What Is Active Learning?

The More We Do, The More We Learn

“Active learning” refers to a wide range of teaching and learning practices that ask students to do something with the course ideas and material. Active learning can range from brief exercises interspersed across a lecture to “flipped” learning models in which course material is introduced outside the classroom (such as videos, annotated screencasts, or readings) and students spend all of class time on meaningful application and investigation of the content.

Active learning revolves around students having some kind of experience: we have some kind of concrete Experience, about which we Reflect and make some new Conceptual understanding, then Act upon that new understanding.  Kolb’s classic (1984, 2014) model organizes the experiential learning process quite cleanly:


Not surprisingly, common forms of active learning can be mapped directly to Kolb’s cycle (BYU Faculty Center, 2003):


What’s the evidence?

A wide range of learning science research demonstrates that active learning is more efficient and can reveal students’ misconceptions or overestimation of their understandings and abilities (Dunning, 2011). In challenging students to confront the limitations of their knowledge, review content in a targeted way, and be open to guidance from the instructor, active learning results in deeper learning for more students (Miller et al., 2013; Knight & Wood, 2005).

Meta-analyses of research studies comparing active learning to strictly “passive” (i.e., non-interactive lecture) learning environments show significant enhancements in learning, including final exam scores half a letter grade higher and a 45% decrease in failure rates in active STEM courses (Freeman et al., 2014).


  • If you are looking for a quick, effective activity for a lecture course, consider asking students to pair up and compare their notes at the end of a class period to identify the three most important concepts. This process engages students in reviewing (and potentially supplementing) their notes, discussing the concepts, and debating their relative importance, as well as giving students a natural moment to ask one another questions about the lecture. Ask pairs to write the three concepts on an index card and turn it in, then quickly flip through the responses. If an important concept isn’t widely recognized, circle back to that concept for a few minutes at the beginning of the next class.
  • Click here to examine several other forms of practical active learning formats



Brigham Young University Faculty Center. (2003). Activities to enhance student learning based on Kolb’s learning dimensions. Focus on Faculty, 14(1), 3.

DeBacker, T. K., & Crowson, H. M. (2009). The influence of need for closure on learning and teachingEducational Psychology Review, 21(4), 303-323.

Dunning, D. (2011). The Dunning–Kruger effect: On being ignorant of one’s own ignorance. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 247-296. Ithaca, NY: Academic Press.

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, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Fonseca, B. A., & Chi, M. T. (2011). Instruction based on self-explanation. Handbook of research on learning and instruction, 296-321.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112.

Knight, J. K., & Wood, W. B. (2005). Teaching more by lecturing less. Cell Biology Education, 4(4), 298-310.

Kolb, D.A. (2014). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, 2nd Ed. New York, NY: Pearson.

Miller, C. J., McNear, J., & Metz, M. J. (2013). A comparison of traditional and engaging lecture methods in a large, professional-level course. Advances in Physiology Education, 37(4), 347-355.

Roschelle, J. (1992). Learning by collaborating: Convergent conceptual change. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2(3), 235-276.