How to Use Active Learning

"Which Active Learning strategy should I use?"

The right answer is IT DEPENDS! Any form of student engagement activity is likely to result in more and deeper learning than pedagogies with no student-student or student-faculty engagement. That said, some of the factors that can influence the choice of teaching method include:

  • Learning goals for the activity
  • Faculty experience and familiarity with the specific teaching method
  • Student experience and familiarity with the specific teaching method
  • Physical classroom configuration
  • Class size
  • Time available (classroom and preparation)
  • Topical content involved
Mark Leckie (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) provided advice for faculty wanting to Engage Students with Active Learning Strategies as a part of the On the Cutting Edge workshop on Teaching Large Classes.

Explore Various Pedagogies

There are many different varieties of active learning to choose from. The Pedagogy in Action website has extensive modules on many strategies that explain the what, why, and how of each strategy coupled with a collection of ready-to-use teaching examples from many disciplines that utilize each strategy. The book Reaching Students (NRC, 2015) also goes into great detail about many teaching methods as well as ways of integrating them into courses and adapting them to particular contexts. As a part of the On the Cutting Edge program, Rachel Beane (Bowdoin College) developed a set of posters (Acrobat (PDF) 4.9MB Mar24 16) detailing several different active learning strategies which can be a helpful tool in understanding what a method involves and how you might go about implementing it.

Explore Strategies for Specific Goals »

Some techniques are easier to implement than others, needing little preparation and taking little class time. Knowing where the "low hanging fruit" is can help provide an easy on-ramp for faculty just starting to implement active learning.

Explore Strategies vs Time Investment »

Starting Out

In their book, Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom (Johnson et al., 1998), the authors provide some tips for starting to implement active learning (or "engaged pedagogies") in the classroom.

The Cutting Edge Classroom Observation Project developed guidance for creating a more student-centered classroom including the use of active learning.
  • Start small, start early, and build.
  • Keep it short; 5 to 10 minutes, and gradually expand time
  • Do something interactive regularly - build habits of cooperation
  • Do not use formal, outside of class group projects until students are working well together
  • For group work, YOU choose the groups and keep them small (2-3 people)
  • Work with a colleague and share the development load


Johnson, David W., Johnson, Roger T., and Smith, Karl A. 1998. Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom (2nd Ed). Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company. [Interaction Book Company, 7208 Cornelia Drive, Edina, MN 55435

National Research Council. 2015. Reaching Students: What Research Says About Effective Instruction in Undergraduate Science and Engineering. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.