Active Learning


Active learning goes beyond traditional, passive lecture-based methods by actively including students in the learning process. During active learning, students engage in a mixture of experiences, information, and reflection to form a deep understanding of the subject matter (Fink 2013). Active learning can include a diversity of activities, such as group discussions, problem-solving tasks, or interactive simulations. To maximize effectiveness, instructors should align active learning activities with course objectives, provide clear instructions and feedback, and create a supportive environment. By tailoring activities to suit the subject matter and by employing a variety of strategies, instructors can cultivate an enriching educational experience that not only enhances student motivation but also contributes to long-term retention of knowledge. There is an abundance of evidence to demonstrate that active learning is beneficial to student learning. 



The evidence supporting the effectiveness of active learning in higher education is robust, compelling, and studied in many academic disciplines and contexts. Numerous studies consistently demonstrate that students engaged in active learning methodologies outperform their peers in traditional lecture-based settings (Freeman et al. 2014; McKeachie et al. 1987; Prince 2004). Active learning fosters better student performance (Freeman et al. 2007; Freeman et al. 2014; Wenderoth 2007), critical thinking (Costes-Onishi and Kwek 2023; Listiqowati et al. 2002), and improved retention of information (Kendrick 1996; Millenbah and Millspaugh 2003). Research indicates that it positively impacts student attitudes toward learning (Millenbah and Millspaugh 2003; Tientongdee 2018; Valverde et al. 2022), enhances problem-solving skills (Dixit et al. 2020; Tientongdee 2018), and increases recall (Ruhl et al. 1987;Di Vesta and Smith 1979). By encouraging students to actively participate in discussions, collaborate on projects, and apply concepts in real-world scenarios, active learning leads to more meaningful educational experiences. This wealth of empirical evidence underscores the value of incorporating active learning strategies to optimize student learning outcomes in higher education.

Would you like to see evidence that active learning has worked in your discipline? Visit our Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) database to see research that’s happening at IUB and explore the following drop-down options to see examples of how active learning has been utilized and studied in your discipline:

Krishnan, S., Landa, S., Ping Lin, & Yur-Austin, J. (2023). The Effect of Team-Based Active Learning and Embedded Tutors in the First Course in Accounting. Journal of Higher Education Theory & Practice, 23(6), 148–159.


lexa, V.-Q., Carlos, P.-L., Mirsha, Q.-S., Alejandra, C.-A., Ana María, S.-R., Jorge A, G.-V., Margarita, O., Jesús-Bonilla Vladimir, D., Roxana, E.-F., & Luis Jiro, S.-H. (2022). Teaching Forensic Entomology, Forensic Anthropology, and Haematology & Serology during the COVID-19 pandemic: Practical activities for distance learning. Science & Justice, 62(6), 721–734.

Johnston, S. L., Knabb, M., Auld, J. R., & Rieser-Danner, L. (2022). Correcting misconceptions about evolution: an innovative, inquiry-based introductory biological anthropology laboratory course improves understanding of evolution compared to instructor-centered courses. Evolution: Education & Outreach, 15(1), 1–16.


Spiller, M. (Migiwa). (2022). Team-Based Learning in an Art and Design First-Year Studio Class. Transformative Dialogues: Teaching & Learning Journal, 15(2), 1–23.


Chandler, L., Ward, A., & Ward, L. (2021). “Immersed in Art”: Engaged learning in art and design history. International Journal of Education through Art, 17(2), 235–252.

Meloche, A., & May, T. (2022). Surveying the art history mystery: Student opinions of outcomes and value. Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education, 21(1), 43–65.


LoPresto, M. C., & Slater, T. F. (2016). A New Comparison Of Active Learning Strategies To Traditional Lectures For Teaching College Astronomy. Journal of Astronomy & Earth Sciences Education (JAESE), 3(1), 59–76.


