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What Is Active Learning & How to make it work for you?

Not very long ago, students taking notes during a lecture was considered a sign of good learning. In earlier times, due to limited accessibility and availability of knowledge, the best possible way to impart knowledge was through giving lectures in big classrooms. The students used to take copious notes and memorize the information as much as they could. However, in the current times of advancement, educators are shifting their focus from traditional classroom lectures to the active involvement of the learners in the learning process.

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” 

– Benjamin Franklin

As per the dictionary definition, learning means a way to gain knowledge or skill through studying, experiencing, listening or practicing. We have been following the ‘studying’ and ‘listening’ approach to learning for a long time, but now it’s time to ‘experience’ and ‘practice’ the learning as well.

What is active learning?

Active learning refers to any learning strategy in which the student actively participates in the entire learning process, unlike the traditional passive approach. Whether it is a big hall filled with students or a small group of students, the primary goal for the instructor is to make the students learn and retain the knowledge imparted. According to a study, students learn more when they actively engage in the learning process. 

Active learning may take place in the form of group discussions, role-plays, case studies, debates, practical application of the concept, interactive problem-solving sessions, team-based reviews of the subject and so on. Through active participation in the form of discussions, evaluations, and practice, students take more interest in the learning process and hence retain the knowledge of the subject and develop confidence and motivation to learn new skills.

Evolution of Active Learning over Traditional learning

Traditionally, teachers have been following didactic mode of instruction giving theoretical; knowledge-based lectures wherein the students are entirely dependent on the teacher for receiving the knowledge. Few demerits of lecture-based passive learning are: 

  • While the students are busy taking notes of the lectures, they do not understand and analyze the subject matter.
  • In classroom-based learning, only a few students, who engage in asking or responding to questions, benefit.
  • Instructors struggle to draw students’ attention as the learners’ attention starts to wane every 10-20 minutes during the lectures.
  • Even though the students understand the lecture, they fail to retain it for a longer-term.

This way of teaching is now worldwide criticized for being unfairly one-sided and has never really motivated the students to dive deep and get a strong grip on the subject.

On the contrary, active learning in a class allows the students to understand, evaluate, brainstorm, discuss and process their thoughts concerning the topic being discussed. This helps in retaining the new information and subject and also in developing their critical thinking skills.  One should know that using active learning methods in teaching does not ask one to give up lecturing at all. Instead, instructors could make the learning more effective by adding appropriate active learning activities along with the classroom-based lectures. 

For instance, in a passive learning approach, an instructor may tell that work planning is important and that you need to set goals and create tasks and subtasks for those goals. In an active learning mode, the same instructor may ask the learners to jot down their goals and perform the entire exercise then and there.

Another example can be wherein a passive learning model, the instructor explains to the engineering students how to deal with fire technically, while in an active learning mode, the instructor would create a simulated mock drill for firefighting so that the engineers can learn every aspect of firefighting practically.


Benefits of Active Learning

  • Active learning helps the brain to activate cognitive and sensory networks, that helps in storing and processing new information, thus, increasing the independent, critical, and creative thinking.
  • Research says that students involved in active learning have performed better, and their grades have significantly increased over traditional learning methods.
  • Active Learning is a mode where the brain develops by connecting the old information with the new information and evaluating existing opinions, thus increasing students’ investment, motivation, and performance in the subject.
  • Engaging the students in learning through various active learning activities increases their learning ability as it triggers the cognitive, emotional, interpersonal and social skills in them.

Active Learning Strategies

Let’s have a look at some popular active learning strategies that are being used for effective learning.

1. Think-Pair-Share

Think-Pair-Share learning strategy allows the students to use their knowledge and skills to first organize ideas in their minds, and then share them with their peer group. As the name says, first the students themselves ‘Think’ about the given topic for a couple of minutes, ‘Pair’ up with someone else to discuss their ideas, and then ‘Share’ their summarized points with a smaller team, before finally sharing it with the whole group.

Your instructor might facilitate a fair group discussion in this model by 

  • Asking the learners to explain their views through facts, examples or logic
  • listening to the individual’s or group’s response and staying neutral on that
  • Welcoming alternative viewpoints or disagreements

As a student, this mode of active learning can be very beneficial for you if you participate in the process and do not hold back from sharing your thoughts and views. This form of learning will also teach you to listen to other student’s views in a respectful manner even if they are different from yours.

2. Quick write

In this active learning technique, the students are asked to write down their ideas within 5 minutes or so. This way the students think and evaluate their prior knowledge on the topic that is going to be discussed in the session. Also, through this technique, the instructor may assess or grade the students’ write up based on reading homework given to them. Work on your note-making skills to make the best out of this active learning strategy.

