What is Active Learning?

April Ondis

“If you’ve ever graded an exam or an essay and thought to yourself, ‘I said this multiple times in class, why do so many students have it wrong?’ then you’ve highlighted an instance where you likely need more active learning” (Zehnder et al., 2021). 

Active learning is an instructional approach that uses activities and/or discussions to involve students in cognitively processing educational content (Zehnder et al., 2021). Collaborative, inquiry-based, problem-based, project-based, team-based, and experiential learning strategies are usually considered part of active learning (Armellini & Rodriguez, 2021). 

Research on active learning in STEM courses shows that:

  • Average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning course sections

  • Students in classes with traditional learning were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes with active learning. 

  • Active learning appears effective across all class sizes 

(Freeman, et al., 2014) 

Passively listening to an expert, as in students listening to an instructor who gives a lecture in class, is typically considered to be the opposite of active learning (Zehnder et al., 2021). 

Why don’t more instructors use active learning techniques? 

You’re not alone if you’re not using active instructional techniques just yet. Lecturing is still the most common form of instruction in STEM courses in North America, with 55% of class meetings classified as lecture-based with minimal student interaction according to a recent study (Stains, et al., 2021). 

“There is an enormous amount of work that has demonstrated that (student-centered) strategies improve students’ learning and attitudes toward science,” said Dr. Marilyne Stains, an associate professor of chemistry at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln and lead author of Anatomy of STEM teaching in North American universities. “When you see that kind of effect, it makes you say, ‘Why are we still doing it the other way?’” (Schrage, 2018). 

Bonwell and Eison (1991) enumerated some of the reasons faculty don’t use active learning:  

  • They may see traditional front-of-class teaching as part of their role

  • They may fear that active learning requires more preparation time, more class time, or be too difficult to use in large classes

  • They may fear their students will not engage 

  • They may not have access to active learning resources 

Why lecturing doesn’t work

Even the most captivating lectures don’t help students to learn at a deep level. Here are the three top reasons that lectures don’t work, as described in “Learning That Matters, a Field Guide to Course Design for Transformative Education” (Zehnder et al., 2021).  

  1. It’s too easy. Watching or listening to a lecture doesn’t require learners to exert enough mental effort to process and make sense of new ideas. 

  2. Students zone out. Some learners lose focus for short periods, others lose it for longer periods of time.  

  3. It’s hard to know how much students understand. Apart from the minority who ask questions, students may be left with holes in their understanding that they carry forward with them.  

What instructors can do instead of lecturing 

We’ve compiled a helpful list of active learning techniques you can adopt in your STEM classroom. 

Getting students to actively participate in exercises that challenge their ideas and require reflection and explanation works better than lecturing (Haak et al., 2011). One simple way to create opportunities for active learning in your course is by including immersive simulations from the Labster science platform. 

What happened when UC Irvine reduced lecturing

Dr. Richard Arum of the University of California, Irvine studied what happened when participatory activities and class discussion replaced 28% of the time previously spent on course lectures. He found that students engaged with their studies 36% more, earned 0.9% more term credit, and increased their GPA by 10% (McKenzie, 2021).   


“When you move to more engaging, participatory, interactive instructional strategies, student academic engagement goes up,” Arum concluded (McMurtrie, 2021). 

Students prefer active learning

Students value having their voices heard. They enjoy collaborating and interacting with their peers and instructors. They say they understand more after reflecting on learning activities by writing and discussing them. Their faculty say it's also easier for their students to apply concepts to the real world after using active learning techniques (Lumpkin et al., 2015). 

For your inspiration

“Studies suggest that achieving expertise is less a matter of innate talent than of having the opportunity and motivation to dedicate oneself to the study of a subject in a productive, intellectual way — and for sufficient time — to enable the brain development needed to think like a scientist,” (The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2010).  

If you’re interested in adopting more of an active learning approach in your courses, consider talking to a faculty developer at your institution’s Center for Teaching and Learning.   


Armellini, A., & Rodriguez, B. C. P. (2021). Active blended learning: Definition, literature review, and a framework for implementation. Cases on Active Blended Learning in Higher Education, 1-22. Retrieved from https://www.igi-global.com/pdf.aspx?tid=275671&ptid=266359&ctid=4&oa=true&isxn=9781799878568 

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. 1991 ASHE-ERIC higher education reports. ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, The George Washington University, One Dupont Circle, Suite 630, Washington, DC 20036-1183. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED336049.pdf 

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. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.1319030111 

Haak, D. C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E., & Freeman, S. (2011). Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science, 332(6034), 1213–1216. Retrieved from https://www.grandviewcetl.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/2P.2-Haak-et-al-2011_Active-learning-reduces-achievement-gap-in-intro-biology.pdf 

Lumpkin, A., Achen, R. M., & Dodd, R. K. (2015). Student perceptions of active learning. College Student Journal, 49, 121–133.

McKenzie, L. (2021). Back on track: helping students recover from COVID-19 learning disruption. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/content/back-track-helping-students-recover-covid-19-learning-disruption  

McMurtrie, B. (2021). Good grades, stressed students. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/good-grades-stressed-students  

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2010). Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for America’s Future. Retrieved from https://nsf.gov/attachments/117803/public/2a--Prepare_and_Inspire--PCAST.pdf 

Schrage, S. (2018, March 29). Lesson learned? Massive study finds lectures still dominate STEM ed. [Nebraska Today]. Retrieved from https://news.unl.edu/newsrooms/today/article/lesson-learned-massive-study-finds-lectures-still-dominate-stem-ed/

Stains, M., Harshman, J., Barker, M. K., Chasteen, S. V., Cole, R., DeChenne-Peters, S. E., ... & Young, A. M. (2018). Anatomy of STEM teaching in North American universities. Science, 359(6383), 1468-1470. DOI: 10.1126/science.aap8892.   

Zehnder, C., Alby, C., Kleine, K., & Metzker, J. (2021). Learning that matters: A field guide to course design for transformative education. Myers Education Press.

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