Active learning is an instructional approach in which students actively participate in the learning process, as opposed to sitting quietly and listening. Active learning builds on constructivist learning theory, which posits that people learn by connecting new ideas and experiences to what they already know. As Tabitha Kirkland, Associate Teaching Professor at UW, notes,
“If learners don’t get a chance to really actively grapple with contradictions between what they already thought they knew and the new information they are taking in, they won’t really grasp that there is a discrepancy, they won’t fully learn the new information.”
Research vs. student perceptions
Research has consistently shown that active learning techniques help students learn better and are particularly helpful for underrepresented students. But student perceptions and preferences often run counter to the research evidence. A 2019 study that randomly assigned students to either an active learning classroom or a lecture classroom, found that although students in the active learning classroom performed better on assessments, they thought they learned more in the lecture-based classroom. The expectation that an instructor will lecture is so high that some students assume that the instructor isn’t actually teaching if they aren’t lecturing. Learner-centered pedagogies like active learning may frustrate some students, so it’s good to talk openly with students about why you are adopting active learning strategies in your teaching.
Incorporating active learning into your teaching
There are tons of ways to incorporate active learning into your classroom. Common strategies include question-and-answer sessions, discussion, interactive lecture (in which students respond to or ask questions during the lecture), quick writing assignments, and experiential learning.
In the video below, UW Teaching Professor Mary Pat Wenderoth shares an example of using active learning in the classroom. Wenderoth’s example (which mentions Catalyst, a UW tool no longer used, but could be easily adapted in UW’s current learning management system, Canvas) is grounded in an understanding of metacognition. Metacognition – or students’ thinking about their own thinking – is an important element of active learning.
Remember, there is no one “right” way to do active learning. Wenderoth’s approach exemplifies how a reflective, iterative approach can help you build a portfolio of active learning activities you can use across your teaching.
Active learning strategies
- In-class poll questions. Use practice quiz questions to help students check their understanding or open-ended questions to gather ideas or examples from students. Consider having students discuss how they responded with each other before you show the answer, then allow them to re-vote after discussion. This is often helpful for trickier concepts; students can sometimes teach each other on the spot!
- Minute paper. Have students spend one minute writing about what they know about a topic or what was confusing or difficult for them. Use this feedback to modify your next class session.
- Think-pair-share. Have learners think and/or write for a minute about a question. After a minute, have them pair up with a classmate to discuss their answers. Then have the pairs share out to the whole class.
- End-of-class wrapper/Exit ticket. In the last few minutes of a class session, have students write one thing they learned and one thing they are still confused about. Use this feedback to modify your next class session.
- Post-exam reflection. Have students reflect on how they studied for an exam (this can be multiple-choice from a list of common techniques, or free-response), how they felt about their performance, and what they might do differently next time.
- Student discussion leader. In a seminar class, Tabitha Kirkland has students write discussion questions based on the reading, then meet in small groups to debate their questions. Group members are roles (leader, timekeeper, notetaker, devil’s advocate). The goal is to produce one discussion question to contribute to the whole-class discussion. Kirkland randomly chooses two of the day’s discussion leaders to facilitate whole-class discussion.
- Whole-class debate. Have students choose a side of the room based on their response to some topic that doesn’t have a correct/incorrect answer. Ask students to explain why they hold their belief or opinion. Consider writing ideas generated from debate on the board.
- Jigsaw method. In this method, each student in a pre-assigned group contributes one specific thing to the group’s overall task. They might read a particular part of a chapter or a particular article or research a particular aspect of a topic. The class begins with all students who learned the same material getting together to review the basic facts and check their understanding. Then students get back into their pre-assigned groups in which each member has focused on a different aspect of the topic and they take turns teaching the other members about what they have learned.