Active Learning

What is active learning?

Active learning generally refers to any instructional method that engages students in the learning process beyond listening and passive note taking. Active learning approaches promote skill development and higher order thinking through activities that might include reading, writing, and/or discussion. Metacognition -- thinking about one’s thinking -- can also be an important element, helping students connect course activities to their learning (Brame, 2016).

Active learning is rooted in constructivist learning theory, or the idea that students (humans!) learn by connecting new information and experiences to their prior knowledge and experiences, allowing them to build, or construct, new knowledge and understandings (Bransford et al., 1999). Often, although not exclusively, active learning approaches also include collaborative and cooperative learning in small groups. These approaches stem from social constructivism, which emphasizes the importance of peer-to-peer interactions in learning (Vygotsky 1978).

Beyond the theoretical underpinnings, many studies across disciplines have explored the benefits of active learning approaches in college classrooms (e.g., Freeman et al., 2014; Prince et al., 2004). Active learning strategies provide valuable opportunities for students to develop disciplinary skills and expertise, including serving as sources of knowledge, formulating questions and articulating ideas, as well as fostering interactions with peers (Turpen & Finkelstein, 2009). Perhaps most notably, compared to traditional lecture alone, use of active learning approaches has been shown to increase student performance and decrease failure rates, particularly for students from underrepresented and excluded communities (Eddy & Hogan, 2014; Haak et al., 2011; Theobald et al., 2020).

What are some strategies that I might try? 

There are many different active learning strategies that instructors might incorporate into their teaching. These can range from brief interactions during lecture, activities that may take 10-20 minutes, to strategies that could span multiple class periods. The table below outlines a variety of sample strategies with tips for both in-person and remote implementation in courses. The strategies are roughly organized based on potential time-intensity for implementation. Instructors might also explore these active learning designs as they consider opportunities for using each strategy.

Purposeful Pause

StrategyIn-person ImplementationSynchronous Remote Implementation (e.g., via Zoom)References and Resources
Purposeful Pause for:
(A) Reflection,
(B) Pair Disucssion
Instructor pauses every ~15 minutes during lecture and asks students to:
(A) Take a couple of minutes to summarize in writing what they just learned and jot down any questions or confusions.
(B) Turn to a neighbor and discuss and rework their notes in pairs, including identifying questions or confusions.
A purposeful pause can look very similar in a remote context. During the pause, students may be asked to:
(A) Take a couple of minutes to summarize in writing what they just learned and jot down any questions or confusions. Students may be welcomed to turn their cameras off while they do this individual work.
(B) Join an opened breakout room with another student colleague to discuss and rework their notes in pairs, including identifying questions or confusions. Upon returning to the main room, students could use the raise hand function to share questions or confusions orally or type them via chat.
Rowe, 1980 & 1986; Ruhl, Hughes, & Schloss, 1980

Quick Write or “Minute” Paper

StrategyIn-person ImplementationSynchronous Remote Implementation (e.g., via Zoom)References and Resources
Quick Write or “Minute” Paper Instructor poses a prompt that students respond to in writing for ~5 minutes or less. The prompt might be a conceptual question, or metacognitive/reflective question, including asking students to identify the most important takeaway or a point of confusion. Quick writes can be implemented at many points during a lecture, combined with small- or large-group discussion, and may be collected to inform future class sessions. If graded, points are typically awarded for completion/participation. In a remote context, instructors might pose the quick writing prompt via a presented slide and/or in the chat and students may write in their own text document or by hand. If the instructor would like students to be able to visually share their responses, there are a number of tools that could be leveraged. To maintain anonymity, instructors might solicit responses using Google Forms or a bCourses assignment or survey quiz. Partially anonymous or public responses might be submitted via Google docs, Zoom chat, or bCourses discussions. Angelo and Cross, 1993; Handelsman et al., 2007; Rivard, 1994; Tanner, 2012

Think-Pair-Share (TPS)

StrategyIn-person ImplementationSynchronous Remote Implementation (e.g., via Zoom)References and Resources
Think-Pair-Share (TPS)

Students briefly (~1-2 minutes) work on a question or formative assessment activity individually, that, ideally, requires higher order thinking (e.g., application, analysis, or evaluation levels in Bloom’s taxonomy). Students are then asked to turn to a peer to discuss their responses (~2-3 minutes).

