Promoting Active Learning

About Active Learning

Asian male grad student in class with others, smiling


"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.


The Importance of Active Learning

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.

VPTL has a wide array of resources available for you to use in your classes here in Teaching Commons and an extensive collection of books, articles, and handouts on active learning strategies available for checkout from the VPTL Office. In addition, VPTL offers workshops and events throughout the year on using active learning effectively in different class settings.

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


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.

See Also