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What is active learning?

Melissa WilliamsJuly 24, 2019

little girl running in a field

As educators, we strive to not only teach our students what they need to know but also solidify that learning. Quick — what are some key lessons or concepts that you really remember from your own school days? What jumps out at you from the approximately three or four thousand days you spent in grade school? The odds are pretty good that those highlight reels will mostly include instances of active learning. But why is that? And how can you create those same experiences in your own classroom?

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What is active learning?

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Photo credit: Pixabay

Active vs. passive learning

Here’s a specific example that clarifies active versus passive learning. Imagine a health class in which students are learning about conflict resolution.

In a passive learning situation, students would maybe research conflict resolution strategies and write a paper on the topic. Some students may hold onto the knowledge and apply it to their everyday lives, but the chances of that happening are slim. In an active learning scenario, students may write conflict resolution scripts and present role-play scenarios in class; alternatively, they could record videos and either upload them privately to YouTube or post them to a class wiki. 

With active learning, students will have a more memorable learning experience and will also be able to learn about the solutions proposed by their classmates. This is arguably much more enjoyable than simply writing a paper and turning it in. At the end of a passive learning activity, students are just glad to finish the work. But with active learning, they’ll look forward to similarly fun learning activities.

man running a marathon
Photo credit: Quino Al

The active learning approach

Let’s take a closer look at active learning as a concept so that we know how to best put it into practice. Active learning is a direct result of active teaching. This approach, as you can probably guess, involves actively engaging students in their learning, with meaningful learning experiences.  having students doing things (role-play, creating, reflecting, etc.) and employing a higher level of thinking (analysis, evaluation, etc.). This won’t look like the traditional teaching methods, such as stand-and-deliver lessons, worksheets, or quizzes. Kids will be … well, active! This can take many different forms that we’ll dive into shortly.

This instructional approach is going to promote student engagement and liven up the classroom experience for all of your students (and, as a bonus, for you)! Active learning is all about applying knowledge, exploring new concepts in a hands-on way unique learning endeavors, and getting everyone involved.

Sound good so far? Then let’s look at some different forms of active learning.

group of girls discussing around a table
Photo credit: Edvin Johansson

Examples of active learning

Active learning is not elusive or complicated, and it is something that teachers of all grade levels can support. And, fortunately, it’s also not terribly limited by resources. Some of the most common forms of active learning include problem-solving, role-playing activities, debates, case studies, hands-on projects, experiments, and class discussions.

You’ve probably already used most, if not all, of these instructional tools, but mindfully incorporating them with the goal of increasing student engagement and a commitment to active learning will bring about real results.

Think again of those special memories from your own time as a student. There were information and concepts that you can now recall forever because of how you were taught, in that particular class.

Remember: It’s not just about mindlessly including these activities for the sake of checking them off some list. You want to help your students meet their learning objectives in a way that’s genuinely fun or relevant. That’s when learning truly sticks.

3 benefits of active learning

We’ve touched on a few of the benefits of active learning on already, but let’s lay them out.

someone holding an old photo album
Photo credit: Laura Fuhrman

1. It makes lessons more memorable

Few people like to dwell on (or recall) negative memories or experiences, including the boredom that traditional lectures inevitably breed. It stands to reason, then, that engaging lessons will be more memorable.

Once a student has learned a concept and is truly engaged, they’ll have an easier time building on that concept and expanding their knowledge. Students will also be better equipped to take that new knowledge and apply it directly, as well as transfer it to other areas and concepts.

Say, for example, that your students are learning about the environment in science class, and they need to complete a project that addresses an environmental concern (e.g., pollution, climate change, or deforestation). Will they remember what you teach them if they simply take notes on a PowerPoint presentation you’ve prepared? Probably (read: most certainly) not. On the other hand, if you task them with doing their own research and designing their own presentation, they’ll remember the experience and the skills they pick up along the way: planning, researching, communicating, strategizing, problem-solving, and many others.

Monkey thinking
Photo credit: Pixabay

2. It promotes higher-order thinking

Active learning also encourages a higher order of thinking. Students will be less likely to simply memorize facts and concepts with the purpose of regurgitating the info for a paper or test. Instead, they’ll be synthesizing ideas and thinking outside the box. The active learning versus passive learning debate boils down to how students think. Active learning encourages students to deconstruct complex topics and learn how to actually think and solve problems effectively. It’s amazing to see what kids can come up with when given a little freedom and room for creativity and engagement.

Kid reaching for strawberries on the kitchen counter
Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema

3. It’s accessible and personalized

Yet another benefit of active learning is that it’s easier to personalize. Active learning works for all types of learners and all ability levels. Students can get involved and bring their own specialties to group projects, or they can be given leeway to present what they’ve learned about a concept in a way that complements their own learning style.

In a traditional setting, it can be tricky to allow each student to express their knowledge in a way that’s best suited to their learning style. Active learning assignments are more personalized because they are not tied to any strict guidelines. Activities such as debates, case studies, and role-playing games can take many different forms will still meeting all of your learning objectives.

Making it happen

OK, so you’re sold on active learning. Now what? How do you actually implement this in your day-to-day teaching?

baby getting out of a sandbox
Photo credit: Alexander Dummer

Take baby steps

If your students are already accustomed to a certain style of learning in your class, you wouldn’t want to suddenly restructure your lessons. That unpredictability and sudden shift in teaching style could cause anxiety.

Instead, dip your toe in the active learning water by starting each day with a class discussion — this could simply involve chatting about the weekend, sharing something new that anyone has learned recently, or simply talking about a specific topic related to class. This will open the door to active learning as students become more comfortable speaking in front of the class in a casual, nonconfrontational way.

pile of books and binders on a white table
Photo credit: STIL

Plan your activities

Once your students are comfortable with this change of pace, you can begin incorporating more hands-on activities (either for group or individual completion). Have students carry out simple — but eventually more elaborate — experiments. Let them get messy (and, occasionally, a bit noisy)! Involve students in activity planning: explain the concept or problem that needs solving, and see what they come up with in a brainstorming session. Help them to make connections between subject areas, and talk about how certain skills can be used in math, English language arts, and science, and then have students actually apply their knowledge in a range of areas.

Summing it up

Active learning isn’t just something you read about, though — that would be rather ironic, wouldn’t it? The best way to employ active learning in your class is to put this knowledge to use. Cut down on boredom and possible confusion around certain concepts by having students get in there and look at information from all angles. The benefits will come rolling in, and your students will thank you for it — likely for years to come!

Photo credit: Julia Raasch /

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