Instructors may ask groups to share responses and follow up with an instructor explanation. Instructors might consider classroom culture in explaining this technique, including, for example, encouraging students to ensure that both members of the pair have equal time to share their ideas. They might also employ instructions for alternating who in the pair shares first (e.g., the person with the longest or shortest hair).

While the “Think” phase of the TPS may be very similar to in-person formats, the “pair” portion differs in that the discussions are likely to occur in breakout rooms. Additionally, student “shares” may be solicited via a shared document, in Zoom chat, and/or by asking students to raise their hand. Physical hand raising may be feasible in small groups with cameras on, otherwise the Zoom “raise hand” function can be used. Note: transitions to/from breakout rooms tend to slightly increase the length of this activity. Lyman, 1981; Millis and Cottell, 1998; Barkley, Major, and Cross, 2014

Polling/Peer Instruction

StrategyIn-person ImplementationSynchronous Remote Implementation (e.g., via Zoom)References and Resources
Polling/Peer Instruction

An instructor poses a question (typically multiple choice) that students respond to using an audience response system. Studies of polling suggest that the following polling sequence (or similar) is most effective:
(1) students take a first stab and vote individually and anonymously,
(2) students discuss their ideas with peers, and
(3) then vote again.


It is important to have students discuss why they think their explanation is the most accurate and also why the other explanations proposed are not accurate. It is also important that the instructor looks at the polling results and listens to the reasoning of the students in order to determine what further explanations and summary might need to be made in lecture. If appropriate, the instructor can also share class results by revealing a graph of student responses, which can be used to stimulate class discussion. This approach is particularly well-suited for large classes and can be facilitated with a variety of tools, ranging from clickers to smartphone apps to colored index cards.

Many of the same polling tools can work well in a remote context, and in fact, a couple of additional tools may be used. Particularly for larger classes, instructors might consider employing a Zoom poll or bCourses quiz (e.g., graded/ungraded survey). Other tools include Google form, Mentimeter, TopHat, and Poll Everywhere. For small classes, holding up a colored index card corresponding to an answer option might also be feasible (if cameras are being used). Additionally, similar to TPS, the peer discussion portion can still occur in breakout rooms. Fagen et al., 2002; Crouch and Mazur, 2001; Smith et al. 2009

Concept Map

StrategyIn-person ImplementationSynchronous Remote Implementation (e.g., via Zoom)References and Resources
Concept Map

Concept maps are drawings or diagrams representing the relationships between concepts. To begin, instructors may provide students with a list of concepts or terms, or ask students to generate a list (often 8-12). Students are then asked to determine the relationships between the concepts/terms, draw connecting arrows between them as appropriate, and label the arrows with a word or short phrase describing the nature of the relationship.

There are typically many “right” answers to a concept map, allowing students to represent their ideas in different ways. In addition to hand-generated maps, students can also use software like MindMeister or bubbl.us. Students may generate concept maps individually and confer with peers, or collaboratively develop concept maps in pairs or small groups.

While students could generate maps individually by hand-drawing them and uploading an image of their work to Google Drive or bCourses to share with colleagues, this method is less ideal for collaborative work in a remote context. To collaboratively generate maps, students might use tools such as Google Jambaord, which would allow them to work simultaneously (e.g., in a breakout room). Angelo and Cross, 1993; Nesbit and Adesope, 2006; Novak and Canas, 2008

Case Study/Group Problem Solving

StrategyIn-person ImplementationSynchronous Remote Implementation (e.g., via Zoom)References and Resources
Case Study/Group Problem Solving

Case studies are scenarios that engage students in “real-life” situations that rely on integration of their developing knowledge from a course. They are often presented as stories requiring students to problem solve or devise a solution through discussion in small groups (e.g., 3-5).

Instructors may allot time for groups to consider their responses and circulate among groups to answer questions or provide guidance as needed, before a class share out or debrief. Additional information and collections of cases can be found at the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science and World History Sources. Instructors might also consider strategies, including the use of roles, to promote equity among peer groups.

As with other collaborative strategies, 3-5 students can work in breakout groups during class time. To check in with students, instructors can “join” different rooms and/or ask students to use the “ask for help” button.

Instructors might track student progress by asking them to respond to scaffolded questions or take notes on a shared document. Another option would be to offer students time to connect outside of dedicated class time, using the platform of their choice, and to debrief the cases in class as a larger group. In this case, instructors might proportionally decrease the allotted class time for associated class sessions. This could be made asynchronous by creating bCourses groups for students, where they have a space to share documents, collaborate, and communicate about meeting outside of class.

