Skip to content
Active learning is a pedagogy focused on improving student performance through a steady exchange of feedback between instructor and students over the course of a semester. In a traditional lecture model, students spend the majority of their class time listening and have only a few opportunities to get feedback on their learning (usually via exams or papers) spaced at intervals across the semester. In an active learning classroom, students have frequent opportunities to test their knowledge and reflect on their learning. Faculty are able to use the results of these activities to tailor their instruction to better support students’ learning.
Research shows that student engagement in active learning processes stimulates cognitive structures that deepen understanding and challenge misconceptions (Zull, 2012). Strategies for active learning include introducing collaborative project-based learning, flipped classes, group problem-solving sessions, use of in-class polling, multimedia content creation, and peer teaching.
Our office can provide guidance and support as you consider incorporating active learning approaches in your teaching.
Research has shown that learner attention starts to wane after 10-20 minutes of passive listening. We will help you divide your lectures effectively, interspersing content delivery with student engagement techniques. We can identify ways to add multimedia elements like images, video, and audio to lectures to further stimulate attention. We are here to assist you in thinking about how and why technology-enhanced interventions can maximize student attention and improve learning outcomes.
Simple strategies include thinking about what can be done outside of class. If you find yourself running out of time to cover essential content, then think about what students can prep before or after class. This is the basis of the flipped classroom model, which frees up in-class time for more hands-on activities. Incorporating group activities allows students to learn socially, can increase motivation, and challenges students to confront difficult information.
We suggest starting small – first incorporating a single activity throughout the semester. This will allow you to gauge what works best with your teaching style and student population.
Bringing active learning into the classroom means creating thoughtful learning experiences for students. We encourage transparency and collaboration with students. Explaining the purpose of the learning experiences and soliciting feedback will improve students’ participation and satisfaction.
Sometimes instructors worry that introducing a lot of new opportunities for feedback will create an overwhelming amount of grading, but many of the most effective activities can be automated, self-graded, or peer-graded. Remember, the goal is to give learners more low-stakes opportunities to gauge their own learning so that they can adjust their methods and improve their performance on high stakes assessments such as exams, projects, and papers.
Millis (2012) offers research-based examples of active learning strategies. Additional strategies are outlined below.
Suggestions for making lecture-based courses more active involve:
Suggestions for making discussions more active include:
- introducing project-based learning: have students work in small teams to complete a common learning goal
- flipping content selectively: relegate fact-based lectures to online modules that students do outside of class
- having small groups of students recap core lecture materials for the class
- using student polling for in-class question and answer
- creating active problem-solving opportunities
More information on tools suggested and supported by our office can be found on the Student Response System Guide.
- forming small groups of students to lead class discussions and generate discussion questions
- breaking into small groups to discuss first and then revert to whole class discussion
- using techniques such as think-pair-share and knowledge mapping to articulate what students have learned
- having students take turns in different roles in the discussion process
Evaluating the effectiveness of active learning strategies is two-fold, requiring us to consider both student learning and the strategy itself.
When creating an active learning experience, consider how you will evaluate student success. You may want to use both summative and formative measures to ensure students have met the learning objectives. Clearly communicate participation requirements and evaluation standards to students.
Assessing the effectiveness of the active learning strategy will help you iterate and refine classroom activities. Soliciting student feedback through reflection on their own learning will give you insight into perceptions of the strategy. Comparing student success in a class that uses active learning strategies and one that does not may prove useful, as well as considering samples of student work before and after an active learning strategy is implemented.
- General Physics 1 and 2: Prof. Andre Adler discusses the use of student response system to promote group work and engagement in large lecture [NYU CAS – Physics]
- General Chemistry: Prof. John Halpin uses peer review and clicker technology to engage students in large lecture [NYU CAS – Chemistry]
- Introduction to Physics: Prof. Eric Mazur uses of clicker technology and active problem solving [Harvard – Physics]
- Introduction to Microeconomics: Prof. Marc Lieberman is currently developing interactive modules and animations to increase learning and promote engagement [NYU CAS – Economics]
- Social and Cultural Foundations: various sections of Social and Cultural Foundations use a collaborative website for peer teaching and content creation [NYU Liberal Studies]
- Visible and Invisible Cities (log in with NYU credentials): Prof. Virginia Cox has students complete creative projects to connect more deeply with literary texts [NYU FAS – CORE]
Templates & Guides
- Bransford, J., Brown, A., and Cocking, R.R. (Eds.) (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington (DC): National Academy Press.
- Cashin, W.E. (2010). Effective Lecturing and Effective Classroom Discussions (IDEA paper #46; IDEA paper #49)
- Cooper, J. L., Robinson, P. and Ball, D. (2003). The Interactive Lecture: Reconciling Group and Active Learning Strategies with Traditional Instructional Formats. Exchanges: The Online Journal of Teaching and Learning in the CSU.
- Felder, R.M. & Brent, R. (2009). Active learning: An introduction. ASQ Higher Education Brief, 2(4).
- 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, 111(23): 8410–8415.
- Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.
- Zull, J. E. (2011). From brain to mind: Using neuroscience to guide change in education. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.