Center for Teaching and Learning

Active Learning: What and Why?

If you are interested in talking about active learning and how to incorporate it into your classroom, please reach out to us at! We’d love to help you consider how to do so!

We know every class is unique, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for how to use active learning. Below are some general guidelines and resources, but please let us know if you would like to chat to discuss how to customize active learning for your course!

What is "active learning" anyway?

"Active learning" is a general term that describes any time that students get to learn something by performing an activity in class- such as answering a poll question, think-pair-sharing, working in small groups on a worksheet, role playing as fictional character, simulating how to respond to a historical crisis, creating a concept map to show how various ideas connect, etc.

At its best, active learning inspires student learning by asking them to apply, discuss, and reflect upon the course material.

Active learning is typically defined in comparison to “passive learning” experiences, in which students learn by listening to, watching, or reading a lesson.

Active and passive learning experiences are both crucial for student learning.

Why should a course include active learning?

The two strongest reasons to incorporate active learning into a course are:

  • Students who are taught in classes that include active learning learn more than students who are taught by traditional lecture alone. Meta-analyses reviewing hundreds of publications demonstrate that students taught with active learning outperform students taught by traditional lecture alone regardless of the discipline, size of the classroom, level of the course (Freeman, et al., 2014; Wieman, 2014; Kozanitis and Nenciovici, 2022).
Figure 1: Students Fail Less and Learn More through Active Learning (adapted from Wieman, 2014).Figure 1: Students Fail Less and Learn More through Active Learning (adapted from Wieman, 2014).
  • Active learning reduces performance gaps between student groups (e.g., between male and female students, between historically under-represented minority (“URM”) students and non-URM students, between first-generation students and continuing-generation students, etc. (Ballen et al., 2017; Eddy & Hogan, 2014).
Figure 2: Active learning reduces performance gaps between groups of students.Figure 2: Active learning reduces performance gaps between groups of students. Panel (A) is adapted from Ballen, et al., 2017. Panel (B) is adapted from Eddy & Hogan, 2014. Panel (A) and illustrates URM and non-URM academic performance in traditional vs active learning courses. Panel (B) illustrates how all students learn more in courses with active learning, and that active learning reduces the performance gap between first-generation and continuing-generation students.

Active learning is an inclusive and equitable pedagogy that fosters deeper and more student learning than traditional lecture alone. As described in the New York Times, “Research comparing the two methods [active learning and traditional lecture] has consistently found that students overall perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families” (Annie Murphy Paul, 2015).

How often should a class session include active learning?

While every class is different, and there’s no single perfect number for how much active learning yields the best results, there are a couple rules of thumb to keep in mind:

  • Try to include at least 2-3 activities per class; and/or
  • Try to aim to spend 40-60% of class time on active learning exercises.

What are some examples of active learning?

What is the easiest way to start incorporating active learning into my class?

  • One of the easiest ways to incorporate active learning is to add 1-3 multiple choice “anonymous poll” questions into each class session.
  • Using Echo360 to ask your students polling questions allows you to give students points for participating during in-class activities, incentivizing student attendance and engagement. Click here for guidance on how to set up anonymous polling using Echo360.
  • Generally speaking, poll questions can be designed as:
    • “Check up” questions to see if students are following along, in which you ask them a question they should be able to answer correctly if they understand the skill or concept you were just lecturing about, or 
    • Extension (or prediction) questions in which you ask them to tackle a concept or skill you haven’t yet taught them.
Recent evidence indicates that including extension questions in which students are asked to construct their understanding beyond what they’ve been taught is a particularly effective application of active learning (Menekse et al., 2013; Chi et al., 2014; Wiggins et al., 2017; Smith G, 2020.)

Other Materials


  • Freeman S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & 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.
  • Wieman. (2014). Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - PNAS, 111(23), 8319–8320.
  • Kozanitis, A., Nenciovici, L. Effect of active learning versus traditional lecturing on the learning achievement of college students in humanities and social sciences: a meta-analysis. High Educ (2022).
  • Ballen, Wieman, C., Salehi, S., Searle, J. B., & Zamudio, K. R. (2017). Enhancing Diversity in Undergraduate Science: Self-Efficacy Drives Performance Gains with Active Learning. CBE Life Sciences Education, 16(4), ar56.
  • Eddy, S. L. & Hogan, K. A. (2014). Getting under the hood: how and for whom does increasing course structure work? CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453–468.
  • Paul, Annie Murphy. (2015). Are College Lectures Unfair? New York Times.
  • Menekse, Stump, G. S., Krause, S., & Chi, M. T. H. (2013). Differentiated Overt Learning Activities for Effective Instruction in Engineering Classrooms. Journal of Engineering Education (Washington, D.C.), 102(3), 346–374.
  • Chi, & Wylie, R. (2014). The ICAP Framework: Linking Cognitive Engagement to Active Learning Outcomes. Educational Psychologist, 49(4), 219–243.
  • Wiggins, Eddy, S. L., Grunspan, D. Z., & Crowe, A. J. (2017). The ICAP Active Learning Framework Predicts the Learning Gains Observed in Intensely Active Classroom Experiences. AERA Open, 3(2), 233285841770856.