Active Learning Strategies

active learning

Table of Contents

  • The Theoretical Basis for Active Learning
  • Active Learning Techniques
  • 8 Brain-Friendly Practices for Middle School & High School Students
  • Active Learning Strategies for Early Childhood Education


 Active learning is commonly defined as activities that students do to construct knowledge and understanding. The activities vary, but require students to do higher-order thinking. Although not always explicitly noted, metacognition—students’ thinking about their own learning—is an important element, providing the link between activity and learning.

The Theoretical Basis for Active Learning

Constructivist learning theory emphasizes that individuals learn through building their own knowledge, connecting new ideas and experiences to existing knowledge and experiences to form new or enhanced understanding (Bransford et al., 1999). The theory, developed by Piaget and others, posits that learners can either assimilate new information into an existing framework, or can modify that framework to accommodate new information that contradicts prior understanding. Approaches that promote active learning often explicitly ask students to make connections between new information and their current mental models, extending their understanding. In other cases, teachers may design learning activities that allow students to confront misconceptions, helping students reconstruct their mental models based on more accurate understanding. In either case, approaches that promote active learning promote the kind of cognitive work identified as necessary for learning by constructivist learning theory.

Active learning approaches also often embrace the use of cooperative learning groups, a constructivist-based practice that places particular emphasis on the contribution that social interaction can make. Lev Vygotsky’s work elucidated the relationship between cognitive processes and social activities and led to the sociocultural theory of development, which suggests that learning takes place when students solve problems beyond their current developmental level with the support of their instructor or their peers (Vygotsky 1978). Thus active learning approaches that rely on group work rest on this sociocultural branch of constructivist learning theory, leveraging peer-peer interaction to promote students’ development of extended and accurate mental models.

Is there evidence that it works?

The evidence that active learning approaches help students learn more effectively than transmissionist approaches in which instructors rely on “teaching by telling” is robust and stretches back more than thirty years (see, for example, Bonwell and Eison, 1991). Here, we will focus on two reports that review and analyze multiple active learning studies.

Freeman and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 225 studies comparing “constructivist versus exposition-centered course designs” in STEM disciplines (Freeman et al., 2014). They included studies that examined the design of class sessions (as opposed to out-of-class work or laboratories) with at least some active learning versus traditional lecturing, comparing failure rates and student scores on examinations, concept inventories, or other assessments. They found that students in traditional lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in courses with active learning (odds ratio of 1.95, Z = 10.4, P<<0.001). Further, they found that on average, student performance on exams, concept inventories, or other assessments increased by about half a standard deviation when some active learning was included in course design (weighted standardized mean difference of 0.47, Z = 9.781, P<<0.001). These results were consistent across disciplines: they observed no significant difference in the effects of active learning in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, geology, math, physics, and psychology courses. They performed two analyses examining the possibility that the results were due to a publication bias (i.e., a bias toward publishing studies with larger effects), finding that there would have to be a large number of unpublished studies that observed no difference between active learning and lecturing to negate their findings: 114 reporting no difference on exam or concept inventory performance and 438 reporting no difference in failure rate. The authors conclude that the evidence for the benefits of active learning are very strong, stating that, “If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.”

These results support other, earlier reviews (e.g., Hake, 1998; Prince, 2004; Springer et al., 1999). In one such review, Ruiz-Primo and colleagues examined published studies examining the effects of active learning approaches in undergraduate biology, chemistry, engineering and physics courses (Ruiz-Primo et al., 2011). They identified 166 studies that reported an effect size when comparing the effects of an innovation (i.e., active learning approaches) to traditional instruction that did not include the innovation. Overall, they found that inclusion of the active learning approaches improved student outcomes (mean effect size = 0.47), although there are important caveats to consider. First, the authors coded the active learning activities as conceptually oriented tasks, collaborative learning activities, technology-enabled activities, inquiry-based projects, or some combination of those four categories, and important differences existed within the categories (for example, technology-assisted inquiry-based projects on average did not produce positive effects). Second, more than 80% of the studies included were quasi-experimental rather than experimental, and the positive benefits (average effect size = 0.26) were lower for the experimental studies in which students were randomly assigned to a treatment group. Finally, many of the studies did not control for pre-existing knowledge and abilities in the treatment groups. Nonetheless, the review does provide qualified support for the inclusion of active learning approaches in instruction.

