Active Learning Designs

Active Learning Designs were designed to take key ideas about learning into account and, in doing so, provide support for students as they grapple with and make sense of complex ideas.

Common features across active learning designs:

  • Discourse and Social Interactions. Learners have opportunities to talk with their peers and others more knowledgeable about their ideas, observations, and understanding. These opportunities are helpful because in expressing their thinking out loud, learners:
    • find out what they understand and don't understand;
    • make connections between new and existing knowledge; and
    • reflect on their own thinking.
  • Mental models & Manipulation. Learners have opportunities to manipulate models and ideas about concepts with their peers and others more knowledgeable. These opportunities are helpful because in messing around with materials and ideas, learners:
    • focus their discussions and thinking around concepts;
    • have opportunities to revisit and discuss ideas and manipulate materials multiple
    • times;
    • engage physically with learning experience; and
    • have different levels of cognitive engagement.
  • Motivation and Agency. Learners are given choices and responsibilities in the learning experience. These opportunities are helpful because in giving them a sense of agency over their learning, learners:
    • are encouraged to take ownership and responsibility of their learning;
    • encouraged to ask and want to investigate their own questions

Features of seven active learning designs:




1. Open-ended exploration

  • Learners are given a broad question or task to investigate.

  • No instructions are provided on what to do or how to explore and address the question or task.

  • Outcome is unstructured. There is no specific information the instructor wants the learners to come out with.

  • Opportunity to mess around with ideas.

  • Introduce learners to a new subject area.

  • Learners generate questions and problems.

  • Encourage learners to work together without direct educator intervention.

  • Practice observation skills.

2. Guided discovery

  • Learners are given questions that guide their observations through a task.

  • Limited instructions are given to focus learners’ attention on particular ideas, while also enabling them to work independently of instructor.

  • There may be multiple solutions; instructor wants learners to grasp general concepts.

  • Provide opportunities to learn and use specific content information and vocabulary on a topic.

  • Extend the information from an activity into new ways of thinking about and engaging with the material.

  • Develop and identify concepts, processes, and skills.

3. Problem-solving challenge

  • Students are given a challenge to solve.

  • Limited instructions are given to place some parameters on the task.

  • There can be multiple outcomes; instructor wants learners to explain and defend their solution with evidence.

  • Model what scientists do; learners engage in the practices of science.

  • Provide a sense of accomplishment.

  • Challenge learners’ conceptual understanding and skills by applying them to new situations.

  • Develop deeper and broader understanding through real world applications.

4. Hands on/Models Discussion

  • Learners explore a concept by manipulating a model(s) to examine and test out ideas and understanding, repeatedly.

  • Instructor encourages students to use the model to investigate their questions, and provides just-in-time information based on finding out students’ understanding.

  • There is one answer; instructor wants learners to understand a complex concept.

  • Use concrete materials to mess with (potentially) abstract ideas.

  • Confront and test out their understanding of complex concepts.

  • Develop deeper and broader understanding of abstract ideas.

  • Low-stakes opportunity to try out ideas and explanations with peers.

5. Research Discussion

  • Learners read discrete bits of information from research organized around concepts and/or mechanisms, and prompted to explain their understanding to peers and make connections between ideas.

  • Limited instructions and question prompts are provided to focus learners’ peer-to-peer discussion.

  • There are multiple answers; instructor wants learners to read, reflect on, and synthesize the written ideas.

  • Receive information in writing, so learners have time to read, mark up, and digest information at their own pace.

  • Encourage learners to explain the concepts they read about, and defend ideas with peers for greater understanding and engagement.

  • Opportunities for application, integration, and synthesis of ideas in discussion based on information from literature.

6. Interactive Lecture

  • Learners are more active participants during lecture.

  • Questions and demonstrations disrupt the constant, one-way flow of information, and provide learners with some time and opportunity to process information.

  • There is a lot of information that the instructor wants to disseminate to learners.

  • Time efficient way to disseminate specific content information and vocabulary on a topic.

  • Active engagement opportunities through demonstrations and thought-provoking questions.

7. Structured Activity

  • Learners follow a set of instructions to work through a problem or task.

  • Specific (sometimes step-by-step) instructions are given.

  • There is a right answer; instructor wants learners to find the answer.

  • Activity engages learner to: analyze & apply results to a wider context and to relevant concepts; make explanations; and ask further questions about the phenomenon & their understanding.

  • Introduce concepts, vocabulary, processes, skills, and investigation methods.

  • Guide learners toward specific discoveries.

  • Provide successful activities with predictable outcomes.

  • Engage students in confronting their understanding of complex concepts and pushes them to explain their understanding & pose lingering questions.