Christensen, 1987; Herreid, 1994; Barkley, Major, and Cross, 2014

Think-Aloud Problem Solving

StrategyIn-person ImplementationSynchronous Remote Implementation (e.g., via Zoom)References and Resources
Think-Aloud Problem Solving In pairs (or small groups), students receive a problem or series of problems and a rotating role (e.g., problem-solver, listener). The problem-solver proceeds to solve the problem by describing their thought process for each step out loud. Their partner(s) listen carefully to the problem-solver's articulation and may offer supportive guidance at points during the think-aloud or at the end. Students may be encouraged to consider specific steps (as appropriate), such as identifying the type of problem, what information they need to solve the problem, and how they might check or evaluate their solution. Similar to group problem-solving above, students can work in breakout groups during class time for the think-aloud problem solving activity. To check in with students, instructors can “join” different rooms and/or ask students to use the “ask for help” button. Instructors might track student progress by asking them to respond to scaffolded questions or take notes on a shared document. Millis and Cottell, 1998; Barkley, Major, and Cross, 2014

Jigsaw

StrategyIn-person ImplementationSynchronous Remote Implementation (e.g., via Zoom)References and Resources
Jigsaw In small “expert” or “teacher” groups, students discuss a specific topic (e.g., prompt, problem, reading, etc.), ensure all members’ understanding, and develop an approach for teaching the topic to their class colleagues. The groups then mix: the original student groups break up and form new cooperative groups, where each student is an expert in a different topic. Jigsaws are particularly useful for engaging students with course material and with their peers. Groups may be assigned or randomly selected. In a synchronous, remote class session, both “expert” and mixed “cooperative” groups could meet via Zoom in breakout rooms. As an additional option, instructors might assign expert groups in advance of the Jigsaw class day, allowing students to meet at a time and using a platform of their choice (in this case instructors might offer support to help with scheduling). For additional examples, see the CTL’s Jigsaw Spotlight. Aronsen et al, 1978; Aronson, 2000; Barkley, Major, and Cross, 2014

Gallery Walk

StrategyIn-person ImplementationSynchronous Remote Implementation (e.g., via Zoom)References and Resources
Gallery Walk

Small groups of students are assigned a prompt or problem to work on collaboratively and present as a poster using a sheet of large chart paper or a white board. Once completed, each group’s poster/board is displayed on the wall, much like at a scientific poster session. One member of the group will stay with the poster and help to explain it as the class circulates to look at all of the posters. Students take turns standing by their poster so that each of them have the chance to visit the other groups’ posters.

Alternatively, groups may rotate through each poster together (without any presenters), spending 3-5 minutes reviewing the work and adding sticky notes with thoughts, comments, or questions. Each group then has the opportunity to examine peer notes and reflect on their ideas. Finally, an instructor may pre-write prompts at the top of several posters/boards and, as groups rotate, each will respond to the prompt.

Although the physical movement of a gallery walk is not quite recapitulated in Zoom, there are numerous platforms that may be used for student collaborative work and rotation through a virtual “gallery.” For pre-assigned prompts where multiple students respond, instructors may pose questions through discussion boards in bCourses. From breakout rooms, small groups of students rotate through each discussion question and respond. Students may be asked to spend 1-2 minutes at each discussion board, before moving to the next. A broadcast message may be used to alert them when it’s time to move to the next prompt. Similarly, instructors may have success using Google Slides, Google Docs, Google Jambaord, etc. the bCourses SuiteC Asset Library can also work well for sharing visual materials. For presentation-based gallery walks, students may rotate and visit other groups by self-selecting into different breakout rooms at the rotation intervals. Francek, 2006

What can active learning look like in practice?

In this section, we’ve included several resources with videos that describe different types of active learning strategies and how to implement them. Many also demonstrate active learning strategies in action.

How might I get started?

  • Check out this active learning “cheat sheet” with 10 tips to help you get started, from choosing the “right” exercise to planning the logistics.
  • If you are new to active learning, you might start with identifying strategies to incorporate into your lecture (see these resources on lecturing and interactive lecturing).
  • Have more questions, or interested in brainstorming for some ideas? Reach out to the Center for Teaching and Learning (teaching@berkeley.edu) for a consultation!