November 15, 2022

Active Learning

Written by Noah Ringler, PFF Fellow and Doctoral Student, Psychology. Noah’s research focuses on mindfulness, moral development and wisdom.

Active Learning: Why is it worth learning about?

Ample research suggests that active learning methods often increase student interest in a topic and enhance students’ ability to absorb and retain information (Prince, 2004). However, it isn’t always clear what active learning is and how it distinguishes itself from traditional learning methods. The purpose of this blog is to define active learning and provide sample activities for how to implement active learning in your classroom.

What is Active Learning?

Active learning is defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. Put another way, active learning requires students to meaningfully think about what they are doing. While homework indeed asks students to meaningfully engage with the material, active learning refers to in-class learning experiences.

Active learning is different from traditional teaching techniques, such as lectures, that incentivize passively engaging with the material at the surface level (Prince, 2004) and tend to foster greater student engagement and comprehension (Prince, 2004).

Blending Active Learning in Your Lecture
Active learning is an umbrella term that can encapsulate a wide range of learning experiences. It is critical to understand that lecturing and active learning can, and should, complement one another in the classroom. Some active learning activities can last a whole class period while others may be no more than 5 minutes, this flexibility allows you to easily implement active learning into your lectures without much difficulty. Try breaking up your hour-long lectures into 15-minute sections, then adding small active learning activities between the sections to help foster greater student engagement and comprehension.

Sample Active Learning Activities to Blend into Lecture (2-5 minutes)

  • Think-Pair Share: Give students approximately 30 seconds to 1 minute to think about a question. Afterward, students will talk to one of their classmates about their answers and then they will share with the class. Think-pair-share gives each student the opportunity to actively engage with the material presented.
  • Short-Reflections: Students are given a brief period of to think about their answer to a question before sharing with the class. You can ask them to share out loud or anonymously on an online whiteboard, such as

20+ Minute Active Learning Activities

  • Jigsaw: The Jigsaw learning technique is a form of cooperative learning. The class is split into 5-6 different groups. A larger problem/topic is broken into 5 distinct segments with each group being asked to learn one piece of it. After learning about that segment, students are asked to switch groups and teach other students about what they learned.
  • Role-Play: Students are given a role and asked to act out a given situation. By acting out these real-life situations, students become more engaged with the material and utilize unique perspective taking strategies and critical thinking skills.
  • Debates: Is there a controversial topic in your subject area? Split your students in half, and have each group adopt a particular stance on the issue. Students will be given ample time to prepare outside of class before presenting to the class

Conclusion & Additional Resources

I would argue that incorporating active learning into your classroom is a necessity. Clearly understanding what active learning is and where/how you can incorporate it into your classroom will greatly enhance student learning and enjoyment in the classroom. Above are just a few options for active learning activities. If you would like to look at a more expansive list, see Iowa State University’s Center for Excellence in Learning & Teaching 226 Active Learning Techniques handout.


Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of engineering education93(3), 223-231.