Incorporating (Good) Active Learning in the Classroom

Incorporating (Good) Active Learning in the Classroom

By: Cindy Wooldridge, Megan Smith, & Yana Weinstein

Our latest digest provided several resources related to active learning. This trend in education has gotten a lot of press, but there has also been considerable push-back. Is active learning one of a number of education fads or is there evidence to support its effectiveness? In today’s blog we attempt to break down the various factors that may contribute to the effectiveness of active learning, and offer useful tips for incorporating active learning in the classroom.

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First, it is important to note that active learning does not refer to any one particular thing. Instead, it refers to any number of activities through which students participate in the learning process instead of passively listening to or watching transmitted information. These activities might include discussion, problem-solving, answering questions, reading, or writing. In studies examining active learning, these activities are usually compared to a condition of pure lecture-based instruction where students are taught via lecture with none of the above activities included. In some cases, including active learning activities can improve learning above pure lecturing or passive studying. However, not all “active” activities promote learning. Here are some factors that can make studying more active while promoting learning:

  • Attention: One of the primary ways in which active learning may promote better retention is through attention (1). If students are actively working with material, they are more likely to be focused and paying attention to that information. In order for any information to be committed to memory, students must first attend to it and therefore increased attentiveness promotes increased retention.

  • Dual Coding: Dual coding is the process of combining verbal materials with visual materials. Previously, we discussed how students can use dual coding to aid their studying. Practice with multiple formats or representing information can promote learning, although it is important to avoid cognitive overload, which can result from the presentation of irrelevant multimedia (2).

  • Retrieval Practice: Because many of the activities involve students using the information they have studied, these activities necessarily require students to retrieve relevant information. Through this process of retrieval, students gain all of the benefits of retrieval practice that we have outlined previously. But, be careful! If students do not yet know the material well enough to retrieve it at all, then this form of active learning is not likely to help in the classroom. Quizzing, or asking students to bring information to mind, should be accompanied by instruction from the teacher.

  • Elaboration: Elaboration can mean a lot of different things, and there is debate as to whether elaboration in general produces learning (3). But one form of elaboration that has a fair amount of evidence supporting its effectiveness is elaborative interrogation. During elaborative interrogation, students ask themselves questions about how and why things work, and then they produce the answers to their own questions.

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However, as we mentioned before, not all learning activities automatically improve learning just by virtue of being “active”. In fact, some “active” activities can actually hurt learning. For example, decades of research have examined discovery learning, where students are free to learn on their own or in groups of other students with very little guidance from instructors (4). While students can certainly be very active participants during activities like these, research shows that discovery learning is not the best method for producing learning in the classroom. Instead, guided discovery – where the students receive structure and guidance from their teachers – produces more learning than the pure discovery methods, even though students might be more “active” during pure discovery than they are in the guided discovery.  The take-away message is that while active learning can sometimes promote knowledge acquisition, the most “active” activity does not always produce the most learning. Active learning on the students’ part should not replace active teaching. The research suggests that students need some guidance, and in some cases this may include lectures or lessons that are less overtly active for the students.

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Finally, we want to leave instructors with some concrete tips for incorporating active learning into their classrooms. First, though, analyze your class as it currently stands. Even a class that is primarily lecture-based probably also contains active learning components. Do you ask questions during lectures? Do you have students participate in group work? Do you quiz your students or have them write papers? All of those activities are “active”. Given that you are already probably incorporating active learning in the classroom, the following are simply ideas for incorporating more.

  1. Increase attentiveness by including activities that will be enjoyable to students. You can break up a lecture by showing occasional videos, having a quick think-pair-share activity, or having students write a minute-paper. Note that an engaging lecture without these additional elements can increase attention in and of itself –  so incorporating good presentation skills (e.g., eye contact, enthusiasm, humor when appropriate, etc.) will also increase attention and therefore retention.

  2. Ask students to take information represented in one format and represent it in another format. For example, students might draw a diagram or a timeline to represent information that they previously read about in a book or heard about during a lesson.

  3. Ask questions throughout class and have students jot down their answers in the margin of their notes so that everyone is practicing retrieval. Consider including daily quizzes over the most important topics, or weekly low-stakes quizzes in your lectures. Here we have a list of resources showing how other instructors incorporate retrieval practice in their classrooms.

  4. Get students to form groups and ask each other questions about how and why things work, and how different concepts work together. Then, the group should work together to find the answers. If students need help, the teacher should be available to answer questions or correct misconceptions.

  5. Always ask yourself whether students know and understand enough of the material to engage in the activity that you have planned. Make sure active learning is paired with active teaching, even if that means the students aren’t as active in the classroom for a while.


(1) Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the literature. Journal of Engineering Education, 93, 223-231.

(2) Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38, 43-52. 

(3) Smith, M. A. (2014). The process of elaboration and implications for retrieval processes. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 76(5-B)(E). Link to Dissertation Abstract

(4) Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist, 59, 14-19.