“Active learning” means students engage with the material, participate in the class, and collaborate with each other.  Don’t expect your students simply to listen and memorize; instead, have them help demonstrate a process, analyze an argument, or apply a concept to a real-world situation.


Whether you’re facing a lecture hall filled with 300 students or a seminar table with 15 students, one of your primary goals for the class should be to actively engage students with the material. Students learn more when they participate in the process of learning, whether it’s through discussion, practice, review, or application (Grunert, 1997). This is in stark contrast to traditional styles of teaching, where students are expected to sit for hours, listening and, theoretically, absorbing information presented by the instructor.

Incorporate active learning strategies into every component of your course design. For example, encouraging short partner discussions during lectures (i.e., think-pair-share), adding problem- or case-based research projects to the curriculum, and incorporating time for small-group critical analysis exercises during seminars are all great ways to actively engage students in learning.

Because it can take time and creativity to develop active learning exercises, we provide many examples on the Teaching Commons website, particularly in Teaching Strategies. Keep reading for some sample strategies to help get you started.

Facilitate independent, critical, and creative thinking

Ask students to analyze, synthesize, or apply material, both during lectures and in assignments. Some examples include:

  • Case-based problem solving exercises – these types of exercises help students develop analytical skills and learn how to apply academic theories to real-world problems. Use case studies in a lecture and have students work out their solutions independently or in small groups, or use case studies as the basis for major projects or exams.
  • Debate – this is another active learning technique that helps develop critical thinking and logical reasoning skills. Present competing viewpoints in lecture and assign students to defend one, or both, of the viewpoints in a short (five-minute) written exercise or classroom debate.

Encourage effective collaboration

Collaborative group work can be an extremely useful addition to a large class. Some examples include:

  • Small-group discussions– there are many benefits to taking short think-pair-share breaks during a lecture. These small-group discussions help students understand and retain material, while also serving the broader goals of developing their communication skills and increasing their awareness of their classmates as learning resources.
  • Peer instruction exercises– one minute paper reflections or speed problem solving questions, paired with peer to peer discussion, can be a very effective teaching strategy. Upon completion of the question and at least one iteration, tally the answers.  Once the results are in, explain the correct answer and demonstrate why the other options are misleading (Mazur, 1997).

Research from cognitive psychology has shown that one of the best ways to improve understanding is to teach material to a peer (Topping and Stewart, 1998). Build this exercise into your classes through presentations, study groups, and quick, breakout “teaching” sessions, such as the one described above.

Increase student investment, motivation, and performance

When you invite students to actively participate in the learning environment, they take more responsibility for their performance in the course. Similarly, when they have an opportunity to make decisions about what they learn and how they use that knowledge, students see a course as more valuable and more directly related to their goals. For example:

  • Brainstorm learning objectives – if you involve students in the development of classroom activities, e.g., allow them to choose the topic of a short discussion or generate ideas about how a concept could be applied to a problem that interests them, it automatically increases engagement levels. Involving students in classroom activities also requires them to assess their understanding and skill and rather than allowing them to rest comfortably with a surface knowledge, it forces them to develop a deeper understanding of the material.

Incorporate active learning into your curriculum and transform your classroom into an exciting, dynamic learning environment.

Best Active Learning Strategies

1. Think-pair-share

Perfect for collaborative and cooperative learning, faculty briefly pause their lecture and ask students to pair up and discuss the material that was just presented. Students are then asked to prepare questions or share observations with the entire class.

An active learning technique like think-pair-share is effective after the first few lectures, especially if your class’s attention span for your course material is beginning to dip. This technique can also help to recapture enthusiasm, and remind students that their learning is not taking place in isolation.

2. One-minute papers

Towards the end of the lecture, students answer a question about the course material either individually or in small groups—give them about a minute. The submitted responses from this active learning activity can be used to gauge student learning and comprehension of the material covered in the class period.

Educator James Lang, author of Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, is a proponent of active learning—particularly the one-minute paper. Lang says that this learning activity is perfect for students to connect their ideas with the wider aim of the lecture. It will also allow students to reflect on what was taught before class is dismissed—in person or online. Pose one of the following two questions to students at the end of class:

What was the most important thing you learned today?

What question still remains in your mind?