While the two reviews reported focus on STEM disciplines and no similar reviews exist for the humanities and social sciences, the bulk of the evidence suggests that active learning approaches are effective across disciplines (Ambrose et al, 2010; Bonwell and Eison, 1991; Chickering and Gamson, 1987).

Active Learning Techniques

The pause procedure. Pause for two minutes every 12 to 18 minutes, encouraging students to discuss and rework notes in pairs. This approach encourages students to consider their understanding of the material, including its organization. It also provides an opportunity for questioning and clarification and has been shown to significantly increase learning when compared to lectures without the pauses. (Bonwell and Eison, 1991; Rowe, 1980; 1986; Ruhl, Hughes, & Schloss, 1980)

Retrieval practicePause for two or three minutes every 15 minutes, having students write everything they can remember from the preceding class segment. Encourage questions. This approach prompts students to retrieve information from memory, which improves long term memory, ability to learn subsequent material, and ability to translate information to new domains. (Brame and Biel, 2015)   *these suggested times frames will vary by the age and developmental levels of the students. PL

*Free Retrieval Practice resource guides

Demonstrations. Ask students to predict the result of a demonstration, briefly discussing with a neighbor. After the demonstration, ask them to discuss the observed result and how it may have differed from their prediction; follow up with instructor explanation. This approach asks students to test their understanding of a system by predicting an outcome. If their prediction is incorrect, it helps them see the misconception and thus prompts them to restructure their mental model.

Think-pair-share. Ask students a question that requires higher-order thinking (e.g., application, analysis, or evaluation levels within Bloom’s taxonomy). Ask students to think or write about an answer for one minute, then turn to a peer to discuss their responses for two minutes. Ask groups to share responses and follow up with instructor explanation. By asking students to explain their answers to a neighbor and to critically consider their neighbor’s responses, this approach helps students articulate newly formed mental connections.

Peer instruction with ConcepTests. This modification of the think-pair-share involves personal response devices (e.g., clickers). Pose a conceptually based multiple-choice question. Ask students to think about their answers and vote on a response before turning to a neighbor to discuss. Encourage students to change their answers after discussion, if appropriate, and share class results by revealing a graph of student responses. Use the graph as a stimulus for class discussion. This approach is particularly well-adapted for large classes and can be facilitated with a variety of tools (e.g., Poll Everywhere, TopHat, TurningPoint).

Minute papers. Ask students a question that requires them to reflect on their learning or to engage in critical thinking. Have them write for one minute. Ask students to share responses to stimulate discussion or collect all responses to inform future class sessions. Like the think-pair-share approach, this approach encourages students to articulate and examine newly formed connections. (Angelo and Cross, 1993; Handelsman et al., 2007)

Concept map. Concept maps are visual representations of the relationships between concepts. Concepts are placed in nodes (often, circles), and the relationships between indicated by labeled arrows connecting the concepts. To have students create a concept map, identify the key concepts to be mapped in small groups or as a whole class. Ask students to determine the general relationship between the concepts and to arrange them two at a time, drawing arrows between related concepts and labeling with a short phrase to describe the relationship. By asking students to build an external representation of their mental model of a process, this approach helps students examine and strengthen the organization within the model. Further, it can emphasize the possibility of multiple “right” answers.

