Teaching Hub

Overview of Active Learning

by Jessica Porter, Office of Educational Technology (eTech)

Active learning requires students to participate in class rather than sitting and listening to lectures. Techniques include, but are not limited to, discussions, brief question-and-answer sessions, writing and reading assignments, hands-on activities, and peer instruction. In other words, active learning promotes a deeper, more engaging learning experience, and it establishes a much-needed feedback loop for students.


According to recent studies, the average attention span of a typical student is between 10 and 15 minutes. Active learning helps capture students’ attention by involving them in the learning process. Beyond that, active learning supports several key goals:

  • Reinforces important concepts, skills, and material
  • Fosters community and collaboration among students
  • Provides frequent and immediate feedback to students
  • Allows students to interact meaningfully with the course content
  • Enhances high-level thinking and content mastery


students exploring a map together

The following techniques could be implemented in almost any class, though you may need to modify them to support your goals. The degree of instructor guidance required for each exercise will depend on the task and its place in the teaching unit.

  • Have students prepare concept maps that suggest relationships between concepts. A concept map usually represents ideas as boxes or circles, which are connected by lines and arrows. They might show some hierarchal structure or be more freeform.
  • Use a lecture check to assess students’ understanding of the lecture material. This technique works well in large classes, but it is effective in small classes, too. After lecturing for 15 to 20 minutes, pose a question to the class to check for student understanding. Have students raise their hands or use response technology to determine how many students can answer correctly. If enough students answer correctly, then you continue lecturing; if a significant number answer incorrectly, you may need to explain the concept again. (Mazur, 1997)
  • Think-pair-share allows students to review the course material independently before answering a question, usually in writing. Students then pair up and share their responses.
  • Pose a question at the end of class and have students write a quick, one-minute paper in response.
  • Have students debate relevant topics or assume the roles of individuals in real-life situations.
  • Ask students to identify the muddiest point of a lecture or assignment.
  • Have students participate in a crumple sort. You ask a question, and students answer anonymously on a sheet of paper. Then, they ball up their response and throw it at someone else (can repeat several times). Students will then open the paper balls and use their responses for discussion.


Before implementing an active learning technique, consider how it will support your lesson outcomes. Determine how it will benefit students and enhance the learning process and what, if anything, students will need to do outside of class to prepare.

Choose activities that reinforce the most important issues or content, and consider your timing. In some cases, students may benefit from completing an exercise before, rather than after or during, a lecture or reading.

Think about how you will introduce and facilitate the activity. Do you need any examples or visual aids? How much time will you allow students? How will you debrief (this is especially important in a large course)?

When in doubt, start small, perhaps with one simple exercise or technique.

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