The first question requires students to remember something from class and articulate it in their own words. It also encourages students to think on the spot. The second question encourages students to consider what they haven’t understood. To answer the second question, students have to decide where confusion or weaknesses remain in their own comprehension.

3. Quick quizzes

This active learning activity can be administered at the start of class or part way through a lecture. It should count as formative assessment—not for a grade, but to assess comprehension. These no-stakes quizzes provide an opportunity for students to reflect and recall information that was just covered before the instructor moves on to the next topic.

Students can complete these quizzes at the start of class to challenge pre-existing assumptions. You may want to ask the same question at the end of class in order for students to compare their understanding to the start of class. It will also allow you to engage in a meta-analysis of students’ performance. Frank Spors, Associate Professor of Optometry at Western University of Health Sciences, leveraged these informal assessments to guide his lecture. “The assessment identified content areas that required more clarification during class, and I adjusted my planned lecture accordingly to focus on areas where students needed the most help,” he says.

“The assessment identified content areas that required more clarification during class, and I adjusted my planned lecture accordingly to focus on areas where students needed the most help.”

By facilitating pre-tests and post-tests, you can compare and pair the results of the two quizzes and get instant feedback about the effectiveness of your lesson. Did students understand, or do they need more clarification on a topic? Quick quizzes are a beneficial teaching strategy for helping you understand and collect student insights in the moment.

4. Muddiest point

This active learning activity pinpoints the area(s) that students are least confident about in the course material that was just covered. Students note the most confusing part of a lecture or course content and instructors can use these insights to determine how and where to focus future teaching efforts. Consider anonymizing student responses in order to make students feel comfortable. While the goal is to encourage participation, it’s equally important to respond to student feedback during the next class or as soon as possible after. Responding to students shortly after—when their curiosity is already primed—will help them link ideas together and encourage them to critically reflect on what they do and don’t understand.

5. Debates

Having students defend different viewpoints is an effective way to engage the entire class. With remote learning, debates help instructors check student comprehension and help students learn from one another—despite not seeing each other face to face. This activity works well in small groups versus large classes.

Role-playing provides a safe and fun way to explore new concepts and ideas, as Tony Crider, Professor of Astrophysics at Elon University, North Carolina, argues. In his classes—which are infused with active learning techniques—students are assigned roles of historical characters. One of his classes is called the “Pluto Debates,” where leading figures of the astronomy world argue over whether or not Pluto should be considered a planet.

Every student has a character sheet, with their victory conditions. For instance, the conditions outline: “You’ll win if the vote turns out this way or that way.” For Crider, the aim of this active learning approach is getting his students invested in how astronomers make sense of objects and how they make decisions together. The simulation aspect of this approach drew students into the point where they’ll often prepare more for Crider’s class than others.

6. Case studies and problem-solving

In this active learning strategy, students work in small groups or individually and apply knowledge gained from lectures or reading materials to a given scenario. This is more spontaneous than setting multi-week, large group projects. Provide students with a real-world contemporary case related to your curriculum and learning outcomes. It’s best to pick a case study or event that is a) relevant and timely and b) well-known to ensure all students are comfortable participating. Students respond to a set of questions prepared by you, which ask how the case study intersects with course material and the relevance of the case in comparison to another timely topic.

Large group discussions aren’t always possible—or easy to facilitate—with remote learning. Joshua Eyler, Director of Faculty Development at the University of Mississippi, suggests an alternative for small group discussions: breakout rooms. Instructors should consider breaking students into small groups with the understanding that they will need to report back and share their responses either live or via a discussion board or learning management system (LMS).

7. Peer instruction

In this active learning activity, students prepare and present course material to the class or in small groups. This approach encourages interaction and trust-building between students—especially important at a time where learning heavily takes place online.

Facilitate this active learning activity early in the semester to help students get to know each other. Thomas Hayden, Founding Director of the Master of Arts in Earth Systems, Environmental Communication Graduate Program at Stanford University, teaches environmental journalism—an experiential class that mixes humanities and science students. The difference in academic backgrounds provides an opportunity for mutual learning powered by students’ own knowledge.7

Hayden explains: “As an introductory assignment, I have the students teach each other about the things they know best. This class is half science students and half journalism students, so the science students teach Science 101 to the journalism students, and the journalists teach their craft to the scientists.”