Content, form, and function outlines. Students in small groups are asked to carefully analyze a particular artifact—such as a poem, a story, an essay, a billboard, an image, or a graph—and identify the “what” (the content), the “how” (the form), and the function (the why). This technique can help students consider the various ways that meaning is communicated in different genres. (Angelo and Cross, 1993)

Case-based learning. Much like decision-making activities, case-based learning presents students with situations from the larger world that require students to apply their knowledge to reach a conclusion about an open-ended situation. Provide students with a case, asking them to decide what they know that is relevant to the case, what other information they may need, and what impact their decisions may have, considering the broader implications of their decisions. Give small groups (3-5) of students time to consider responses, circulating to ask questions, and provide help as needed. Provide opportunities for groups to share responses; the greatest value from case-based learning comes from the complexity and variety of answers that may be generated. More information and collections of cases are available at the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, the Case Method Website of UC-Santa Barbara, and World History Sources.

(Vanderbilt University)

8 Brain-Friendly Practices for Middle and High School Students

Shaelynn Farnsworth, July 24, 2019 (CC BY NC)

It used to be thought that brain development was complete by age 5 or 6 and reached adult-size and volume by age 10. During the last few years, brain research has found that the adolescent brain is still developing and the experiences a child has during the ages of 11 to 18 wires the brain and become “fixed” into their adult life. Meaning, what a child does during these years, the routines they establish, skills, attitudes, and coping mechanisms have direct consequences for their adult lives.

Since a large percent of an adolescent’s waking life is spent in school, educators can have a profound impact on the brain development of their students. While it is true that we as educators have no control over home-life, peer pressure, and other outside influences; most education institutions have practices that are “brain-hostile” rather than “brain-friendly”. These would include such things as:

  • Zero-tolerance discipline policy
  • Emotionally flat classroom climate
  • Ban on social media apps in the classroom
  • More homework, tougher requirements, and a longer school day
  • Early start time for the school day
  • Public posting of grades, test scores, and behavior
  • Locking students into a set learning path
  • Elimination or shortening of study hall, physical education, and movement in class
  • Teacher-centered, lecture-based, textbook-driven curriculum

(Thomas Armstrong)

Instead, educators need awareness of brain-friendly practices in which to align their instruction, strategies, and lesson design after. These practices provide educators with current brain research to support positive brain development in adolescents.

8 Brain-Friendly Practices for Middle School and High School Students

  1. Choice – The opportunity to choose what they learn, how they learn, and how they demonstrate understanding. This brain maturation and practices in student-choice helps promote making less risky decisions and more sensible ones. Examples: Choice in books, Choice in product creation, Involvement in discussions and debates, Passion projects or Genius Hour. 
  2. Self-Awareness Activities – During adolescents, students are beginning to establish and articulate who they are. Self-Awareness activities allow exploration and expression of self. Examples: SEL Activities, Interest and Emotional Quizzes, Connect learning to personal lives, Meditation, Journals.
  3. Peer Learning – During adolescence, peers play an important role in development and self-esteem. It is important for students to have positive, meaningful interactions with peers through peer teaching, collaboration, and group work. Examples: Group projects, Peer teaching, Mentoring, Peer Feedback. 
  4. Affective Learning – With adolescents comes the full-range of emotions that are erupting and changing on a whim inside our student’s body. Instead of ignoring or punishing these emotional young people, affective learning includes strategies to address these occurrences head on and bring joy back into the classroom. Examples: Build relationships with students! Know their names, celebrate successes as well as negative feelings. Encouragement and Goal-Setting. Teachable moments. SEL. Social Justice and Discussions over controversial topics. 
  5. Learning by Doing – Having students sit for a whole class period while the teacher lectures only increases disdain for school and boredom. Get kids up and moving to not only increase blood flow, but also to increase executive functioning. Examples: Exercise or brain breaks, Drama and Kinesthetic while learning concepts and topics. Hands-on activities, Stations.
  6. Metacognitive Strategies – Around the age of 11 or 12 students move into “formal operations” (Piaget) and start thinking about their thinking. Introducing mindsets, strategies, and critical thinking skills help students move beyond concrete learning to more abstract and are better able to form own opinions and challenge others. Examples: Inquiry Learning. Design Thinking, Evaluation and Analyzation of sources or views. Think Alouds. Heuristics. Goal-Setting.
  7. Expressive Arts – Robust creativity and artistic development occurs between the ages of 5-18, but during adolescence, students get fewer experiences in the arts, drama, music, etc. During this time, expressive arts allows middle school and high school students the opportunity to express thoughts and emotions in thoughtful and socially appropriate ways. Examples: Creative Writing, Visual Design and Art Classes, Choice to Demonstrate learning through drama and dance. Integrate video, gaming, and photography into learning. Include music to enhance learning.  
  8. Real-World Experiences – Provide students learning that not only connects to their life but also demands them to plan, think, organize, and make quick decisions mimicking the types of demands they will encounter throughout life. Real-world experiences also include civic life and their contribution to family, community and society. Examples: Volunteering. Apprenticeships. Service Learning. Community-Based Learning. Entrepreneur Learning. 

