Active Learning

Engaging students with material through activities in addition to lecture.    

What is It?

Teaching for active learning is an strategy to help instructors frame course materials, activities, and collaboration. Students involved in courses that employ active learning techniques are not passively listening but are participating – making decisions, processing, analyzing, and applying information to real-world situations.   This is a hands-on learning style that gives students agency in their own learning process. Research has shown that highly interactive courses are more effective in promoting conceptual understanding.  

An illustration of people with graphics indicating the acts of thinking, sharing, and learning.

How Can I Use Active Learning in My Course?

There are many methods for incorporating active learning techniques into courses in terms of materials and activities. Here are some ideas to help you get started:

  • Active noticing and listening –  Pause during lecture to allow students to consider the material or question you are posing. Ask students to ask a question.
  • Short writing exercises to help break up lectures and encourage reflection.
  • Self-assessment activities –  These can be anything that lets the student test their own understanding, for example simple short quizzes or interactive video.
  • Discussion – The instructor facilitates large and small group discussions based on the topic or problem being covered in class.
  • Peer Review – Students give each other critical feedback to help during a revision cycle.
  • Group Work – This can take many forms but encourages learning through teamwork.
  • Case Studies can integrate real-world scenarios into discussions or group work in class. Because they are real, this encourages a feeling of relevance and importance to the material.
  • Hands-on activities or technology to engage students with creation or manipulation.
  • Role Playing can help foster empathy, inclusion, and situational awareness.
  • Inquiry – through investigative processes and observation, students can make their own discoveries.
  • Experiential Learning – concepts from the classroom can be applied and practiced in the real world through internship and mentoring situations.


Incorporating a variety of technology can help with fostering active learning, such as:

  • Interactive video
  • Collaborative documents
  • Games
  • Online discussion boards
  • Creative presentation technology  

Questions and Considerations

Are lectures and exams enough to foster great learning experiences? How do we learn best as adults? What types of ways do you learn best and how can you model those experiences for students? What makes learning activities authentic and relevant for today?

What technologies are you using beyond traditional lectures with slides? Do you offer opportunities for collaboration and discussion? Do you integrate place-based experiences for learning?

This video is a good overview of the concept of active learning.

Research Foundations

Colin Bryson  (2016).  Engagement through partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education,  International Journal for Academic Development,  21:1,  84-86.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Kilgo, C.A., Ezell Sheets, J.K. & Pascarella, E.T.   (2015).  The link between high-impact practices and student learning: some longitudinal evidence.   Higher Education, 69: 509.

McCarthy, J. P., & Anderson, L. (2000). Active learning techniques versus traditional teaching styles: two experiments from history and political science. Innovative Higher Education, 24(4), 279-294.

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