Faculty Evaluation and Coaching Department
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What is Active Learning?

Learning is not a spectator sport. - Chickering & Gamson (1987)

Isn’t all learning inherently active? Yes, but some activities are more active in ways that facilitate deep understanding and long-term learning. As you know, the ability to conceptualize and design creative artifacts requires higher-order thinking skills. Research suggests that for students to build these skills, they must do more than listen and watch during class time (Chickering & Gamson, 1987).

Simply put, active learning involves students “doing things and thinking about what they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). This means engaging students in tasks (e.g., reading, writing, discussing, experimenting, problem-solving) that require their active participation.

Additionally, neuroscience research points to the value of engaging the entire brain in the learning process. Researchers have known for some time that getting information, making meaning of information, forming new ideas from what we understand and acting on those ideas happen in different parts of the brain (Zull, 2004). As biologist, researcher and college professor James Zull puts it, “If teachers provide experiences and assignments that engage all four areas of the cortex, they can expect deeper learning.”

The good news is that increasing the level of “activity” in your class doesn’t require major restructuring. Here are some quick and simple activities for students to do in pairs. These activities can take only 5-10 minutes, and will increase the amount of active learning during a long lecture, demo, or critiquing period.

  • Share their understanding of the topic before the lecture.
  • Analyze a design together.
  • Critique one of each other’s homework assignments.
  • Develop questions to ask the instructor about a demo.
  • Discuss a short reading excerpt related to the concepts in class.
  • Recap a lesson or class session.
  • Respond to a question posed by the teacher.
  • Rehearse the steps to create a particular effect in a software program.
  • Compare notes taken in class.

Suggestions for integrating active learning smoothly:

  • Start early in the semester. Set expectations for active participation during class time from the beginning.
  • Explain why you’re using active learning strategies. Be explicit about how activities connect to the course goals and outcomes so students won’t see them as peripheral or “busy work”.
  • Give clear directions. Establish a time frame and write down basic instructions or steps on the board or a handout.


Bonwell, C. C. & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. National Teaching and Learning Forum. Madison, WI.

Chickering, Arthur W., and Zelda F. Gamson. March 1987. Seven Principles for Good Practice. American Association of Higher Education Bulletin. 

Silberman, Mel. (1996). Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Needham Heights: Allyn and Bacon. 

Zull, James. September 2004. “ The Art of Changing the Brain.” Educational Leadership. Vol. 62, issue 1, p. 68-72.