Professional Development Module
on Active Learning

By Diane Starke, El Paso Community College


Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.
Chickering, A & Gamson, Z. F. (March 1987) Seven principles for good practice. AAHE Bulletin 39: 3-7.

Research has demonstrated that students learn more if they are actively engaged with the material they are studying. This self-paced module consists of annotated websites which include definitions, active learning strategies for use in the college classroom, and practical suggestions and examples of active learning activities.

Key Concepts:

Section 1: What is Active Learning?

Active Learning is, in short, anything that students do in a classroom other than merely passively listening to an instructor's lecture. This includes everything from listening practices which help the students to absorb what they hear, to short writing exercises in which students react to lecture material, to complex group exercises in which students apply course material to "real life" situations and/or to new problems. Paulson & Faust, California State University, Los Angeles,

This website from Stoutland Elementary School in Missouri, provides an extensive list of the various definitions of active learning originally posted by the Teaching Resource Center at UC Davis. Excerpts of the definitions are presented followed by full texts of the definitions with citations.

Powerful Partnerships: A Shared Responsibility for Learning (1998 Joint Report, American Association for Higher Education, et. al.) describes learning as an inherently active process:

Learning in an active search for meaning by the learner--constructive knowledge rather than passively receiving it, shaping as well as being shaped by experience....To stimulate an active search for meaning, faculty [must]:

  • expect and demand student participation in activities in and beyond the classroom;
  • design projects and endeavors through which students apply their knowledge and skills; and
  • build programs that feature extended and increasingly challenging opportunities for growth and development.

To locate more resources about active learning, visit this annotated bibliography:

Section 2: Research on Active Learning

Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., and Donovan, S. (1998). "Effects of cooperative learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis." (Research Monograph No. 11). Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison, National Institute for Science Education, Review of Educational Research

Felder, R., Felder, G., and Dietz, E.J. (1998). "A longitudinal study of engineering student performance and retention vs. comparisons with traditionally-taught students." Journal of Engineering Education, 87(4), 469-480.

Hake, Richard R., "Interactive-engagement vs. traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses." (1998). American Journal of Physics, 66, 64- 74.

Winter, D., Lemons, P., Bookman, J., Hoese, W. (2001) "Novice instructors and student-centered instruction: identifying and addressing obstacles to learning in the college science laboratory." The Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 2(1). Two biologists and two mathematicians collected data through clinical observations of 40 laboratory sections. Identifies and analyzes some problems with the implementation of student-centered instruction in introductory college science and mathematics laboratory courses. Potential problems include those associated with interactions between the instructor and individual students, interactions between the instructor and small groups of students, and the instructor’s ability to monitor the learning environment. Provides practical suggestions for dealing with each category of problems.

Tobin, K. (1986). "Effects of teacher wait time on discourse characteristics in mathematics and language arts classes." American Educational Research Journal, 23, 191-200.

Research summaries at discuss how talking less during lectures increases student learning.

Section 3: Common Roadblocks to Active Student Participation

In their very helpful article "Navigating the Bumpy Road to Student-Centered Instruction," ( Richard M. Felder and Rebecca Brent explore the change from a lecture-based classroom to a more student-centered learning environment:

In the traditional approach to higher education, the burden of communicating course material resides primarily with the instructor. In student-centered instruction (SCI), some of this burden is shifted to the students. SCI is a broad approach that includes such techniques as substituting active learning experiences for lectures, holding students responsible for material that has not been explicitly discussed in class, assigning open-ended problems and problems requiring critical or creative thinking that cannot be solved by following text examples, involving students in simulations and role-plays, assigning a variety of unconventional writing exercises, and using self-paced and/or cooperative (team-based) learning...

They go on to explain that "while the promised benefits are real, they are neither immediate nor automatic.... D. R. Woods (1994) observes that students forced to take major responsibility for their own learning go through some or all of the steps psychologists associate with trauma and grief." While the students are grousing, faculty may have second-thoughts as well.

The authors many of the common concerns about active learning, including:

  • If I spend time in class on active learning exercises, I'll never get through the syllabus.
  • If I don't lecture I'll lose control of the class.
  • Some of my students just don't seem to get what I'm asking them to do-they keep trying to find "the right answer" to open-ended problems, they still don't have a clue about what a critical question is, and the problems they make up are consistently trivial.
  • When I tried active learning in one of my classes, many of the students hated it. Some refused to cooperate and made their hostility to the approach and to me very clear.
  • I'm having a particularly hard time getting my students to work in teams. Many of them resent having to do it and a couple of them protested to my department head about it.
  • If I assign homework, presentation, or projects to groups, some students will "hitchhike," getting credit for work in which they did not actively participate.
  • Many of the cooperative teams in my class are not working well-their assignments are superficial and incomplete and some team members keep complaining to me about others not participating.
  • Teams working together on quantitative problem assignments may always rely on one or two members to get the problem solutions started. The others may then have difficulties on individual tests, when they must begin the solutions themselves.
  • I teach a class containing students in minority populations that tend to be at risk academically. Does active, cooperative learning work in this kind of setting?
  • Even though I've done everything the experts recommend, some of my students still complain that they don't like the student-centered approach I'm using and they would have learned more if they had taken a "normal" class.