Hacisalihoglu, G., Stephens, D., Johnson, L., & Edington, M. (2018). The use of an active learning approach in a SCALE-UP learning space improves academic performance in undergraduate General Biology. PLoS ONE, 13(5), 1–13.

Kreher, S. A., Pavlova, I. V., & Nelms, A. (2021). An Active Learning Intervention Based on Evaluating Alternative Hypotheses Increases Scientific Literacy of Controlled Experiments in Introductory Biology. Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, 22(3).

Soto, J. G., French, R., & Anand, S. (2023). An advanced course sequence in eukaryotic cell and molecular biology: A year-long course where active learning and peer-led groups resulted in higher learning gains and significant course passing scores. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education.


Sabharwal, R. (2021). Introduction of Case Based Learning Among First Professional MBBS Students in the Department of Biochemistry. JK Science, 23(2), 75–79.

Yap, M. K. K. (2023). A digital module‐based experiential learning in protein biochemistry during the COVID‐19 pandemic paradigm. Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Education, 51(1), 77–80.


Ballard, J., Gamage, S., Winfield, L., & Mooring, S. (2023). Cognitive discourse during a group quiz activity in a blended learning organic chemistry course. Chemistry Teacher International, 5(3), 245–261.

Ott, L. E., Carpenter, T. S., Hamilton, D. S., & LaCourse, W. R. (2018). Discovery Learning: Development of a Unique Active Learning Environment for Introductory Chemistry. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, 18(4), 161–180.


Crandall, K. L., Buckwalter, M. A., & Witkoski, M. (2021). Show and Tell: An Examination of Experiential Learning Opportunities in Criminal Justice Courses. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 32(2), 155–170.

Kutnjak Ivković, S., & Reichel, P. (2017). Enhancing Student Learning By Using Mock Trials in Criminal Justice Courses. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 28(1), 1–24.


Cagliesi, G., & Ghanei, M. (2022). Team-based learning in economics: Promoting group collaboration, diversity and inclusion. Journal of Economic Education, 53(1), 11–30.

Sato, T., Mitachi, M., & Okada, T. (2018). Implementation of Active Learning Strategies in a Large-Enrollment Economics Class at a University. 2018 7th International Congress on Advanced Applied Informatics (IIAI-AAI), Advanced Applied Informatics (IIAI-AAI), 2018 7th International Congress on, IIAI-AAI, 438–441.


Jui-Sheng Wang. (2023). Enhancing Finance Students’ Learning Effectiveness and Motivation: Application of Financial Simulation Game. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning, 18(21), 102–112.

Narayanaswamy, C. R., & Narayanaswamy, V. (2022). A hands-on approach to teaching the financial concept of diversification. Interactive Learning Environments, 30(9), 1708–1716.


McDaniel, P. N., & Ingram, U. (2023). Integrating ArcGIS Online and digital story mapping for active learning in systematic geography courses. Journal of Geography in Higher Education.

Putra, A. K., Al Khalidy, D., Handoyo, B., & Ha Van Thang. (2023). Construction of Immersive Experiences: Development of Virtual Reality Technology to Facilitate Physical Geography Learning. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning, 18(19), 47–60.


Tonkin, K., Page, S., & Forsey, M. (2019). Managing cognitive load with a flipped language class: An ethnographic study of the student experience. Foreign Language Annals, 52(3), 551–575.


Smith, A. R. M. (2020). “Learning Is Not a Spectator Sport”: Oral History Archives and Simulation in the Sport History Classroom. International Journal of the History of Sport, 37(16), 1682–1695.

Tirado-Olivares, S., Cózar-Gutiérrez, R., García-Olivares, R., & Antonio González-Calero, J. (2021). Active learning in history teaching in higher education: The effect of inquiry-based learning and a student response system-based formative assessment in teacher training. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 37(5), 61–76.


Laidlaw, L., & Din, C. (2020). Exploring Leadership Learning in an Undergraduate Kinesiology Course. Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 11(2).


Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(23), 8410–8415.

