Active Learning

Illustration of layers of mathematical equations written on a chalkboard. The topmost layer is glowing white and only barely legible

We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself. —Lloyd Alexander, author

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  1. Define active learning
  2. Explain the value of hands-on, interactive learning
  3. Identify resources for applying active learning strategies to your studies, both in and out of the classroom

Megan is currently taking two classes: geology and American literature. In her geology class, the instructor lectures for the full class time and gives reading assignments. In Megan’s literature class, however, the instructor relies on class discussions, small group discussions, and occasionally even review games. Megan enjoys her literature class, but she struggles to feel engaged and interested in geology.

What strategies can Megan use to stay motivated and involved in both of her courses?

Active Learning in Class

Think about the college classes you’ve taken so far. Like Megan, you may feel like it’s a mixed bag: you probably enjoyed the courses with a variety of teaching styles and learning activities the most. Even if you’re a quieter, more reserved student who dislikes lots of group discussions, you probably prefer to have some class projects or writing assignments rather than lectures alone. Group projects, discussions, and writing are examples of active learning, because they involve doing something. Active learning happens when students participate in their education through activities that enhance learning. Those activities may involve just thinking about what you’re learning. Active learning can take place both in and out of the classroom. The following are examples of activities that can facilitate active engagement in the classroom.

  • Class discussions: Class discussions can help students stay focused because they feature different voices besides that of the instructor. Students can also hear one another’s questions and comments and learn from one another. Such discussions may involve the entire class, or the instructor may organize smaller groups, giving quieter students a greater chance to talk. Another method is to create online discussion boards so that students have more time to develop their ideas and comments and keep the conversation going.
  • Writing assignments: Instructors may ask students to write short reaction papers or journal entries about lessons or reading assignments. Such assignments can help students review or reflect on what they just learned to help them understand and remember the material, and also provide a means of communicating questions and concerns to their instructors.
  • Student-led teaching: Many instructors believe that a true test of whether students understand concepts is being able to teach the material to others. For that reason, instructors will sometimes have students work in groups and research a topic or review assigned readings, and then prepare a minipresentation and teach it to the rest of the class. This activity can help students feel more accountable for their learning and work harder, since classmates will be relying on them.
Photo of a group of students sitting in a circle on a lawn outside of a campus building, while other students stream around them

Group discussions are examples of active learning that encourage students to participate in their education.

Active Learning on Your Own

Many instructors conduct their classes mainly through lectures. The lecture remains the most pervasive teaching format across the field of higher education. One reason is that the lecture is an efficient way for the instructor to control the content, organization, and pace of a presentation, particularly in a large group. However, there are drawbacks to this “information-transfer” approach, where the instructor does all the talking and the students quietly listen: student have a hard time paying attention from start to finish; the mind wanders. Also, current cognitive science research shows that adult learners need an opportunity to practice newfound skills and newly introduced content. Lectures can set the stage for that interaction or practice, but lectures alone don’t foster student mastery. While instructors typically speak 100–200 words per minute, students hear only 50–100 of them. Moreover, studies show that students retain 70 percent of what they hear during the first ten minutes of class and only 20 percent of what they hear during the last ten minutes of class.[1]

Thus it is especially important for students in lecture-based courses to engage in active learning outside of the classroom. But it’s also true for other kinds of college courses—including the ones that have active learning opportunities in class. Why? Because college students spend more time working (and learning) independently and less time in the classroom with the instructor and peers. Also, much of one’s coursework consists of reading and writing assignments. How can these learning activities be active? The following are very effective strategies to help you be more engaged with, and get more out of, the learning you do outside the classroom:

  • Write in your books: You can underline and circle key terms, or write questions and comments in the margins of their books. The writing serves as a visual aid for studying and makes it easier for you to remember what you’ve read or what you’d like to discuss in class. If you are borrowing a book or want to keep it unmarked so you can resell it later, try writing key words and notes on Post-its and sticking them on the relevant pages.
  • Annotate a text: Annotations typically mean writing a brief summary of a text and recording the works-cited information (title, author, publisher, etc.). This is a great way to “digest” and evaluate the sources you’re collecting for a research paper, but it’s also invaluable for shorter assignments and texts, since it requires you to actively think and write about what you read. The activity, below, will give you practice annotating texts.
  • Create mind maps: Mind maps are effective visuals tools for students, as they highlight the main points of readings or lessons. Think of a mind map as an outline with more graphics than words. For example, if a student were reading an article about America’s First Ladies, she might write, “First Ladies” in a large circle in the center of a piece of paper. Connected to the middle circle would be lines or arrows leading to smaller circles with visual representations of the women discussed in the article. Then, these circles might branch out to even smaller circles containing the attributes of each of these women.

The following video discusses the process of creating mind maps further and shows how they can be a helpful strategy for active engagement:

In addition to the strategies described above, the following are additional ways to engage in active reading and learning:

  • Work when you are fully awake, and give yourself enough time to read a text more than once.  
  • Read with a pen or highlighter in hand, and underline or highlight significant ideas as you read.
  • Interact with the ideas in the margins (summarize ideas; ask questions; paraphrase difficult sentences; make personal connections; answer questions asked earlier; challenge the author; etc.).
  • As you read, keep the following in mind :
    • What is the CONTEXT in which this text was written? (This writing contributes to what topic, discussion, or controversy?  Context is bigger than this one written text.)
    • Who is the intended AUDIENCE? (There’s often more than one intended audience.)
    • What is the author’s PURPOSE? To entertain? To explain? To persuade?  (There’s usually more than one purpose, and essays almost always have an element of persuasion.)
    • How is this writing ORGANIZED? Compare and contrast? Classification? Chronological?  Cause and effect?  (There’s often more than one organizational form.)
    • What is the author’s TONE? (What are the emotions behind the words? Are there places where the tone changes or shifts?)
    • What TOOLS does the author use to accomplish her/his purpose?  Facts and figures? Direct quotations? Fallacies in logic? Personal experience? Repetition? Sarcasm? Humor? Brevity?
    • What is the author’s THESIS—the main argument or idea, condensed into one or two sentences?
  • Foster an attitude of intellectual curiosity. You might not love all of the writing you’re asked to read and analyze, but you should have something interesting to say about it, even if that “something” is critical.

Activity: Annotating Texts


  • Identify resources for applying active learning strategies to your studies


Watch the following video on annotating texts:

  1. Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Teaching Center. "Active Learning." n.d. Web. 10 Feb 2016.