What is active learning?

Providing students with lifelong skills so that they are ready for the labour market has always remained a priority for higher education institutions. How can we prepare students for the future in a society that is rapidly shifting and transforming? How do we educate them for jobs that don’t exist yet?

These questions require the implementation of appropriate teaching methods that nurture critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving skills, and so on. Nevertheless, it can be challenging for educators to choose the right pedagogical approach out of a wide range of existing strategies. In this article we are going to focus on active learning: its definition, pros and cons, and how to implement it successfully depending on the classroom configuration.


What differentiates “active” from “passive” learning?  Students “resting their eyes” or texting in the back of a classroom are certainly not engaged, but is listening and taking notes during a lecture enough to consider them actively engaged? The answer is much more complex as students must do more than just listen: they must deep-read, write, discuss, be creative while solving problems and execute higher-order thinking tasks such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. A great way to encourage these behaviours is through regular and varied active learning methods to create an overall engaging course design.


So, what is active learning and why is it fundamentally different from passive learning? With active learning, the pedagogical methods are learner-centred rather than teacher-centred: the focus is on nudging students’ cognitive activities in class instead of simply letting them absorb the presented information. In other words, active learning refers to an instructional approach that is learner-centred, in which the students participate or interact with the learning process, rather than passively take in information. Furthermore, teachers play the role of facilitators of learning, instead of knowledge distributors.

According to the Center for Educational Innovation, University of Minnesota‍, “active learning is any approach to instruction in which all students are asked to engage in the learning process. Active learning stands in contrast to “traditional” modes of instruction in which students are passive recipients of knowledge from an expert.”


Often summarised as “learning through play”, “activity-based learning”, or “teamwork”, active learning is an expression covering a range of learning activities that require more than just listening. According to Stephen Kosslyn, American psychologist, neuroscientist and expert on learning sciences, systematically implemented active learning exercises enable students to “learn effectively—sometimes without even trying to learn.” Studies also show that implementing active learning techniques can significantly improve both students’ learning and their attitudes towards learning. In other words, active learning increases students performance, engagement, interaction and knowledge retention.

The reason active learning is so effective is that it draws on underlying characteristics of how the brain functions during learning. Studies generally show that multisensory learning – as hearing, watching, digitally or analogically building, etc. – leads to the most long-term physical changes in the brain and improves memory retention and recall. As stated by Claire Hoogendoorn, Doctor at New York City College of Technology, in her article The Neuroscience of Active Learning “active learning encourages the brain to stimulate cognitive and sensory networks, which helps process and store new information. Engaging as many sensory, cognitive, emotional, and social processes in students will increase their learning potential.”

In plain terms, the more students’ brains are stimulated in different ways, the more they learn. ‍

All in all, active learning is a model of learning that goes through the “activation” of the students by appealing to their cognitive abilities and processes, making them proactive parts in the learning process.

However, one must remember that any method – no matter how theoretically effective – can still generate unwanted results due to poor implementation.


Unfortunately, sometimes implementing active learning activities can feel like a hassle. It takes more preparation work for teachers to plan active learning exercises when compared to traditional lecture formats, which isn’t always something limited time allows for. Moreover, the activities themselves take more class time, constraining teachers to compromise on other study materials.

The lack of support, materials, and budget, as well as the class size, are just a few of the constraints which make it difficult to realistically implement some active learning strategies. Finally, many instructors who have done well as lecturers so far might just not be inclined to redesign their current curriculum or reassess their teaching styles.

Within online learning environments, active learning implementation is even more challenging for teachers due to the lack of physical interaction. The biggest issue concerns student engagement and retention while studying remotely. In a face-to-face classroom, physical contacts are readily available and are therefore often taken for granted. Online teaching, however, can require more effort from educators due to the absence of these physical interactions. Students turning off their zoom video, or keeping silent during online discussions, are some common scenarios when teaching online.

Aside from lack of interactivity, technical overload remains a barrier in facilitating active learning. It can be overwhelming for both teachers and students to get familiar with different online platforms and teaching tools. Not to mention internet connection, unavailability of learning infrastructure, or geographical differences, which can also greatly hinder teachers from effectively issuing active learning.

Each of these obstacles or challenges, however, can be successfully overcome through careful planning, and with the help of pedagogical technology.


There are a number of learning activities and strategies that can be used to exercise active learning.  In other words, “active learning strategies include different activities that share the common elements of involving learners in doing things and reflect on the things they are doing.” 

Considering this definition, what should we categorize as active learning methods? Several researchers agree in considering these activities as examples of active learning:

  • Collaborative learning
  • Discussion activities: group discussion, case study, and brainstorming
  • Role play
  • Games involving simulation of imaginary situations
  • Problem-solving-based learning
  • Projects (individual or in groups)
  • Peer teaching
  • Debates
  • Short demonstrations followed by class discussions

These have been proven effective in producing successful and competent learning environments. However, it is important that instructors make sure the active learning strategies selected align with the course learning objectives. Remember, the goal of active learning is not simply for students to do things, but to also think about what they are doing.


Here are some questions to consider when selecting an active learning strategy:

  • Which skill(s) should my students be able to develop by the end of our online class session?
  • Which active learning strategy will allow my students to work on this skill?
  • When will my students encounter and engage with information and ideas?
  • When will they reflect on what they’ve learned?

These active learning elements can be worked on before, during, or after the online class session.

While applying new teaching methods may be challenging, a plethora of digital learning tools can make life simpler for professors, for example by helping them reflect on their pedagogical approach, and making their teaching methods more inclusive. It should be remembered, however, that when incorporating technology-based activities, teachers should still be able to deliver engaging stories and anecdotes, and organize fun activities that they have tested and relied upon in the classroom that come from their own irreplaceable experience.


Using active learning strategies does not require abandoning the lecture format, or downplaying the importance of a teacher-student relationship. Rather, adding even small active learning strategies can make a big difference in student knowleade retention and engagement. These activities give students time to check their understanding of recent material, practice a skill, or highlight gaps in their knowledge.

An excellent first step for teachers toward implementing active learning strategies is to select the strategies that one can feel comfortable with. It is equally important, however, that faculty developers, academic administrators, educational researchers, and higher education staff, in general, recognize the need to provide follow-up to, and support for, teachers’ efforts to change. After all, teaching is, and will remain, a team work.