3. Turn and Talk

In Turn and Talk strategy, the instructor gives a topic or question to the class and the students are expected to simply discuss it with the person next to them. This way the students can first access their prior knowledge about the topic and then comfortably share their ideas with the other person without having any involvement of the instructor. This eventually helps them to later discuss it with the whole group confidently. For best learning outcome, do your research properly and collate your ideas before sharing them with your partner so that you can remember them and later present it to the entire group.

4. Case-based Problem-Solving Exercise

Here, students are given a case study to work out on their solution, independently or in a group. Through such an exercise, students learn how to apply the learned academic theories to solve real-world problems. This way the students can develop their analytical and logical skills.

5. Debate

In this active learning technique, students are asked to defend one of the viewpoints regarding a problem or a topic through a classroom debate or written notes. This approach also helps the students to develop logical reasoning skills along with enhanced thinking abilities.

6. Polling

Through Polling, the students get to anonymously vote the best explanation to a problem as per their perception, followed by a discussion with their peers on their voted answer and then vote again after the discussion. Through this approach, the instructor can ensure listening to the students’ perspective and accordingly plan the outline of his current and future lecture(s).

7. Individual and Group Quizzes

In this approach, students are asked to complete a given quiz, form small groups and then again asked to take the same quiz and answer it as a group. Both the individual as well as the group response for the quiz are graded by the instructor. Through group discussions, students develop a better understanding of the subject and also get to know multidimensional aspects coming from different members of the group. This method also assures an individual’s accountability because of the dual grading done.

8. Jigsaws

The concept of jigsaw learning style is to make the students work in small groups, with each student reading a categorized bit of information out of the whole material for the given topic and then share that information with the rest of the group. Through this method, the individuals reflect their ideas on the given piece of information and often analyze the given information concerning the main problem being discussed.

9. Partial Outlines/PPTs provided for lecture

Research says that the students develop more understanding and take a keen interest in topics for which partial notes or PowerPoint material is given. This way the students get a chance to explore the topic themselves, which leads to a better understanding and retention on the topic.

10. Posters and Gallery walk

In this active learning approach, a group is given the assignment to create a poster and then display that poster on the wall so that the other groups can also see it. One of the group members, in turn, can explain their thought process behind the poster, while others may view and understand the posters of the other groups.

11. Fishbowl

Through a fishbowl approach, a small group of students engages in a discussion on the given topic, forming an inner circle, while the non-members observe them and take notes, sitting in an outer circle. If the entire class is divided into small groups, then one representative member of each group can be a part of the inner circle.

12. Idea line up

Through Idea Lineup learning style, the teacher creates a heterogeneous group for different perspectives related to the problem asked. The diversity of thinking raises an argumentative approach towards a discussion and leads to more open and creative solutions.

13. Four corners

Four corners technique asks the students to go to the corners of the room wherein each corner is assigned one claim as a response to the problem being discussed. Each student chooses the claim he/ she thinks fits the best and then discusses their ideas and evidence proving the claim, with their peers.

While these are few of the active learning approaches, there are many others used by the educators depending on the learning modules, the strength of the class, the understanding level of the learners and their acceptance for active learning.


Challenges in implementing Active Learning Strategies

Reading about the active learning strategies might have got you all excited about learning. If you are a student, you might be wondering – ‘Well, these strategies sound amazing! I wonder why my teacher doesn’t use them more often.’

There are multiple reasons why teachers have resistance in adapting these active learning strategies. Implementing a new teaching method into the existing classes has its challenges. We can categorize a few prominent barriers for active learning in the existing classrooms into:


Time constraints

  1. The teachers face challenges in planning and preparing for the active learning-based lectures in the given timings.
  2. The active learning-based teachings demand extra classroom hours as compared to the passive learning model.

Operational constraints

  1. To teach using new methods, instructors need a budget, infrastructure, and resources from the academic institutions which sometimes become a challenge.
  2. When the size of the classes is large, the practical implementation of active learning strategies becomes a bit difficult.

Resistance to change

  1. Few instructors who have been using traditional passive learning approaches are not so much interested in following the new teaching methods.
  2. The students might resist and show very little interest in participating in the active learning approach or even deny being a part of group activities.

While these challenges seem huge at first, they can be overcome with time. Good things are never easy, but shifting to better modes of learning is immensely beneficial for the teacher as well as the student. So next, let’s look at some ways to make active learning a success.

How to ensure effective active learning?

