Active Learning

Author: Dr. Tracy Summerville (Political Science)

Throughout this manual you will find a number of practical ways to engage with your students. There are lots of techniques that will help you and I will share some of them here but what is most critical is that you find a way to be your authentic self in the classroom and that you engage with the students in a way that demonstrates that you care about their learning.

The term “active learning” does not necessarily mean that we must move away from the traditional methods of teaching, particularly lecturing. You do not necessarily have to change everything you do in the classroom to accommodate active learning. Of course, some will want to make dramatic changes to their pedagogical practices; you can change your classroom techniques entirely if you wish but you can also make an active learning style fit with traditional lecture models.

One core principle of active learning says that: “[l]earning involves the active construction of meaning by the learner.”

This principle thus assumes that students must do more than simply take down notes that are read or spoken to them. Most academics would agree that we multitask when we read. We do not just read an academic article word for word without thinking of the context in which the argument is being made or how the facts are assembled to support an argument or what assumptions underlie the author’s position. Yet many instructors who lecture assume that students who are taking notes are applying the same rules to their listening as we do to our reading. Active learning assumes that you will check-in to make sure that students are doing more than just transcribing your words.

This short write-up about active learning will do two things: one, it will describe an active learning classroom that is built into the lecture format; and two, it will describe a completely active classroom in which the students lead the process of learning. Both are valid ways to construct active learning in your classroom.

Active Learning in a Lecture Setting

There a number of ways to work-in active learning into a lecture setting: the flipped classroom, iclicker (  or Immediate Feedback   (polling) technology, or other in-class formative assessment techniques.

The Flipped Classroom

The flipped classroom is a technique that uses class time to review and examine lecture material that has been provided to the students before the class. Usually the lecture is posted on a blog or learning support software, like Blackboard. The lecture can be a set of written notes or a PowerPoint or an Adobe Presenter slide show. The students are expected to arrive to the classroom having gone through the material that the instructor would otherwise stand and deliver. The classroom time is spent making the connections that students would ignore if they were simply transcribing lecture material. Thus the classroom time is spent highlighting key themes and connections to other material already presented. The instructor can review a certain concept that was explained in the written lecture material and ask students to apply it to a new case.  Thus the flipped classroom is an opportunity to review, analyze and explain the ideas further after the student has already had the chance to see the lecture material. This technique requires some extra work. It is critical that the students have the material ahead of time and that the instructor is prepared to go beyond re-articulating the lecture notes. The instructor must begin from the assumption that the students have read the lecture and formative assessment can be used to assess whether students have read or not.

The iclicker or Immediate Feedback (or polling) option can be used in conjunction with the flipped classroom or it can be used while you are giving the lecture. These polling devises allow you to ask students questions that probe the material that you are presenting (or have already presented) to them. You can teach a concept and then challenge the students to see if they can define, describe or apply it. You can find out right away if the students are confused about the meaning or application of a critical idea. Once you have polled the first time and discovered that students are not clear on the correct answer, you can have them discuss their choices in groups and then re-poll to see if their misconceptions have been clarified. You can then review each answer to show which answer is best and why. This type of formative assessment “checks-in” to see that you have not left students behind.  This technique helps you to assess student learning before a mid-term exam shows that many students missed critical concepts and ideas along the way.

Of course you can also poll without the technology. The advantage of the technology is that you have a record of participation and a record of the changes that occurred in the learning.  Also, it is anonymous which allows students to make mistakes without feeling everyone is watching. Anonymity is probably best but you can also simply use a show of hands if you want.

Other formative assessment techniques that require less technology are activities that ask the students to report their learning at the end of lectures. For example, you can use the one-minute essay. At the end of a class ask students to write for one-minute on a key idea or concept that was a learning outcome from your lecture. Before the next lecture read the answers. You can choose to mark these one-minute essays or not but you must give feedback so that students know if they “got it” or not. I often use these essays as a way to grade participation in the class. The students must be in the classroom to write them although I always allow students to do the one-minute essays even if they missed a class they just don’t get the participation grade.