Another highly recommended article is "Getting Students Involved in the Classroom," excerpted from Bergquist, W.H. & Phillips, S.R. (1975). A Handbook for Faculty Development. Council for the Advancement of Small Colleges, Washington, D.C. The authors detail the more common causes for student non-involvement—instructors using one-way communication; students preferring involvement-avoidance learning styles; courses lacking specific structures that foster participation—and offer some possible solutions.

Section 4: Using Active Learning Techniques in the College Classroom


This website presents a model for active learning developed by L. Dee Fink for the University of Oklahoma Instructional Development Program to assist teachers in identifying meaningful forms of active learning to use in the classroom. The premise of the model is that all learning activities involve some kind of experience (observing and/or doing) and some kind of dialogue (dialogue with self and/or with others). There are also suggestions on how to use the model to incorporate active learning into one’s teaching.

The Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Kansas offers "Using Class Time Well: Active Learning"--the perfect place to start.

Although the Active/Collaborative Learning website from the Foundation Coalition is subtitled "Best Practices in Engineering Education," the site contains many helpful sections, particularly Overview, Preparing, Planning, and Implementing.

Guidelines for using active learning in the college classroom are also presented at and include the following examples:

  • Professor is “student-oriented.”
  • Students participate in goal setting.
  • Climate is collegial and supportive.
  • Activities are problem-centered and student-driven.
  • Assessment is continuous and supportive.
  • Teaching is “developmental” rather than “directive” and “presentational.”

Adapting the Lecture Format
"Active Learning for the College Classroom," provides a survey of a wide variety of active learning techniques which can be used to supplement rather than replace lectures. The authors, Donald Paulson and Jennifer Faust present techniques for use with individual students (without interrupting the whole class) as well as techniques for use with small groups or the whole class.

D.C. Seeler, D.C., Turnwald, G.H., and Bull, K.S. (1994). "From teaching to learning, part III: lectures and approaches to active learning." Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, 21 (1). Their work explores some of the practical issues related to active learning and discusses ways in which the instructor can improve upon the lecture in order to increase student learning and activity. Methods include questioning, modified lecture formats, brainstorming and tests and quizzes.

Some educators argue that a lecture is not an active method of learning. The On Course website section "Lecture as Active Learning" presents examples to the contrary.

The website for Cleveland State University's Center for Teaching and Learning includes a section on "Active Learning for Almost Any Size Class" with ideas for three alternative lecture formats:

  • Feedback Lecture - two mini lectures separated by a small-group study session.
  • Guided Lecture - a half-class lecture with no note taking, followed by a short period of individual student recall, in turn followed by small-group activity -- reconstruction of the lecture with instructor assistance.
  • Responsive Lecture - devote one class each week to answering open-ended, student-generated questions. Questions may or may not be submitted in advance.

The Active Learning Exchange (ALEx) database at Penn State's Shreyer Institute for Innovative Learning offers descriptions of 28 active learning strategies to use in your courses. The Shreyer Institute's instructional designers have researched each strategy in the database in order to provide you with classroom-tested instructional methods. Each entry contains a summary of the strategy, ease of use rating, class size, student level, more details about how to implement the strategy, references and links to core competencies. Great site!

The On Course website mentioned previously also has a section called "Student Success Strategies" with a subheading "Interdependence" that offers 16 case studies and assignments that have already been tested in the college classroom.

Facilitating Discussion: A Brief Guide by Katherine K. Gottschalk, Director of Freshman Writing Seminars in Cornell University's John S. Knight Writing Program, provides helpful insight on:

The "Alternatives to Large Group Discussion" website advises that "Meeting as a large group for discussion week after week can get old for students and instructors...a variety of activities [will] keep student participation and interest high. You will also find that different students shine depending upon the class format." Included are suggestions for simulations, field trips, concept maps, debates, games, invited speakers, panel presentations, and small groups.

The website of the chemical engineering department at McMaster University provides excellent resources for facilitating problem-based learning--learning in which "the problem drives the learning....that is, before students learn some knowledge they are given a problem. The problem is posed so that the students discover that they need to learn some new knowledge before they can solve the problem." [] Included as a resource is an electronic copy of D. R. Woods' book, Problem-based Learning: Helping Your Students Gain the Most from PBL—written for teachers to give them the process for implementing their personal style of PBL for their environment.

