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Active Learning

Active learning refers to a wide variety of tasks that ultimately place the responsibility for learning back on the shoulders of the students. Heavily supported by both theory and research evidence, the key to Active Learning is "Engagement." To enhance learning and make it more motivational and meaningful to students, we are challenged as college teachers to do more than merely lecture. We focus more on what the students do, and what we want them to learn, and less on us as teachers. The idea is to utilize classroom strategies that first meet curricular needs, but then also engage more of the student than merely their writing hand and their eyes and ears.

There is an old adage that says that we remember 30% of what we hear, 40% of what we see, 50% of what we say, 60% of what we do, and 90% of what we see, hear, say and do. While none of these numbers are scientifically based, this adage perfectly describes active learning. The more involved students are in the learning process, the more they are likely to remember and understand the material.

Active learning is often used in conjunction with collaborative/cooperative learning or teaming. By utilizing small groups or teams, you can increase the amount of active involvement in your classroom. Utilizing tools such as the Think-Pair-Share or group consensus, students can be quickly involved with only minimal overhead in your classroom. For example, if using a worked example in your lecture, you can start a problem and ask the students to finish it. Ask the students to individually think about how they would solve the problem for 1 minute, then have them turn to their neighbor and solve the problem in 3 minutes. Then, as the instructor, ask for one or two teams to volunteer the steps they used to complete the example. Without adding much additional time to the process, you've now had students take control of their own learning while still giving them guidance to the solution.


  • Michael, J. 2006. Where's the evidence that active learning works? Advances in Physiology Education, 30, 159-167.
  • Prince, M. 2004. Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.
  • Silberman, M. L. (2005). 101 Ways to Make Training Active (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer. (Available to Purdue users electronically through the library system)
  • Smith, K. et al. 2005. Pedagogies of engagement: Classroom-based practices. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1), 87-101.


Words of Wisdom

  • Students may resist at first, fearful of having to do more than just show up and take notes, but they will come around quickly.
  • There are numerous examples on the Internet of activities that utilize active learning as a vehicle for student learning. Examples include: classroom discussions, one-minute papers and classroom bingo.
  • Think-pair-share (T.P.S.) is an excellent mechanism to engage students in discussions and help them learn from each other. T.P.S. is highly adaptable. It can be used in a class of 10 or in a class of 410, and can take anywhere from 2 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the task you give the students.