“As an introductory assignment, I have the students teach each other about the things they know best. The science students teach Science 101 to the journalism students, and the journalists teach their craft to the scientists.”

Hayden adds a twist: he bans students from using PowerPoint slides. This strengthens their creative and critical thinking skills on how they can communicate what they know to an unfamiliar audience. The result is a class primed to learn outside of their field and, equally as important, helps form peer-to-peer relationships that are so important to the higher education learning experience.

8. Flipped classrooms

Students’ attention fatigues over time—and this concern is even more pertinent when there’s no instructor present. James Lang finds that change renews attention and can help students focus more on the task at hand. However, in a flipped classroom, students watch pre-recorded lectures aligned with learning goals as homework and spend class time engaging in active learning activities. This alternative approach to the traditional classroom ensures students are actively involved in the learning process.

Flipped classrooms not only position students as more active recipients of the learning journey, this model additionally saves faculty time when planning instruction. Rather than delivering an hour long lecture, the flipped classroom favors short, concise lecture recordings that students can view on their own time. Flipped classrooms are dedicated to exploration, collaboration and interaction—three pillars critical to a largely remote active learning environment.

During class, students can actively apply concepts from lectures, readings or simulations through peer learning, minute-quizzes, case studies or other active learning strategies mentioned above.

The teaching resource pack includes:

Activities to Boost Student Engagement

Case Method Teaching

In Case Method Teaching, students review a real-world situation (a case) that poses a thought-provoking problem or dilemma. Students are placed in the role of decision maker and asked how they would resolve the problem. The real-life nature of cases brings interest and relevance to the application of abstract concepts and theory in practice. Students have to sort out and analyze data presented in the case, consider relevant theory, draw conclusions, and present solutions. Through teamwork and whole-class discussion, collaborative learning plays a large role in uncovering different solutions, understanding the pros and cons of each, and weighing benefits. First used in the professions, especially business, case method teaching is now widespread across disciplines. Case libraries have grown, and cases may be presented in a variety of media. Now, as online learning grows, educators are exploring case-based learning in online environments.

Coached Problem Solving

In Coached Problem Solving, small groups of students work on solving a problem by applying concepts just taught. The instructor facilitates, monitoring group progress and offering just-in-time coaching at each stage of the problem solving process. Embedded within a class, coached problem solving sessions are short, informal, and ungraded. Actively involving students in their own learning, such sessions are designed to develop and deepen students’ understanding and application of content just taught. As coach, instructors encourage students, help with problem solving strategies, and clear up misconceptions. They can informally assess individual and group understanding, and adapt instruction to enhance learning before moving on to new material. The value of coaching is not limited to in-class problem solving. Many team-based project courses rely on the guidance of team coaches who advise throughout a project. Peer coaches also can be effective in helping each other to solve problems. Early research on automating coaching gave impetus to development of more recent AI applications in teaching and assessment.

G+ Hangout sessions

G+ Hangout Sessions employ Google’s online group conversation to nurture interaction and to engage students in collaborative learning activities. G+ (Google+) is Google’s social networking site, which through Hangouts offers opportunity for free group video conferencing, and sharing of photos, emoji, and other visuals. Although in 2013 Hangouts are limited to 10 participants at one time, anyone can join using a computer, Android or Apple device. Hangouts On Air allows live video streaming for YouTube webcasts, which are concurrently recorded for replay on Google+ and YouTube. Through Google+ Hangouts, study groups and project teams can interact and develop ideas; teaching staff can hold live office hours for groups of students, host discussions on course material, and answer student questions outside the traditional classroom venue; and experts can be invited to share knowledge and experience from a distance. Such ongoing exchange of ideas is directed at heightening learning by cultivating student interest, involvement, excitement and motivation to learn.