The chapters include:
1. Why PBL? Improving learning and selecting a version of PBL that is suitable for you
2. On being a coach/facilitator
3. What about processing skills used in PBL?
4. Issues about setting up small group, self directed, self assessed PBL
5. Questions and answers about assessment
6. How might I use the companion book "How to gain the most from PBL"
7. Literature resources for PBL

Examples of how to incorporate active learning are explained on this website. The author provides illustrations of several types of paired activities: think/pair/share, question and answer pairs, and note-checking pairs. Guidelines for using paired activities are also included. Finally, there are sections on planning an active learning activity and keys to success.

The Indiana University Teaching Handbook discusses specific instructional methodologies, including lecturing, facilitating discussions, group work, assessing student performance, using case studies, managing science labs, and teaching with technology. Particularly good are the sections on using questions as a teaching tool and facilitating discussions.

The University of Oregon's Teaching Effectiveness Program Website provides lessons learned from Michael Sweet, who used peer evaluation with a freshman seminar (see "Petting the Shark: Using Student Peer Evaluations") and an introduction to formalized Team Learning.

Larry Michaelsen's Team-Based Learning concept is differentiated from "group" learning as a process by which an instructor consciously creates the conditions that will enable student "groups" to become student "teams:

As the students begin to trust each other and develop a commitment to the goals and welfare of the group, they become a team. When they become a cohesive team, the team can do things that neither a single individual nor a newly-formed group can do.

Faculty who use the TBL strategy need to be well versed in:

  • Appropriately forming teams ensures that they will have the resources needed to complete assignments that are difficult enough to produce significant learning.
  • Using an appropriate grading system provides incentives for individual pre-class preparation and for expending time and effort on behalf of their team.
  • Using the Readiness Assurance Process ensures that students will complete pre-class assignments so that they are prepared for in-class team work.
  • Using effective application-focused team assignments both builds team cohesiveness and rewards students for taking responsibility for their own pre-class preparation.

To see video demonstrations of Michaelsen implementing various aspects of the whole Team-Based Learning process, visit:

A WebQuest is an inquiry-oriented activity in which most or all of the information used by learners is drawn from resources on the Internet, optionally supplemented with videoconferencing. WebQuests are designed to use learners' time well, to focus on using information rather than looking for it, and to support learners' thinking at the levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation. The model was developed in early 1995 at San Diego State University by Bernie Dodge with Tom March, and was outlined then in "Some Thoughts About WebQuests." The article describes short-term and long-term WebQuest activities as well as the critical and non-critical attributes, thinking skills involved, and design process associated with WebQuests. Examples can be found at under the categories "Top," "Middling," and "New."

"Strategies to Incorporate Active Learning into Online Teaching" by Diane Austin, Instructor and Distance Learning Technology Specialist, University of South Florida and Nadine D. Mescia, Director of Training, Florida Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice, University of South Florida, argue that:

Components of good active learning activities are the same, whether presented in traditional or in online environments. Activities should 1) have a definite beginning and ending; 2) have a clear purpose or objective; 3) contain complete and understandable directions; 4) have a feedback mechanism; and 5) and include a description of the technology or tool being used in the exercise.

Austin and Mescia list examples of active learning strategies that can be successfully adapted for use in the online classroom:

  • Assessment - tests and quizzes that provide immediate feedback
  • Readings, case studies
  • Discussions (virtual chat, bulletin board)
  • Writings (reflective journals, summaries, essays, critiques)
  • Projects- group or individual
  • Experiential Learning: Internships/Preceptor-ships/ Externships
  • Demonstrations with questioning (video clips)
  • Study/support groups
  • Visual-based instruction (streamed video or CD)
  • Games & Simulations
  • Problem solving
  • Online Presentations
  • Community building
  • Role-play
  • Directed research

The Web: Design for Active Learning, a handbook by Katy Campbell at the University of Alberta, presents the idea of interactivity as it applies to a cohesive design including high interface, content, and instructional design. She provides six complex conceptual frameworks that interweave cognitive theories and instructional strategies. The frameworks can be used to organize lessons. In addition, she offers annotated links to "exemplary active learning sites."

Strategies for Use in Assorted Disciplines:
The University of Oregon 's Teaching Effectiveness Program website offers step-by-step guidance for creating successful group assignments with criteria and examples in Biology, Business, Early Intervention/Psychology, Geology, and Journalism.

Giordano, P.J. & Hammer, E.Y. (1999). In-class collaborative learning: Practical suggestions from the teaching trenches. Teaching of Psychology, 26(1), 42-44.

