Engaging Students with Active Learning

“Active learning” is a general description for teaching strategies or styles that require students to participate in some way in class. While forms of interaction—such as discussion, dialogue, debate, and group work—are common in small classes, they are less frequently employed in large lecture courses, often simply for logistical reasons.

But to fully engage students in the classroom and compel them to reflect on and apply concepts or information being presented, students need to participate actively in the learning process. Incorporating active learning is for any instructor who wants to:

  • motivate students
  • help students acquire deeper learning
  • engage students and keep them interested
  • usefully energize a long class period

Challenges | Ways to Incorporate | Resources

Some Challenges to Active Learning

As noted above, active learning is a way to deeply engage students in their own learning. But there are some challenges to incorporating it successfully.

First, many students, especially in large lecture classes, are not used to actively participating in class. They may resist  the idea of active learning and may even feel as if they aren’t “learning” because they aren’t copying down notes. One way to respond to this reaction from students is to make sure you summarize – or better yet, have a student summarize – how the work they did in class connects to previous homework, reading or lecture material.

Second, active learning is more time-consuming than lecturing. If you are wondering how you will fill a 75-minute or longer class period, active learning may help solve that problem. But many instructors feel just the opposite  –  that they have a lot of information to cover and not enough class time in which to cover it. Advocates for active learning, however, suggest that just “covering” materials does not ensure that students learn it. They also suggest that, while active learning may require a large initial time investment, students will have a better understanding of what they learn; learning new information will become an easier and quicker process by the end of the semester so that all the material will eventually be taught.

Ways to Incorporate Active Learning

Especially useful in large lectures (although can be used in all classes):

  • Begin each class with a question and answer period
  • Call on students at the beginning of each class with questions about a previous lecture
  • Elicit questions with technology – email, discussion boards, student blogs – and use them to start class
  • Problem solving – begin class with a tantalizing question, the answer to which unfolds over the lecture with give-and-take among students and instructor
  • Textual exegesis – model and practice how to read a text

The Active Learning Library provides a free and easy to use database of over 40 active learning techniques with suggestions for applying them. It can be filtered according to your goals and interests to help you incorporate diverse learning activities into your teaching.

These are just a few suggestions. To develop your own, consider the following questions:

  1. What are the activities of your discipline (i.e. what do you physically do)?
  2. How can you give students a chance to practice those activities in class?



Bonwell, Charles C. and James A. Eison, Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, 1991.

Frederick, Peter J. “The Lively Lecture – 8 Variations.” College Teaching, Volume 34, Issue 2, 1986.

MacGregor, Jean and James L. Cooper, Karl A. Smith, and Pamela Robinson (eds.), Strategies for Energizing Large Classes: From Small Groups to Learning Communities, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Meyers, Chet and Thomas B. Jones, Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

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