Guided Discovery Problems

Guided discovery encourages students’ natural curiosity and inquisitiveness. Carefully constructed puzzles, problems, and questions push students to go beyond facts to discovery of principles in solving problems. Discovery learning is an inquiry-based instructional technique where students ‘learn by doing.’ Jerome Bruner, a renowned cognitive psychologist at Harvard University, promoted the approach on the basis that students are more likely to remember concepts and principles when they discover them on their own. Guided discovery problems may precede introduction of relevant content, allowing students to begin building their knowledge of the subject before class discussion. For example, in one example of a guided discovery problem on the phases and eclipses of the moon, students confront potential misconceptions about the moon’s movements around the earth. Using a polystyrene ball and a light source, many students are surprised to find that the moon’s phases are not caused by Earth’s shadow. Whether students collaborate or proceed individually, they are developing skills in disciplined inquiry fundamental to many areas of knowledge, and particularly to the sciences. As online learning grows, games of discovery will likely grow as well, bringing more sophisticated resources and real world challenges to guided discovery learning activities.

Just-in-Time Teaching

Just-in-time teaching actively engages students in learning new material and gives the instructor information on students’ existing knowledge before teaching on the topic begins. First, students respond to a Web-based set of questions, usually open-ended thought questions or exercises, about new material before it is covered in class. After reviewing student submissions, the instructor adjusts teaching activities to meaningfully address student shortcomings and misconceptions – just in time in the learning process. Through these warm-up questions and exercises, students and instructors are primed for a more productive instructional experience. In-class and out-of-class learning activities become more interwoven and pertinent, enhancing learning for students whatever their initial level, motivating active learning, and improving classroom climate. This interactive technique also provides baseline assessment of the state of students’ initial understanding of the content to be learned, including misconceptions. Such baseline information can be compared to similar information after instruction not only to assess individual student learning, but especially the effectiveness of instruction.

Online Forum Discussion

Through Online Forums, students can have discussions with each other on course-related topics. Students contribute to the discussion by posting messages to an online message board. A forum has a tree-like directory structure, which can accommodate numerous discussions and sub-discussions (sub-forums) down to a single thread of discussion on a topic. A new discussion initiates a new thread, with as many students joining the discussion and posting topic-related messages as want to comment. A chain of messages then document the conversation and may be archived for a period of time. While online forum discussions are relatively open, students sometimes must log in as authorized participants to post messages, and messages may be reviewed by a moderator before posting. Through learner to learner discussion, online forums engage students in active learning, and promote growth of collaborative learning communities. Online forum discussion is used widely in Stanford University courses. Stanford’s course management system, CourseWork, offers a software tool for online forums, CourseForum.

Project-Based Learning

Project-Based Learning focuses on real solutions to a problem. Once a problem is identified, student teams develop and demonstrate their understanding of the problem by proposing one or more solutions, often designing, constructing, and delivering a prototype. The focus is on building students’ ability to develop creative, realistic, tangible solutions to sometimes difficult problems through teamwork. Once a solution is agreed upon, the team must decide how to realize that solution with a product or service. Attention then turns to designing and developing a prototype of the product or detailed definition of the service. When completed, teams may present their solution to the class or in a demo session to a broader audience. Frequently combined, problem-based, project-based, and team-based learning are well-established teaching techniques at Stanford University. All are collaborative and involve active learning. Student teams may be interdisciplinary and, with online technologies, globally distributed. Problems may have local or global significance, and in some cases are provided by corporate and other partners.

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-Based Learning engages students in the process of problem solving: how to think about the problem and to find possible solutions. The focus is on developing students’ ability to think critically, creatively and productively about a problem, while also nurturing team skills. Challenged with a complex, real-world problem, students work in collaborative groups or teams to understand the problem and propose solutions. Often such problems do not have an obvious solution, but are examples of challenging, open-ended problems faced in our world today. Students must analyze the nature of the problem, identify what they need to know and how to find needed information, reach informed judgments, and apply what they learn to generate ideas for possible solutions. Frequently combined, problem-based, project-based, and team-based learning are well-established teaching techniques at Stanford University. All are collaborative and involve active learning. Student teams may be interdisciplinary and, with online technologies, globally distributed. Problems may have local or global significance, and in some cases are provided by corporate and other partners.

Retrieval Practice

To study for a big test, many students reread their books and notes. But even more effective would be to try to remember the material on their own. That’s retrieval practice. It is a kind of active learning that many students don’t make use of. The key idea is that retrieval can turn passively-absorbed information into true understanding and knowledge. In other words, when students recall what they’ve learned, on a quiz or practice test with the book closed, it improves their knowledge. They’ll do better on a test a week later than the students who just reviewed the material (Karpicke, Roediger III, 2008).