Hoban, G. (Fall,1999). Using a reflective framework for experiential education in teacher education classes. Journal of Experiential Education, 22(2), 104-111

Livingston, K. (2000). When Architecture Disables: Teaching Undergraduates To Perceive Ableism in the Built Environment. Teaching Sociology, 28(3), 182-91.

Strategies for Use in Humanities Courses:
"Active Learning Strategies for Humanities Curricula" Middle Tennessee State University Department of Philosophy

This site provides a bibliography of resources on using active learning to teach communication—written and oral.

Frederick, P.J. (1991). Active learning in history classes. Teaching History, 16(2), 67-83.

McAndrews, L.J. (1991). Tearing down the wall: Adventures in active learning. The History Teacher, 25(1), 35-43.

Jones, P., Taylor, A. & Tate, D. (1997). Flip it! And you be the judge: Two cooperative-learning activities to teach foreign languages. Cooperative Learning and College Teaching, 7(2), 5-7.

Strategies for Use in Business and Economics Courses:

"Problem-Based Learning in Business Education: Curriculum Design and Implementation Issues" is a journal article in which John E. Stinson and Richard G. Milter discuss their eleven years experience using a problem-based approach.

This site provides a bibliography of resources on using active learning to teach business and computer science.

Berg, J.D., Hughes, J., McCabe, J., & Rayburn, K. (1995). Capital market experience for financial accounting students. Contemporary Accounting Research, 11(2), 941-958.

Krunweide, T. & Bline, D. (1997). Encouraging active learning through the use of student developed problems. The Accounting Educators' Journal, 9(2), 116-129.

Lawson, T.J. (1995). Active-learning exercises for consumer behavior courses. Teaching of Psychology, 22(3), 200-202.

Pernecky, M. (1997). Debate for the economics class-and others. College Teaching, 45(4), 136-138.

Truscott, M. H., Rustogi, H., & Young C. B. (2000). Enhancing the Macroeconomics Course: An Experiential Learning Approach. Journal of Economic Education, 31(1), 60-65.

Strategies for Use in Mathematics Courses:
Hare, A.C. (1997). Active Learning and assessment in mathematics. College Teaching, 45(2), 76-77.

Rosenthal, J.S. (1995). Active learning strategies in advanced mathematics classes. Studies in Higher Education, 20(2), 223-228.

Perkins, D. V. & Saris, R. N. (2001). A "Jigsaw Classroom" Technique for Undergraduate Statistics Courses. Teaching of Psychology, 28(2), 111-13.

Strategies for Use in Science Courses:
Robert J. Dufresne, et. al., describe their experiences teaching physics with a classroom communication system called Classtalk in the article "Classtalk: A Classroom Communication System for Active Learning." They used technology-mediated response systems to facilitate the presentation of questions for small group work, as well as the collection of student answers and the display of histograms showing how the class answered, all of which fed into a class-wide discussion of students' reasoning.

Anderson, C.W. (1987). Strategic teaching in science. In B.F. Jones, A.S. Palincsar, D.S. Ogle & E.G. Carr (Eds.), Strategic teaching and learning: Cognitive instruction in the content areas (pp. 73Ð91). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Benjamin, L.T. (1991). Personalization and active learning in the large introductory psychology class. Teaching of Psychology, 18(2), 68-74.

Cliff, W. H. & Curtin, L. N. (2000). The Directed Case Method. Journal of College Science Teaching, 30(1), 64-66.

Gosser, D.G. & Roth, V. (1998). The workshop chemistry project: Peer-led team learning. Journal of Chemical Education, 75(2), 185-187.

Hanks, T. W. & Wright, L. L. (2002). Techniques in Chemistry: The Centerpiece of a Research-Oriented Curriculum. Journal of Chemical Education, 79(9), 1127-30.

Hoffman, E. A. (2001). Successful Application of Active Learning Techniques to Introductory Microbiology. Microbiology Education, 2(1), 5-11.

Lunsford, B.E., & Herzog, M.J.R. (1997). Active learning in anatomy and physiology: Student reactions & outcomes in a nontraditional A&P course. The American Biology Teacher, 59(2), 80-84.

Meyers, S.A. (1997). Increasing student participation and productivity in small-group activities for psychology classes. Teaching of Psychology, 24(2), 105-115.

Modell, H.I. & Michael J.A. (1993). Promoting active learning in the life science classroom. New York: New York Academy of Sciences.

Savarese, M. (1998). Collaborative learning in an upper-division university geobiology course. Journal of Geoscience Education, 46(1), 61-66

Weimer, M.G. (Jan. 1997). Problem-based learning models, an effective alternative in science courses. The Teaching Professor, 11(1), 4.


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