While not everything is known about the brain, research continues to provide all of us valuable information in which to inform our practices. As late as the 1990’s, many thought the brain stopped growing and full-capacity potential reached by age 10. While we now know this to be untrue, there are many things we currently do that goes against current research. It is time to align our instruction to what we know now and consider the 8 brain-friendly practices mentioned above.

Source:Thomas Armstrong. The Power of the Adolescent Brain. 2016.

Early Childhood Education

Storytelling, songs, role play, and drama

While these strategies are ageless, they may be especially appropriate for PreK and early childhood learners.

Students learn best when they are actively engaged in the learning experience. Your students can deepen their understanding of a topic by interacting with others and sharing their ideas. Storytelling, songs, role play and drama are some of the methods that can be used across a range of curriculum areas, including math and science.


Stories help us make sense of our lives. Many traditional stories have been passed down from generation to generation. They were told to us when we were young and explain some of the rules and values of the society that we were born into.

Stories are a very powerful medium in the classroom: they can:

  • be entertaining, exciting and stimulating
  • take us from everyday life into fantasy worlds
  • be challenging
  • stimulate thinking about new ideas
  • help explore feelings
  • help to think through problems in a context that is detached from reality and therefore less threatening

When you tell stories, be sure to make eye contact with students. They will enjoy it if you use different voices for different characters and vary the volume and tone of your voice by whispering or shouting at appropriate times, for example. Practice the key events of the story so that you can tell it orally, without a book, in your own words. You can bring in props such as objects or clothes to bring the story to life in the classroom. When you introduce a story, be sure to explain its purpose and alert students to what they might learn. You may need to introduce key vocabulary or alert them to the concepts that underpin the story. You may also consider bringing a traditional storyteller into school, but remember to ensure that what is to be learnt is clear to both the storyteller and the students.

Storytelling can prompt a number of student activities beyond listening. Students can be asked to note down all the colors mentioned in the story, draw pictures, recall key events, generate dialogue or change the ending. They can be divided into groups and given pictures or props to retell the story from another perspective. By analyzing a story, students can be asked to identify fact from fiction, debate scientific explanations for phenomena or solve mathematical problems.

Asking the students to devise their own stories is a very powerful tool. If you give them structure, content and language to work within, the students can tell their own stories, even about quite difficult ideas in maths and science. In effect, they are playing with ideas, exploring meaning and making the abstract understandable through the metaphor of their stories.


The use of songs and music in the classroom may allow different students to contribute, succeed and excel. Singing together has a bonding effect and can help to make all students feel included because individual performance is not in focus. The rhyme and rhythm in songs make them easy to remember and helps language and speech development.

You may not be a confident singer yourself, but you are sure to have good singers in the class that you can call on to help you. You can use movement and gestures to enliven the song and help to convey meaning. You can use songs you know and change the words to fit your purpose. Songs are also a useful way to memorize and retain information – even formulas and lists can be put into a song or poem format. Your students might be quite inventive at generating songs or chants for revision purposes.