Another method that is similar is “the muddiest point” memo. Ask students to write a quick memo to you at the end of the class that highlights some idea / concept etc. that simply was not made clear. You can use these to start the lecture the next day. You need to be careful that you don’t leave anyone’s muddiest point unclear so if you don’t have time to attend to each one of them then you might write an explanation on your blog or learning technology site that clarifies an idea.

The key with the formative assessment techniques in the lecture hall is to ensure that you follow up. If you ask them to reflect on their learning then you must follow up with an answer in some way.

Active Learning in an Active Classroom

Active learning can also happen when the instructor transforms themselves “from sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” This type of classroom requires that you think of yourself as a facilitator of the students’ learning allowing them to engage in projects that are designed to teach content and skills.  In this type of classroom you need to give the students the tools they need to work through a problem or project. Remember in this setting you are a resource for both the content and the skills. Let me give a concrete example.

In a Canadian politics class I begin my course with this exercise: Canada is Big

My learning outcomes:

By the end of this class (or classes depending on whether this exercise will stretch over multiple classes) students will be able to:

First, when students come into the classroom I break them into groups and I ask them to draw a map of Canada without use of any information other than what they know.  After they have done this I ask them to make observations about this process. While students note many interesting observations, my main aim is for the students to recognize that Canada is a very big country and that it is divided into provinces and territories.  I then give students a blank map of Canada with the capital cities noted for each province.

Second, I ask students to use Statistics Canada to find demographic information:

  • the population of each province and territory
  • the population of each provincial capital
  • the population of the federal capital

If it is a large class, I ask a volunteer to come to the front and with the guidance of their peers, to work through the Statistics Canada website to find the data. If it is a small class, I ask them to use their laptops and iPhones.

After they are done I ask them to make observations about population. What is the population of the entire province of P.E.I. versus Toronto? What about Nunavut versus British Columbia? My aim here is for students to recognize the population disparity. I also ask students to note where the majority of people live relative to the border just by looking at the capital cities of each province.

After this I ask the students to access the Parliamentary website to find out the number of seats per province assigned to the House of Commons and Senate and I ask them to find their constituency. I then ask them to look at the connection or the disconnection between population and seat distribution.

This active classroom puts the students in charge of finding and interpreting data. Over the course of the term, each class is designed so that students work through an exercise that will help them to gain the same learning outcomes as I would expect from a stand and deliver lecture. The difference in the active classroom is that they are in an environment where students must find and interpret data and information with the guidance of the instructor.

The active classroom teaches the same content as the passive classroom but it puts the students in charge of their learning.

Reading and the Active Classroom

One of the greatest challenges that we face as instructors is to get our students to read academic articles. I always assume that my students have the best intentions and that they do actually want to do their readings. I do not think they are lazy although I do think that time management can sometimes be an issue. I also think that we fail to teach students how to read scholarly work.

I ask myself this…”If the students do not read the assigned readings, will they fail to understand the critical conversation that is going on among academics about important issues.” My answer is almost always, “Yes.” So with this in mind, an active classroom should set aside time for students to read and for their first few years as undergraduates we should teach students how to read an academic article. Many will argue that there is “no time” to allow for reading in the classroom but an engaged session of active reading with the facilitation of the instructor will lead to an overall greater understanding of the course material.

You can do active reading by dividing the reading into parts. Have students read the introduction and then, in groups, have them identify the thesis, the background and the general outline of the paper. We know that most well written papers have this format and obviously you want to pick an article that does have a clearly written introduction. Most students find it difficult to find the thesis so I suggest that focus on this as the learning outcome of the exercise. Ask,

  • What precisely is a thesis?
  • Why is the thesis important?
  • How does the thesis help us to follow the argument?
  • What precisely is the evidence the author uses to support the thesis?

There are many other questions you can ask here but developing a strong set of skills for reading academic articles can help an active classroom because students will be able to discuss the academic conversation by recognizing scholarship as the basis for the material you are sharing with them.

An active classroom assumes that you want to engage every student so that they can live up to their potential.


Weimer, Maryellen. “Five Key Principles of Active Learning