In Role-Playing, a student assumes the perspective of a participating character in a scenario designed to create greater understanding of a topic, surrounding issues, and human interaction. Although student input may be sought, the instructor stages the role-playing exercise, identifying the topic, characters, issues motivating interaction, and purpose. Before the play begins, students should research the topic, study their roles, and have a preliminary knowledge of the context and meaning of the situation presented. The playing out of the scenario can be relatively unstructured, allowing students to express the perspectives they represent, and how they impact or are impacted by the situation. Role-play is followed by a small group or class discussion to guide and consolidate learning. Role-play has wide-ranging educational applications, from the professions to the humanities, on any topic calling for understanding of diverse perspectives and attitudes. Today, online role-playing scenarios and virtual learning environments are possible and potentially available.


In Send-A-Problem, student teams participate in a series of problem solving rounds, and then evaluate alternative solutions offered by the different groups. Groups of two to four students work on different problems during the same period of time. Each group receives a problem, discusses issues, and offers possible solutions. Problems can reflect a variety of complex questions, often without one right answer. Teams record their solutions for later evaluation. Each group then passes the problem to another group, which also contributes a solution and passes the problem on. After a number of rounds, time is called and each group evaluates and selects a best solution for one of the problems and reports their conclusion to the class. Send-A-Problem nurtures collaborative problem solving and related thinking skills. The process encourages creativity in problem solving and emphasizes the value of different perspectives. Originally used in class, Send-A-Problem can be adapted for online learning through use of online forums.

Team-Based Problem Solving

In Team-Based Problem Solving, students form collaborative teams to solve a problem or undertake a project. Across each team, members should bring a diversity of complementary talents, knowledge and experience to the problem solving process. Team-based learning has many pedagogical benefits. Students engaging in teamwork typically develop greater problem solving skill and content understanding, higher motivation to learn and enthusiasm for course content, and present higher quality solutions. At the same time, through ongoing, focused team interaction, they develop more effective communication and interpersonal skills, and greater comfort participating in collaborative groups. With learning teams, the instructor takes on the important role of facilitator. Beginning with group assignment, the facilitator must nurture student groups to become functioning, self-directed, productive teams. Frequently combined, problem-based, project-based, and team-based learning are well-established teaching techniques at Stanford University. All are collaborative and involve active learning. Student teams may be interdisciplinary and, with online technologies, globally distributed. Problems may have local or global significance, and in some cases are provided by corporate and other partners.


Think-Pair-Share is a short activity designed to engage students in thoughtful consideration of a topic, and may serve effectively as a warm-up to instruction and class discussion on new course material. First, students individually think for a few minutes about a question posed by the instructor, then get together for a short period in groups of two (pair) to four students to discuss their thoughts, and one or more groups share the results of their discussion with the class. In addition to engaging with course content, students can reflect before speaking, and share their ideas in a low-risk situation before participating in full class discussion. Thus, both the quality of class discussion and students’ comfort in contributing to class discussion may improve. Think-Pair-Share also allows instructors to assess students’ initial knowledge and to modify instruction to bolster understanding and clear up misconceptions. Developed for use in class, this technique is just beginning to be adapted and experimented with in the online environment.

Remote Labs

Remote Laboratories are designed to allow a student or researcher to remotely conduct real experiments across the Internet. The experimental laboratory space, materials and operating equipment are in one geographical location, while the researcher is controlling experiments from a different, sometimes very distant location. In education, remote laboratories allow students to understand scientific principles and resulting phenomena through hands-on laboratory experience, “learning by doing,” from wherever they are located. Asking questions, systematically and objectively gathering data, and testing hypotheses to find answers is the essence of scientific inquiry. The conduct of scientific inquiry remotely has been practiced for years. Look, for example, to the many experiments conducted through NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. However, remote laboratory applications in teaching are newer, and are given significant impetus by growing research in robotics. Increasing demand for online learning similarly drives development, especially with the potential of reaching learners of all ages who are remotely located and without laboratory resources.


Grunert, Judith. The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Co, Inc, 1997. Mazur, Eric. Peer instruction: A user’s manual. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1997. Topping, Keith and Ehly Stewart, Peer-Assisted Learning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1998.