Active learning

Active learning is an umbrella term for learning and teaching methods which put the student in charge of their own learning through meaningful activities. They think about and apply what they are learning, in a deliberate contrast to passive learning.

Research has shown that audience attention in lectures begins to wane every 10-20 minutes. To counter this drop-off in concentration, Jess Gifkins, a Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, suggests:

"Use a different approach to learning each 15 minutes (which means changing the way students are engaged, rather than changing topics). Active learning promotes recall and deeper understanding of material, as students are engaging with the content rather than simply listening to it."

"The education literature commonly quotes studies showing that when material is delivered using a single method (i.e. students are passively listening) their concentration limit is between 10 and 20 minutes, a small fraction of a lecture. Passively listening to a lecture can be useful at promoting learning at the lower end of a taxonomy of learning such as – to ‘remember’ and ‘understand’ – but is not as good at promoting higher-level skills like ‘apply’, ‘analyse’ and ‘evaluate’."
Jess Gifkins

In addition, active learning can be a good way of preparing students for future employment. By integrating activities such as case studies and problem based learning scenarios into your teaching, it provides the opportunity for students to practice skills which are essential for the workplace.

We have listed some active learning approaches you can try – most can be adapted for both large lecture theatres and small group sessions. They are split roughly into the time involved in implementation, from those you can try in your next lecture with very little preparation, to those which may take a little more planning.


Easy to implement

Minute paper

Towards the end of a teaching session ask students to consider what is the most important thing they learnt today, and which thing is the least clear. They can submit these either on pieces of paper or electronically using an audience participation tool. During the next session emphasise the issues students found less clear. This provides students with the opportunity to actively think about what they have learned, as well as providing feedback about areas that may need covering differently.

Chain notes

Write one question about the topic on the outside of an envelope. Ask students to pass it around the room and each write a response and put it in the envelope. Go through the student responses to look for patterns and discuss these with the students. This can help to highlight any misunderstandings, as well as enhance learning by allowing students to discuss the responses. The anonymous nature of the task encourages more open feedback and participation. This can also be done electronically using an audience participation tool.

Directed paraphrasing

Ask students to write in layman's terms what they have just learnt. You could ask them to direct it to a specific audience, for example, to a child, or to someone who is first visiting the country. Being able to explain concepts to others helps to embed learning.

Application cards

Ask students to write down at least one real-world implementation for a theory or principle they have just learned. This will help to develop skills to transfer their learning. Pick out a broad range of examples and present them to the group.


Either electronically or by a show of hands, ask students to vote on what they perceive to be the best answer to a question, or the best result of a scenario. Then allow some time for them to discuss their thoughts with their peers, and to argue the case for their answer. This can be done in groups or as a whole class. Ask them to vote again to see if their opinions have changed.

The ideas above can all be done very simply using paper, or can be set up in an audience participation tool.


A little preparation

Collaborative and cooperative learning

This is the most common form of active learning, involving group or team work of some kind. Collaborative learning is where the students work together for shared outcomes and are assessed as a group, whereas cooperative learning refers to group work where a common goal is produced, but students are assessed individually. It is easy to apply to any discipline; provides excellent real-world experience in transferable skills for students; and students learn together by sharing strengths.

Group work can be difficult in practice, particularly if students are not given advice beforehand (as in any team, leadership roles and workload issues tend to cause friction); and overarching group marks can cause dissatisfaction. To counter this, include an element of peer marking or student self-assessment of their own contribution. It is important to establish roles and responsibilities (or help students to do so), with clear guidance on what is expected. Don’t over-use group work, but vary it with other teaching methods.


Pose a question or problem, and give students a couple of minutes to think individually about their ideas or answers. Then ask them to pair up with someone to discuss their thinking for a further few minutes. Finally ask the pairs to share their ideas with the whole group. Ask questions to allow students to elaborate on their thinking.

Fish bowl

This is a good approach for discussing dilemmas or debates. Some of the students sit in an inner circle (the fish bowl) and the others are around the edge observing the discussion. Allow the students in the inner circle a little time to prepare ideas and questions in advance. You should brief the students who are observing about what they should be listening for. The idea is that the participants in the inner circle are more likely to get involved than they would if it was a large group discussion, and the students observing learn from their peers.

Student-generated test questions

Ask students to brainstorm possible exam questions and model answers on a given topic. Evaluation the questions and use them as prompts for discussion. This will give students the opportunity to evaluation the course topics and reflect on their understanding.


Longer term

Games, simulations and playful learning

Often overlapping with problem-based learning, games and playful experiences can take many forms but have one aspect in common: the student is allowed to ‘fail’ without any negative effect. Failure (and repeated attempts) allow students to learn from their mistakes in a non-pressured environment. Examples include:

Choose your own path

Begin with a case study of scenario and ask the students to make a choice as to what they would do next. Depending on their choices, they will then be presented with another scenario. This can continue through several stages and could be done in class or online.

Board games

Dr Cas Kramer from the department of genetics developed The Mutation Game. This is a game set on an alien planet and shows evolution over a short period of time.


Create a bingo card with terms related to the subject, and then ask students questions and they have to mark the answer on their cards. You could also ask students to develop their own bingo cards and questions and ask their peers to play to test the concept.

Puzzles and quizzes

Undergraduate students on the BA Archaeology degree take The Archaeology Challenge as part of their study. They are sent two puzzles each week based on the work they are doing in their course books. The puzzles pick up key concepts and send the students off into real resources or data sets to apply their skills and find the answers. They can also compete against each other to move up the 'leader board'.

Making and modelling

Physical manipulation of an object can help students to articulate their ideas in a creative way. Using play dough or Lego, for example, to construct models based on the concepts they are learning can help students reflect and engage in different ways.

Enquiry-based learning / problem-based learning

Problem-based (or Enquiry/Inquiry-based) learning reverses the ‘traditional’ teaching approach: students are provided with a problem to solve, and then have to work out (usually in groups) which learning and research they need to engage with to solve the problem: this creates individual learning paths, with each group and student learning independently. The ‘teacher’ becomes a facilitator, creating opportunities for students to access the learning they need, and guiding them gently to the solution.

Role playing

A typical role playing exercise would see students taking on the role of a character in a particular situation: encouraging them to solve problems using approaches and skills relevant to that situation. They might, for example, play the role of an industrial engineer investigating structural damage; a lawyer defending a client; or a design team pitching to a funding body. Role playing can range from metaphorical (participants use their imagination) to almost-real (the room/environment are set up as simulations), and often extends beyond the actual role play itself: with other students observing as it happens; and various debriefing or reflective activities afterwards to analyse what went on.

Active Learning in Physics, Astronomy and Engineering with NASA’s General Mission Analysis Tool, from the Journal of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.


References and further reading

Active Learning Strategies, Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning

Strategies for Making Large Lectures More Interactive, Jess Gifkins

Active Learning, Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation

Classroom Assessment Techniques, George Washington University Teaching and Learning Center

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