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Active Learning

What is Active Learning?

Active learning is a student-centered approach in which an instructor uses instructional strategies that engage students as active participants throughout the learning process. Within this approach, students fully participate in their learning by thinking, creating, discussing and investigating. According to Bonwell and Eison (1991), students in an active learning environment participate in meaningful instructional activities and think about what they are doing. Prince (2004) notes that active learning is any class activity that engages students in the learning process.

The role of the instructor is very important in an active learning environment. Instructors have a more passive role. The role of the instructor is to:

  • Guide students in the learning process
  • Create a welcoming and supportive learning environment
  • Design meaningful course activities
  • Encourage students to take academic risks
  • Facilitate reflections
  • Provide constructive feedback
  • Use assessment data to create new learning experiences

Active learning stems from a constructivist learning framework. This theoretical perspective emphasizes the need for students to construct knowledge and meaning from experiences. Learning occurs when students are actively involved in their learning instead of passively absorbing information. Active learning approaches enable students to move from lower order thinking skills (remembering and understanding) to higher order thinking skills (analyzing, evaluating and creating). The constructivist strategies also create more inclusive learning environments (Lorenzo, Crouch, & Mazur, 2006; Eddy & Hogan, 2014).

Active learning can:

  • Provide insight into students’ prior knowledge
  • Help students gauge their own understanding of course concepts
  • Increase student motivation and engagement
  • Promote the application of problem-solving skills
  • Improve critical thinking skills
  • Re-energize and refocus a lesson
  • Assist students with creating personal connections
  • Create a sense of community in the learning environment
  • Promote student-student and student-instructor interactions

Examples of Active Learning Strategies

A case study in an active learning activity where students are asked to review a real-life situation or scenario and explore how they would resolve the issue. Most case studies require students to answer open ended questions or develop a solution to a problem. The case assignment can be completed individually or in a group.

More information about Case Studies. (Vanderbilt University)

Experiential learning allows students to learn through experiences. Students develop knowledge, skills and connections through experiences outside of the classroom. UofSC focuses on experiential learning opportunities in five areas:

  • Community Service / Service Learning
  • Global Learning (e.g., Study Abroad and local cultural opportunities)
  • Internships, Co-ops, and Other Work-based Experiences
  • Peer Leadership
  • Research

Learn more about experiential learning by visiting the Center for Integrative and Experiential Learning - Faculty and Staff Toolbox.

In the four corners strategy, students are asked to make a decision about a question or problem. An opinion or response is posted in four corners of the classroom. Students express their opinion by standing in front of one of the four statements.

More information about Four Corners. (Baruch College)

Gallery Walk is an active learning strategy where groups of students explore artifacts that are placed around the room. Generally, they interact or work with members within their groups to construct knowledge about a topic, content, or concept. Participants share ideas and respond to images, questions, documents or other works.

More information about Gallery Walk. (Carleton College)

Role play is a strategy where students are provided a scenario and take on the persona of a character in the situation. Students act out case-based scenarios and examine issues through the lens of the character.

More information about Role Playing. (Stanford University)

Think-pair-share is a learning strategy where students work together to solve a problem or answer a question. Students think about the problem or the answer to a question, pair with one or more students to share responses, and then share ideas discussed with the class.

More information about Think-Pair-Share. (Kent State University)

Additional active learning strategies can be found in the websites below:

Active Learning Strategies (Oregon Health & Science University)

Active Learning Strategies (University of Connecticut)

Active Learning Strategies (UC Berkeley)

Active Learning Strategies (Michigan State University)

Selected References

Bonwell, C.C., & Eisen, J.A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University: Washington, DC.

Eddy, S.L., & Hogan, K.A. (2014). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure workCBE Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453-468.

Lorenzo, M., Crouch, C.H., & Mazur, E. (2006). Reducing the gender gap in the physics classroom. American Journal of Physics, 74(2), 118–122.

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


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