Laursen, S. L., Hassi, M., Kogan, M., & Weston, T. J. (2014). Benefits for Women and Men of Inquiry-Based Learning in College Mathematics: A Multi-Institution Study. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 45(4), 406–418.

Smith, W. M., Rasmussen, C., & Tubbs R. (2021). Introduction to the Special Issue: Insights and Lessons Learned from Mathematics Department in the Process of Change. PRIMUS, 31(3-5), 239-251. DOI: 10.1080/10511970.2021.1886207


Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66, 64-74.

Lorenzo, M., Crouch, C.H., Mazur, E. (2006). Reducing the gender gap in the physics classroom. American Journal of Physics 74, 118–122.

Wallace, C. S., Prather, E. E., Milsom, J. A., Johns, K., & Manne, S. (2021). Students Taught by a First-Time Instructor Using Active-Learning Teaching Strategies Outperform Students Taught by a Highly-Regarded Traditional Instructor. Journal of College Science Teaching, 50(4), 48–57.

McMonagle, R. J., & Savitz, R. (2023). Active Learning: Beyond Structured Debates in Political Science Pedagogy. Journal of Political Science Education, 19(3), 355–370.


Neves Nascimento, E., de Oliveira Moreira, G. M., Laureano Tolentino, K. G., & Figueiredo Frizzo, A. C. (2019). Team Based Learning in Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences: experience in the Public Health qualification. Revista CEFAC, 21(2), 1–6.  


Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., and Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 111, 8410-8415.

Ruiz-Primo, M.A., Briggs, D., Iverson, H., Talbot, R., Shepard, L.A. (2011). Impact of undergraduate science course innovations on learning. Science 331, 1269–1270.



Incorporating a variety of active learning approaches can transform students’ classroom experiences. Here are a few small-scale, easy-to-implement active learning strategies:

  • Classroom Assessment Techniques: These are quick, informal assessments that gauge student understanding. One example is a “minute paper,” in which you allocate one minute for students to write a brief response to a question or prompt. You can use this to gather reflections or opinions on a specific topic. 
  • Concept Maps: Assign a central concept and have students create a concept map during or after a lecture. The map should visually represent relationships between concepts.  
  • Lecture Pauses: Create intentional breaks within a lecture. Strategically inserted by instructors, these pauses provide students with moments to process information, reflect, and actively engage with the material by comparing notes with other students and asking the instructor clarification questions.  
  • Round Robin Brainstorming: This strategy is great for group problem-solving sessions. Students should work in groups, and all write an idea on an index card. Have each student pass their card/idea to the person next to them. They should now use their neighbor’s ideas as inspiration for another idea or feedback. 
  • Think-Pair-Share: Students individually think about a question, pair up with a neighbor to discuss their thoughts, and then share their ideas with the whole class. To implement, pose a discussion prompt related to the topic at hand. 
  • Top Hat (in-class polling): Use this interactive teaching platform to engage students through polls, discussions, and quizzes, fostering real-time interaction. Integrate these tools into your lectures. 


Here are more advanced strategies that require some planning:

  • Case-Based Learning: Students read and discuss real scenarios to practice analyzing and reflective conclusions.  
  • Community Engaged Learning/Service Learning: Integrating community service with academic learning to enrich the educational experience. Collaborate with community organizations to design projects aligning with course content. 
  • Flipped Classrooms: Students review instructional materials (readings, recorded lectures) at home and use class time for interactive activities. To implement, instructors will need to develop pre-class materials and plan engaging in-class activities. 
  • Problem-Based Learning: Students collaboratively solve complex, real-world problems, promoting critical thinking and application of knowledge to different contexts.  
  • Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT): Students practice their language skills by completing meaningful tasks, with an emphasis on authentic communication and problem solving, such as calling customer service or ordering at a restaurant. This approach is not limited to language instruction and can be employed to enhance the application of knowledge.  
  • Team-Based Learning: In this re-structuring of a course, students complete readiness assurance tests and application-focused activities. Using Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique cards provides students with instance feedback on multiple choice questions.   

