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Active Learning

Active learning leads to increased student performance and higher levels of conceptual understanding (Freeman et al., 2014). When students are active participants in their learning, they are able to retain content and develop thinking skills more successfully than when they are passive recipients of information.

Testing is one of the simplest and most effective active learning strategies. Practice tests or questions presented during a lecture lead to longer retention of the new information compared to simply studying (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). You can integrate testing into your course by asking questions during class with clickers (below), hand signals, or index card signals; giving practice quizzes before, during, or after class; having students develop test questions to ask each other; and providing practice tests for studying.

Clickers are an effective tool to infuse participation and testing into your class session (Shapiro & Gordon, 2013). Students can respond to questions using clicker devices or personal phones/laptops, and the instructor can upload their responses and use them to inform future instruction (see Formative Assessment).

Think-Pair-Share is another effective active learning strategy which is easy to implement in classes of any size or subject. The instructor presents a question, gives students time to think and possibly write about their responses, and then asks students to discuss in pairs. These two steps promote active construction of knowledge, reduce inequity in classroom discussions, and can allow instructors to gain insights about student understanding. Pairs can then optionally share their thoughts with another pair or write them down and submit them electronically/on an index card (Cooper et al., 2021).

Use other active learning strategies (described here) depending on your goal as an instructor. Active learning strategies can:

  • Help students pay attention
  • Provide opportunities for collaboration
  • Give formative assessment data
  • Encourage problem solving
  • Preview new content
  • Review previously taught content
  • Require students to synthesize information
  • Allow students to make connections
  • Promote metacognition
  • Provide instructor feedback
  • Give students feedback



Cooper, K. M., Schinske, J. N., & Tanner, K. D. (2021). Reconsidering the share of a think-pair-share: Emerging limitations, alternatives, and opportunities for research. CBE - Life Sciences Education, 20(1), 20:fe1 1-10. DOI:10.1187/cbe.20-08-0200

Corkin, D. M., Horn, C., & Pattison, D. (2017). The effects of an active learning intervention in biology on college students’ classroom motivational climate perceptions, motivation, and achievement. Educational Psychology, 37(9), 1106-1124.

Doymus, K. (2007). Effects of a cooperative learning strategy on teaching and learning phases of matter and one-component phase diagrams. Journal of Chemical Education, 84(11), 1857-1860.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning boosts performance in STEM courses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 11123), 8410-8415.

Roediger, H. L. & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249-255. 

Shapiro, A. M. & Gordon, L. T. (2013). Classroom clickers offer more than repetition: Converging evidence for the testing effect and confirmatory feedback in clicker-assisted learning. Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology, 2(1), 15-30. 

Smith, M. K., Wood, W. B., Adams, W. K., Wieman, C., Knight, J. K., Guild, N., & Su, T. T. (2009). Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions. Science, 323(5910), 122-124.

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