Faculty Development

Active Learning Strategies

**This page is from an old version of CSUN's Teaching Toolkit. Find an updated version on the current Teaching Toolkit on Canvas.**


What is Active Learning?

  Active learning is an instructional method that engages students in the learning process and requires students to do meaningful learning activities.  Students who participate in active learning are challenged to think about what they are doing rather than passively receive information from their instructor. While there are many approaches to active learning, the core elements are student activity and engagement in the learning process.

  Does it Work?

A meta-analysis of 225 studies compared STEM classes taught using various active learning approaches with classes taught via lecture. “The results indicate that average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sessions, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.” (p. 8410) Carl Wieman, a Nobel-winning physicist who now does research on teaching and learning, describes the work as a “massive effort” that provides “a much more extensive quantitative analysis of the research on active learning in college and university STEM courses than previously existed.” (p. 8319) And what does he make of these results? “The implications of these meta-analysis results for instruction are profound, assuming they are indicative of what could be obtained if active learning methods replaced the lecture instruction that dominates U.S. postsecondary STEM instruction.” (pp. 8319-8320) That’s a long way from the guarded language usually found in commentaries on scientific results.


  What are Some Examples of Active Learning?

There are several approaches to active learning that can be summarized into the following categories: Collaborative learning, cooperative learning, and problem-based learning. 

Collaborative learning can refer to any instructional method in which students work together in small groups toward a common goal [2]. As such, collaborative learning can be viewed as encompassing all group-based instructional methods, including cooperative learning [3–7]. In contrast, some authors distinguish between collaborative and cooperative learning as having distinct historical developments and different philosophical roots [8–10]. In either interpretation, the core element of collaborative learning is the emphasis on student interactions rather than on learning as a solitary activity.

Cooperative learning can be defined as a structured form of group work where students pursue common goals while being assessed individually [3, 11]. The most common model of cooperative learning found in the engineering literature is that of Johnson, Johnson and Smith [12, 13]. This model incorporates five specific tenets, which are individual accountability, mutual interdependence, faceto- face promotive interaction, appropriate practice of interpersonal skills, and regular self-assessment of team functioning. While different cooperative learning models exist [14, 15], the core element held in common is a focus on cooperative incentives rather than competition to promote learning.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method where relevant problems are introduced at the beginning of the instruction cycle and used to provide the context and motivation for the learning that follows. It is always active and usually (but not necessarily) collaborative or cooperative using the above definitions. PBL typically involves significant amounts of self-directed learning on the part of the students.

  How do I Start?

Tips for Success

    • Become familiar with a few active learning techniques. Some that are easier to implement are the "one minute paper," and "think-pair-share" (see "CTI Active Learning Strategies" in the resources below for more detailed instructions on how to incorporate them).
    • Choose one or two techniques and modify them so that they address learning goals in your class.
    • When implementing active learning techniques, follow these general steps:
    • Use activities to draw attention to issues and content you feel are most critical.
    • Establish rules of conduct and civility to encourage appropriate participation.
    • Introduce the activity and explain the learning benefit.
    • Control the time cost by giving students a time limit to complete the task.
    • Stop the activity and debrief. Call on a few students or groups of students to share their thoughts and tie them in to the next steps of your lecture.
    • Consider using classroom response technologiesvideo clips, and even smartphones and laptops to facilitate active learning activities. 
  How do I Create Student Collaboration in the Classroom?

Exponential Think Pair and Share (.pdf)
As an extension of the traditional "think pair share," students form larger and larger teams to teach each other. 

Four Corners (.pdf)
Allows for a lively, informal debate as students take a corner of the room to agree or disagree on a topic. Watch CSUN Professor Steve Holle provide a brief demonstration. 

Mindmap (.pdf)
Students sketch an idea or concept discussed in class, even if they are not artists.

Networking Activity (.pdf)
Students are given real-life networking scenarios and work in pairs to practice networking.

Placemats (.pdf)
Students create a collage of responses to an instructor prompt--working both individually and in groups. Watch CSUN Professor Steve Holle provide a brief demonstration. 

Reading Through Pictures (.pdf)
Students draw pictures to represent class readings and then discuss their drawings, thus discussing the reading.

Websites to Encourage Class Engagement (.pdf)
Using sites like Poll Everywhere, students answer questions anonymously and interact with each other.

  What Does it Mean to Let Students be Teachers?

Constructive Peer Review (.pdf)
Students learn how to evaluate each others' work in a fun and useful way.

Generating a Product for an External Audience (.pdf)
Students create something (such as a Wikipedia article) that people outside of the class can rate.

Guiding Thoughts on Readings (.pdf)
As they enter the room, students write feedback on large paper and then discuss as a group.

Post Assignment Sharing (.pdf)
Help students understand the "point" of an assignment and allow for discussion throughout the semester.

Sharing with Friends and Family (.pdf)
Students pretend to explain an assignment or project to a friend or family member, demonstrating that they truly understand it.

Ten Ways to Start Discussions (.pdf)
Based on Peter Frederick's article, this guide provides ten strategies to engage students in discussion.

Speaker of the House (.pdf)
One student is selected at random to present, like the speaker of the house, the main points of the day's class.

  How do I Build Community in the Classroom?

Awards at End of Class (.pdf)
At the end of the semester, students have a mini awards ceremony in the spirit of the Academy Awards, complete with winners' speeches.

Cultivating Organic Traditions (.pdf)
Ideas to establish fun and unique traditions in your classroom: for example if you flash the lights twice, there is a class discussion. 

Encouraging Self Care (.pdf)
Students identify and share stress management techniques.

Establishing Expectations (.pdf)
Help students work together effectively through establishing guidelines together.

Explaining the Rationale for a Collaborative Class (.pdf)
Discuss as a group the benefits of group work.

Speed Meet-and-Greets (.pdf)
Like speed dating, but this is a way for your students to quickly discuss class readings and activities.

Managing Different Communication Styles (.pdf)
How do you communicate with your students and how do they communicate with you? This chart provides an easy self-assessment.

  What are Some Tips for Group Work Assignments?

Group Names (.pdf) 
In this activity, students collaborate to create a name for their group.

Intentional Group Formation (.pdf)
Students form groups based on their interests.

  How do I Make the First Day of Class Engaging?

How can you ensure that your students leave the first class session motivated and prepared for success? 

Check out these resources:

First Day of Class: by Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching

Preparing for a Positive First Day of Class: Five Terrific Tips- by Lori Baker-Schena 

Making the First Day of Class Really First Class- by Cynthia Desrochers 

The First Day of Class: A Once in a Semester Opportunity- Faculty Focus Teaching Professor Blog


References: Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okorafor, N., Jordt, H., and Wenderoth, M.P., (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 111 (23), 8410-8415.

Weiman, C.E., (2014. Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 111 (23), 8319-8320.