Active Learning

Active learning includes any activity in which every student must think, create, or solve a problem.

Below, Dr. Richard M. Felder from North Carolina State University demonstrates active learning. He provides resources for active learning on his website, including quick ideas for inspiration.

Active learning can range from brief activities punctuating a lecture (as demonstrated by Dr. Felder, above) to a completely active classroom (currently called a “flipped classroom”).  Select active learning techniques that will:

  • allow you to assess what the students have learned and where they need help
  • give students practice with the course materials and ways of thinking, and
  • allow students to assess their own learning.

Active Learning Techniquesdifferent paths to learning

In active learning, students must engage with the content during class. This helps the instructor target lectures to the most misunderstood concepts rather than repeating easier material. It also pinpoints any weaknesses for students.

Think – Pair – Share

  1. The instructor states an open-ended question.
  2. Individual students spent a minute or two to think about and write a response.
  3. Students are directed to pair up with a partner to discuss their responses.
  4. The instructor reconvenes the class after a few minutes and calls on individual students to share the pair’s responses.

Think-Pair-Share encourages students to develop their own responses before discussing, and then allows students to compare responses before they are public, which can greatly facilitate participation, especially for risk-averse students. Additionally, calling on individual students (instead of asking for volunteers) in the final step demonstrates that all students are individually accountable, even in large classes.

writing on paperOne minute papers/Muddiest point

At the end of class or just before a break, the instructor asks either: “What are the two most important points from today’s session?” or “What was the muddiest point from today’s session? What would make the material clearer for you?” Students have 1-2 minutes to write brief responses which are turned in anonymously as they leave. The instructor addresses student responses either during the next class or online. This technique encourages students to reflect and question their learning.

PowerPoint Jeopardy

Use this PowerPoint template (complete with instructions, requires PowerPoint 2007+) that will allow you to turn a PowerPoint presentation into a game of Jeopardy, thanks to Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom.

Peer Instruction

During class, the instructor pauses and asks students a conceptual question. Students are given a few minutes to think about the question, and then give answers, often using clickers. Then, students spend a few minutes talking about their answers in small groups, attempting to come to the correct conclusion. Students are then asked to answer again.

Duke faculty are using iClicker2 and/or iClickerGO when they want to be able to give credit for student responses. If anonymous responses are acceptable, and you’d like students to use their own devices (laptops, tablets, and/or phones), Poll Everywhere is a good choice.  Contact CIT to learn more about the capabilities and what would best suit your needs. Before using clickers, please read the tips for successful clicker use.

hands holding two jigsaw piecesGroup Work

Asking students to work together is a very effective way to actively engage them with your course. There are a number of good techniques for having students work together. For example,  Gallery Walk is a cooperative activity during which groups move between stations to build on solutions or discussions begun by others. The Jigsaw is an information gap activity in which students who worked on separate projects are redistributed into groups and asked to share their results. See more techniques for teams.

Case studies and problem solving

Students can be provided with simple case studies or scenarios, and asked to think through and solve these, then relate their answers to the class. Example cases for the sciences can be found at the National Center for Case Study Teaching in

Many more Active Learning Techniques


Further reading

Angelo, T., & Cross, P. K. (1993) Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 1-55542-500-3.

Bransford J., Brown A., & Cocking RR. (Eds.) (1999) How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington (DC): National Academy Press.

Cooper, James L., Robinson, Pamela & Ball, David. The Interactive Lecture: Reconciling Group and Active Learning Strategies with Traditional Instructional Formats. Exchanges: The Online Journal of Teaching and Learning in the CSU (PDF).

Felder, R. (2007) Resources in Science and Engineering Education (website)

Freeman, S., S. L. Eddy, M. McDonough, M. K. Smith, N. Okoroafor, H. Jordt, and M. P. Wenderoth. (2014) Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1073/pnas.1319030111.

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Mazur, E. (1997). Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice–Hall.

Mazur, E. (2009) Confessions of a Converted Lecturer. YouTube video of lecture at UMBC

McKeachie W. (2002)  McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Prince, M. (2004) Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.


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