To deal with the above challenges, the instructor needs to ensure an effective way to launch and implement an active learning mode of teaching in the curriculum. Below are some of the ways that the instructor can incorporate for effective active learning:

While Planning/ Preparing for the active learning

  • The instructor should keep a note of any active learning technique that is probably already being used. It is always easier and recommended to add on to the existing approach than making a radical change in the teaching methods. 
  • It is always advised to make a plan for the facilitation of active learning for the given topic in terms of the number of students, strategies to use, the time duration, etc. This way the right plan gets created as per the learners’ profile and requirement.
  • The instructor should try to plan out active learning techniques only for important topics that are essential for the effective learning of the target learners. For instance, the instructor must ask questions like what is the most important lesson he/ she wants to give to this class? Or what are the areas the students are not clear about? etc.
  • The instructor must also Identify the content that the students can read and learn outside the class in the form of assignments, homework, or other activities so that he/ she gets more time for executing active learning activities.


When in the classroom

  • Firstly, the instructor should start using active learning techniques as early as possible in the given term. 
  • The instructor must be confident enough to brief the students about active learning and its benefits to them. Teacher’s strong belief in the active learning approach would create trust among the students for this style of learning.
  • The instructor should clearly state the goal every student has to meet through the active learning activity. Besides, they should know the rationale, time duration, the approach, and the peer group before going ahead with the activity. This way, the learners will develop an enthusiasm for this teaching style.
  • The instructor must make sure to brief the students about their role and participation in the active learning and the benefits they will get through this approach.
  • The instructor must start by implementing one simple technique initially. This will make the transition easier for those students who are not prepared to participate in active learning. Strategies like think-pair-share or in-class writing exercises take less time and may give the students confidence to make a big leap into advanced techniques later.
  • The teacher should use active learning strategies consistently. Then only the students will know that the teacher means to impart knowledge through this technique, and this will lead to active participation in the activities.
  • Taking some pause in between the lectures help the students to reflect upon the topic and use prior knowledge to understand it better rather than just passively listening or taking notes. For instance, the instructor may give a few minutes to the students to copy down notes from the board after a problem-solving session is over, or pause for some time after asking a question so that the students can discuss it with fellow learners or can evaluate his thoughts on the same.
  • The instructor should always make it a practice to ask the students to introduce each other in a group before starting with any activity as it will make them comfortable, as they proceed with the activity.
  • The teacher should never indulge in racing through the syllabus as it will never impart real learning to the students. Rather, to impart effective learning in the limited time, the teacher can identify the part of the syllabus that can be given as self-study or in the form of homework assignments, and use the actual classroom hours to aid or supplement the active learning.
  • At the end of the activity, one should make sure to wrap up the session by asking any of the groups about their reasoning and welcoming any other counter-response. The conclusion imparts a lot of learning to the students.
  • The instructor must ensure taking regular feedback or assessments from the students both formally and informally, to know their learning experience with active learning techniques. This will help the teacher to plan out activities depending on students’ feedback.


“Make at least part of every class an experiment in teaching. Announce to students that this is an experiment and you want their reactions to it. Afterward, ask for honest feedback. Hearing “I hated it” should be as valuable as hearing “I liked it”.” – Marc Prensky


Technology and Active learning

Like in other domains, the use of technology for active learning makes learning convenient, interactive, time-saving and handy when used appropriately. 

Technology helps the students to collaborate and work in groups for face to face classroom discussions or even across the globe through online or hybrid models in a cost-effective manner. Digital learning has allowed the creation of highly interactive courses that can be used in the classes or for home-based assignments or as a core online module. 

If you are a tech enthusiast, here are a few tools that can bring active learning to your class:

  1. Discussion Boards — Through this, the students can record their classroom lessons and can have online discussions on the same topic through an interactive forum.
  2. Use of e-learning — Instructors can build online course materials or lab experience wherein the students can practice or read the material as much as they want to, from anywhere, at their own pace. 
  3. Virtual Field Trips — Instructors can give access to virtual field trips to the students where the students can explore any place in the world through their monitors. With a single click, the students can learn a lot about that place and also can interact with the suggested guide sitting at your own home.


One needs to create learning that is very impactful so that the learners develop problem-solving skills for real-world problems rather than just mugging up the jotted down notes in a traditional classroom model.

As Walter Annenberg rightly says, “Many activities and team play participation will give you a training that will prove invaluable later on in life.”

Incorporating Active Learning techniques into the learning culture is surely going to transform the classrooms into a very exciting and happening learning space. Active participation of the learners through active learning methods gives the learners a deep understanding of the subject as well as develop strong reasoning and analytical skills, which would help them in independently solving critical problems, for a better future. 

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