Role play

Role play is when students have a role to play and, during a small scenario, they speak and act in that role, adopting the behaviors and motives of the character they are playing. No script is provided, but it is important that students are given enough information by the teacher to be able to assume the role. The students enacting the roles should also be encouraged to express their thoughts and feelings spontaneously.

Role play has a number of advantages, because it:

  • explores real-life situations to develop understandings of other people’s feelings
  • promotes development of decision making skills
  • actively engages students in learning and enables all students to make a contribution
  • promotes a higher level of thinking.

Role play can help younger students develop confidence to speak in different social situations, for example, pretending to shop in a store, provide tourists with directions to a local monument or purchase a ticket. You can set up simple scenes with a few props and signs, such as ‘Café’, ‘Doctor’s Office’ or ‘Garage’. Ask your students, ‘Who works here?’, ‘What do they say?’ and ‘What do we ask them?’, and encourage them to interact in role these areas, observing their language use.

Role play can develop older students’ life skills. For example, in class, you may be exploring how to resolve conflict. Rather than use an actual incident from your school or your community, you can describe a similar but detached scenario that exposes the same issues. Assign students to roles or ask them to choose one for themselves. You may give them planning time or just ask them to role play immediately. The role play can be performed to the class, or students could work in small groups so that no group is being watched. Note that the purpose of this activity is the experience of role playing and what it exposes; you are not looking for polished performances or Bollywood actor awards.

It is also possible to use role play in science and math. Students can model the behaviors of atoms, taking on characteristics of particles in their interactions with each other or changing their behaviors to show the impact of heat or light. In math, students can role play angles and shapes to discover their qualities and combinations.


Using drama in the classroom is a good strategy to motivate most students. Drama develops skills and confidence, and can also be used to assess what your students understand about a topic. A drama about students’ understanding of how the brain works could use pretend telephones to show how messages go from the brain to the ears, eyes, nose, hands and mouth, and back again. Or a short, fun drama on the consequences of forgetting how to subtract numbers could fix the correct methods in young students’ minds.

Drama often builds towards a performance to the rest of the class, the school or to the parents and the local community. This goal will give students something to work towards and motivate them. The whole class should be involved in the creative process of producing a drama. It is important that differences in confidence levels are considered. Not everyone has to be an actor; students can contribute in other ways (organizing, costumes, props, stage hands) that may relate more closely to their talents and personality.

It is important to consider why you are using drama to help your students learn. Is it to develop language (e.g. asking and answering questions), subject knowledge (e.g. environmental impact of mining), or to build specific skills (e.g. team work)? Be careful not to let the learning purpose of drama, be lost in the goal of the performance.


Playful Learning

Playful learning, also referred to as learning through play, is an approach that uses children’s play to support discovery learning and problem-solving. Integrating both free play and guided play into early learning settings promotes children’s healthy, holistic development and helps build a strong foundation for academic success.

Children are naturally curious. They explore their surroundings to learn about how the world works. By capitalizing on this, playful learning promotes development and learning, relying on children’s play to drive discovery and problem-solving.

Practitioners should contextualize and adapt playful learning methods so that they are locally appropriate. Such adaptations could include:

1. Incorporating local songs and games into group activities;

2. Linking imaginary play to activities that are valued in the community, including local livelihoods such as farming, fishing, and shop keeping;

3. Creating props, toys, and imaginary scenarios that are familiar to children; and

4. Making routine activities or chores more playful by singing songs, playing pretend, etc.

(Center for Education Innovations)


Active Learning. Provided by: Vanderbilt University. Located at BY-NC: Attribution-NonCommercial

Center for Education Innovations, (n.d.) Playful Learning, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

OECx: TESS101x Enhancing teacher education through OER: Tess-India. (2015).  Week 2, TESS India Key Resources. (CC BY SA)

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