page describes how.


There are different definitions of active learning, but active learning is commonly defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). The distinction between ‘traditional learning’ and active learning is based on student activity and engagement in the learning process (Prince, 2007). These teaching sessions encompass a wide range of strategies, from simple, short activities such as paired discussions, to longer, involved activities such as case studies.

Benefits of active learning

Active learning has been shown to maximize learning and course performance (e.g. Freeman et al, 2014). Research published by Freeman et al. (2014) showed that that average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning. Active learning techniques have multiple advantages: they allow the teacher to assess whether students have mastered the material and the process of assessing a student’s mastery counts as practice as well. (Inter)active learning leads to a more engaged form of learning and leads to more attention. These techniques are often perceived as “fun”, yet they are frequently more effective than lectures at enabling student learning (Hake, 1998).

How to implement active learning

Active learning can be incorporated into existing courses without the need for a drastic redesign of the current course or programme. Several important principles should be considered.

  • Choose meaningful activities: Carefully consider the constructive alignment. You want students to engage in work that provides feedback on how well they master the material and allows them to practice the learning objectives
  • Instructions are key: In order for students to be willing and able to participate in the activity, it is wise to include a number of things in your instructions: The purpose of the activity, the task, the conditions, the type of outcome (product), any questions and a possible demonstration.
  • Consider the practicalities: How you choose to facilitate active learning is influenced by the context of your course (e.g. the number of students, the classroom available, time available) and the type of activity. Get familiar with classrooms, try out the activities first, and make sure that you have a low-tech solution if technology fails.
  • Provide feedback: When students have worked on their activity, always take time to provide a conclusion to the activity. This wrap-up is often where the most important learning takes place. Inserting a wrap-up also aids successful active learning: students feeling a sense of accountability for participating in the assigned activity helps and keeps them on task.


  • Cultural differences: Some cultures have a more teacher-centered focus on learning. It is easy to think that active learning cannot work in such a context. However, employing carefully planned direct instructions and involving whole-class exchanges, can offer a safe classroom environment that fosters active learning.

  • Start using active learning activities early-on and introduce the concept on the first day of the course: Use active learning frequently to let students get accustomed to the method and their role as participant, and vary between techniques to avoid repetitiveness. Provide very clear instructions about the goal, procedures and relevance of a certain activity. Start off small and simple: these strategies are only a short time, are "low stakes" for students who may be unsure or uncomfortable.

  • Activities take too much time: Employ strategies to reclaim students’ attention, such as a clock, alarm or other method and always reconvene a large group at the end of a learning activity. Carefully consider your learning objectives and materials. What skills or content needs an active instructor in the classroom most? Try to remove other content or move that content towards self-study. Create assignments that students can do themselves: spend more time on less material.

How to give instructions for active learning 

In order for students to be willing and able to participate in the activity, it is wise to include a number of things in your instructions: The purpose of the activity, the task, the conditions, the type of outcome (product), any questions and a possible demonstration. If you're handing out any materials, do so either when students enter the room, or after the instructions. Students will miss half of what you're saying when you hand them out during the instructions.

Your role 

While students are working on the task, you can do multiple things to guide the activity. First, you can walk around to see if students are doing alright. If necessary, you can give additional information. Second, listen and watch what students are doing, you can use this information in your feedback. Third, if you want to give additional information to the entire group, make sure to first attract everyone's attention before sharing the information. Finally, notify students shortly before the finish time that they have an x amount minutes left.

Feedback on activities 

When providing feedback on the active learning activities – during and after – it is advisable to follow several guidelines. Activities tend to lead to better learning results when the teacher shows students the correct answer or strategy and why this is correct. Next, the teacher can demonstrate common mistakes and why these are incorrect. Furthermore, the teacher could offer further help and point students to further resources: if this is still difficult for you, you could read this, do this exercise, have a look at this video etc. Finally, it is important to explicitly link the activity and the results to the learning objectives, upcoming summative assessment and/or future professional practice.

How to give feedback to large groups 

The most important thing to keep in mind, is that it is not necessary to give individual feedback to every single student or group. What is necessary is that every student should have the opportunity to check their answer, and to receive information about the correct answer and how to get there. Here are two scenarios and their advantages and disadvantages.

Scenario 1 

You explain what the correct answer is and why, and explain how to reach that answer. If you’re aware of common mistakes, you can also address those and explain why they’re wrong. 

+ Fast and straightforward way to give feedback 

+ Teacher is all in control 

- When students don’t get a chance to share their answers, it may not be very satisfying to them 

- Students aren’t asked to share their answer, they may not feel the need to do the exercise 

- The teacher doesn’t know what students’ actual answers are, you may not be giving relevant feedback 


Scenario 2 

You ask one group to share their answer: answer A (if handy, you can write this on a blackboard). 

  1. You ask groups who also got answer A to raise their hands. 
  2. You address a group who didn’t raise their hands, to share their answer: answer B. 
  3. You ask groups who also got answer B to raise their hands. 
  4. You repeat this until you feel you have collected all or most answers. 
  5. You comment on the answers given: which one is right and why, what is wrong about the others and why. 

+ By sharing or agreeing with an answer, students’ efforts are acknowledged, which is satisfying 

+ Because each student or group ‘risks’ being called upon for an answer, they’re likely to do the task 

+ You can give feedback to the actual answers of students 

- Time-consuming. 

- Teacher is less in control, has to work with answers students give. 



  • Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. 1991 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports. ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, The George Washington University
  • 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. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 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.
  • Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of engineering education, 93(3), 223-231.
  • Yee, K. (2017). Interactive techniques. Creative Commons BY-NC- SA. Retrieved Nov, 10(01)