Math grad students working together, active learning, seated at tables.

Active Learning


When thinking about how to engage students in day-to-day activities that support their learning, it can be helpful keep three core questions in mind:

  • Which activities will help students learn, in relation to the course learning outcomes and to how their learning will be assessed in the course?
  • How might you design activities and interactions that help students learn most effectively?
  • How might you design a range of activities and interactions to ensure equitable access to learning?  

Active learning names a wide range of processes in which instructors support students to actively participate in, contribute to, and reflect on their learning of new information, concepts, and skills. When compared with traditional lecturing, courses that employ active learning techniques have a positive impact on student learning, as measured by performance on exams and other assessments, as well as by course grades (Freeman et al. 2014). Active learning is also an important ingredient in accessible and equitable course design, as many studies indicate that active learning disproportionately benefits students from several minoritized groups and can support the reduction of equity gaps at the course level (e.g., Haak et al. 2011).

This page provides instructors and TAs with resources for understanding the research background of active learning, selecting active learning strategies that align with your learning objectives in any teaching modality, and designing effective and equitable collaborative activities and group work.

Overview & Research Basis of Active Learning

This overview from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching includes the educational theories informing active learning, the research that provides evidence of its effectiveness, and several strategies for promoting more active student engagement — in both large and small classes.

Visit the Overview from Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching >>

The Science of Effective Learning

This UCSC TLC guide outlines 6 key principles from cognitive psychology and neuroscience research that inform the concept and practice of “active learning,” including:

  • Learning involves the active construction of meaning by the learner
  • Learning facts or concepts and learning how to do something are two different processes
  • Individual learners learn more with others than when they learn alone
  • Meaningful learning is facilitated by explaining one’s understanding, to oneself or to others
  • How learners and instructors view students’ capacity to learn affects whether students learn
  • Learners are better equipped to learn when their emotions and motivations are acknowledged and leveraged in the learning process

View the TLC Guide Here >>

Effects of Active Classes on Student Learning

This article in the Harvard Gazette discusses a 2019 study on students’ perception of learning in traditional lectures versus active learning settings. While students may perceive themselves to be learning more in more passive lecture settings, the study indicates that students actually learn more in active learning settings and it recommends that instructors communicate clearly with students about the benefits of active learning.

Active Learning Strategies

This section provides resources on selecting active learning strategies that align with your learning goals. There are techniques for in-person, synchronous online, and asynchronous online course formats, as well as for courses across disciplines. All of these strategies work best when the instructor (and TA team) is actively involved in facilitating and organizing the activities, responding to student questions, and providing feedback. If you would like additional support with implementing active learning strategies in your teaching context, please reach out to us.

Active Learning Techniques Matrix

Use this matrix of ideas for selecting active learning techniques to meet the following teaching and learning goals:

  • Monitor progress on specific student learning outcomes
  • Assess knowledge of content or concepts
  • Move students from passive to active learning
  • Pose discussions to encourage critical thinking
  • Build student connections and collaborations​
  • Demonstrate knowledge of content or concepts
  • Help students reflect on learning

View the TLC Guide Here >>

Planning for Active Engagement: An Inquiry Cycle

Use this guide to design class sessions that lead students through a cycle of inquiry, moving through: Invitation, Exploration, Invention, Application, and Reflection. 

This cycle is also known as “the 5Es”—Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate.

View the TLC Guide Here >>

Cues to Encourage Student Thinking and Productive Discussion

This guide provides example language and question prompts for promoting active learning goals, including inviting students to:

  • share, expand, and clarify their own thinking;
  • listen carefully to one another;
  • deepen their reasoning; and
  • think with and alongside their peers.

View the TLC Guide Here >>

Designing Effective Discussions

In many courses, a primary mode of student engagement may be through discussion. This guide supports instructors and TAs in planning focused and productive discussions, and provides strategies for addressing common challenges that can arise during student-centered dialogue.

Visit the Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center’s Guide to Effective Discussions >>

Active Learning in Large Lectures

In this video, Robin Dunkin demonstrates how she utilizes active learning techniques in a large, lower-division undergraduate lecture course (BIOE 20B), and the benefits these techniques have on student learning.

Collaborative Learning & Group Work

As common components of many active learning strategies, collaboration and group work present many benefits to student learning. These benefits include building positive interdependence in the classroom; enhancing student understanding of complex topics through peer-to-peer instruction; increasing students’ ability to access diverse perspectives; providing the opportunity for students to receive social support and grow their peer networks; and encouraging students to develop their own perspectives in relation to their peers. These resources support instructors to design group work effectively and accessibly.

8 Tips For Designing Effective & Accessible Group Work

Created in collaboration with the UCSC Disability Resource Center (DRC), this resource contains tips and strategies that are intended to support instructors, in classes both large and small, to develop effective and accessible group work so that all students can benefit from the enhanced learning made possible in collaborative settings.

View the TLC Guide Here >>

Using Cooperative Groups Effectively

Active learning highlights the value of social interactions in the learning process, and this guide provides strategies for designing effective group tasks and supporting students to get the most out of learning from their peers.

Visit the Guide from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching>>

Using Group Projects Effectively

When structured well, group projects can promote intellectual and social skills important to students’ academic and professional lives. This guide addresses composing, monitoring, and assessing group tasks.

Visit the Guide from Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center >>