Instructors can use a mixture of small-scale and more advanced techniques to prioritize student engagement, needs, and interests.  

Who is doing this at IU?

There are many instructors already implementing active learning strategies at IU Bloomington! Here are a few examples:  

Photo of Oliveira MarcelaMarcela de Oliveira e Silva Lemos employs Task-Based Language Teaching in her second-year Portuguese course. One distinctive task involves students crafting a recipe for their favorite dish and producing a video tutorial demonstrating how to prepare it, mirroring the style of instructional videos found on platforms like YouTube or TikTok. This assignment serves as an exploration of the distinctions between written instructions and oral instructions, accentuating the nuanced use of language in different contexts.

Photo of Kevin MudavadiKevin Mudavadi, an instructor in the Media School, employs class discussions and group work to enhance learning and avoid a sole focus on exams. Kevin initiates discussion sessions, prompting students to actively engage with the material. Following group discussions, a designated class leader is chosen to present key points, facilitating a collaborative learning process. This presentation becomes a springboard for class-wide discussions.  

Photo of Dawn WisherDawn Wisher incorporates applied improv techniques into Kelley Business courses to alleviate communication anxiety. Drawing from the principles of improv, students practice them in the realm of public speaking. This innovative approach empowers students to be fully present, fostering a sense of community and collaboration. By encouraging students to silence their inner critic, Dawn cultivates a dynamic environment where students can hone essential communication skills. For a deeper insight into her creative use of this method in Zoom classes, watch Dawn share her experiences.


Costes-Onishi, P., & Kwek, D. (2023). Inquiry-Based Learning in Music: Indicators and Relationships between Key Pedagogical Practices and the Quality of Critical Thinking. Research Studies in Music Education, 45(2), 362–378. 

Di Vesta, F. J. & Smith, D. A. (1979). The pausing principle: Increasing the efficiency of memory for ongoing events. Contemporary Educational Psychology 4(3), 288-296.  

Dixit, B., Bedekar, M., Jahagirdar, A., & Sathe, N. (2020). Role of active learning techniques in development of problem solving skills. Journal of Engineering Education Transformations, 34: 670-674.  

Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. Jossey-Bass.  

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415. 

Freeman, S., O'Connor, E., Parks, J. W., Cunningham, M., Hurley, D., Haak, D., Dirks, C., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2007). Prescribed active learning increases performance in introductory biology. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 6(2), 132-139. 

Kendrick. J. R. (1996). Outcomes of service learning in an introduction to sociology course. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 3: 72-81.  

Listiqowati, I., Budijanto, Sumarmi, & Ruja, I. N. (2022). The Impact of Project-Based Flipped Classroom (PjBFC) on Critical Thinking Skills. International Journal of Instruction, 15(3), 853–868. 

McKeachie, W. J., Pintrich, P. R., Lin, Y., & Smith, D. A. F. (1987). Teaching and learning in the college classroom. A review of the research literature. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.  

Millenbah, K. F., & Millspaugh, J. J. (2003). Using Experiential Learning in Wildlife Courses to Improve Retention, Problem Solving, and Decision-Making. Wildlife Society Bulletin (1973-2006), 31(1), 127–137. 

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.  

Ruhl, K. L., Hughes, C. A., & Schloss, P. J. (1987). Using the pause procedure to enhance lecture recall. Teacher Education and Special Education, 10, 14-18.  

Tientongdee, S. (2018). Development of problem-solving skill by using active learning for student teachers in Introductory Physics. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 1144: 1-4.  

Valverde, C., Allen, K., Small, C., & Carr, W. (2022). Active Learning Interventions in a Predominantly Black, Urban College Increase Positive Attitudes toward Class Participation. International Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Learning, 30(1), 17–30. 

Wenderoth, M.P. (2007). Prescribed active learning increases performance in introductory biology. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 6: 132-139.