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Top Active Learning Strategies for Learners

/ Victoria Sambursky

Young students actively learning in classroom.

Today, teachers must use every tool to engage students, boost comprehension, and spark curiosity in the classroom. Methods like active learning are powerful tools educators can use to transform a simple lecture into an interactive classroom experience.

Luckily, adding active learning strategies into the curriculum is simple and can be adapted for any age, from kindergarten through higher education. This article explores active learning benefits and offers real-world activities and examples teachers can use to transform their classrooms into dynamic learning environments. Let’s get started.

What is active learning, and what are the benefits?

Simply put, active learning includes instructional activity that genuinely engages students in learning. This method goes beyond the traditional passive rote memorization or listening paths and promotes synthesis, analysis, and evaluation of class content. Examples of active learning strategies may include students discussing a challenging question or applying something they've learned from a reading to a class project. This teaching tool commonly includes collaboration and engagement between students in pairs or larger groups. Independent activities are also encouraged and usually include time for reflection and journaling.

Why use active learning? This teaching method offers key benefits, including:

  • helping students gauge their understanding and retaining of a topic or subject
  • makes engagement a little easier for even the most passive or shy student
  • creates a classroom where students feel motivated and a sense of belonging
  • gives teachers necessary and real-time feedback about what students are learning
  • increases critical thinking skills and reduces course failure

Active learning strategies in the K-12 classroom

Children in a classroom actively learning science.

What does active learning in K-12 look like? Methods vary depending on age, learning ability, and how teachers feel they can best engage students. One teacher tells Edutopia that he promotes active learning by strategically replacing instruction with questions that stimulate thoughtful conversations. For example, instead of telling students the types of literary devices in poetry, he'll have students read a poem and ask them how the poems differ in how they communicate their message.

For middle school grades, teachers can ask students to design an invention that will add value to their lives (e.g., create something to make eating ice cream easier) and then have them create a design thinking podcast discussing each phase of the design cycle.

For younger students, teachers may play a game that teaches them multiplication instead of memorizing multiplication tables. Or they may have students engage with each other in small groups to discuss how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly and work through the process steps together by drawing pictures. Below are additional active learning examples practiced in K-12 classrooms.

Video and multimedia tools

Let’s face it: kids love technology. Using video and interactive multimedia tools is a fun and engaging active learning strategy to captivate student interest. These approaches are a great way to collect real-time feedback and help students develop team-building skills, utilize technology, and foster collaborative learning. For example, teachers may ask students to create a video presentation on a topic they are investigating or share the results of a research project using different multimedia platforms.

"Think-write-pair-share" activities

The tried and true think-write-pair-share approach allows all students to interact with the material. During this active learning strategy, teachers offer an open-ended question. Students then spend a few minutes thinking and writing about the topic and then composing a response. Students pair with a partner to discuss the question and their responses. After a few minutes, teachers will call on individual students to share the pair's answers.

Group and experiential learning

Working in small groups is ideal for students to create alternative viewpoints and solutions to a problem. This active learning strategy also helps students teach each other and learn from peers from different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. Some of the most promising active learning occurs outside the classroom - or experiential learning. This method is when students develop knowledge, connections, and skills through experiences outside of school. Some examples include:

  • service learning
  • co-ops, internships, and other work-based experiences
  • research study

Flipped classroom

Another active learning example is using the flipped classroom (sometimes called an inverted classroom) technique. This method allows students to have the new material before class, freeing class time for advanced thinking and hands-on activities. A flipped classroom exercise may include having students research a topic and answer questions the night before to focus on the in-class project the next day. This activity is not meant to add more work for students but to use the class time more effectively.

Higher education and active learning

college students in a group study inside a library

Active learning is very common in today's higher education classrooms, and with good reason. Instead of getting course content from online, live, or video-recorded lectures, this teaching method has students participating in their education in real time. Professors and instructors can use this technique in any class size, although some activities work better in smaller group settings. Active learning strategies in a college classroom may involve:

  • students working on a project or activity in groups or team discussion boards.
  • professors encouraging students to talk and engage with each other
  • students responding to a question via polling or writing

Below are more active learning examples practiced in higher education classrooms. 

Interactive videos

Using interactive videos in courses, lessons, and curricula allows students to analyze and apply concepts through easily understandable content. This method allows professors to measure and maintain engagement with embedded questions like multiple-choice, free-response, and polls. Students can also create their own multimedia and interactive review content. What's more, interactive video can be used for both synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Case studies

Using a case study is an excellent active learning activity because it has students review a real-life situation or problem and analyze how they would resolve it. Most case studies require students to answer open-ended questions or develop a solution to a problem. The case assignment can be completed individually or in a group.

Listening teams

According to Brigham Young University, listening teams offer opportunities for questioning and group discussion of essential course concepts. These teams consist of four students, each taking on one of the roles below:

  • The facilitator - gives examples of key concepts.
  • The questioner - asks two clarifying questions about the material.
  • The devil's advocate-  identifies two areas of disagreement within the content and explains why.
  • The team player - suggests two areas of agreement with the lecture content and explains why.

As the groups listen to the video or lecture, they think of examples, pose questions, and perform their assigned roles. After the lecture, they meet for 5-10 minutes to share ideas and finalize their contributions. Then, the groups will share examples and ask clarifying questions of the professor to solidify their understanding of the key concepts.

Just-in-time teaching

According to Vanderbilt University, just-in-time teaching (JiTT) is a teaching strategy that promotes class time for more active learning. JiTT has students prepare for class by reading from a textbook or other online resources and completing assignments online. The students' answers are available to the instructor a few hours before class starts. This action allows the instructor to adapt the lesson as needed. Some examples of JiTT include:

  • WarmUps - short, web-based assignments designed for students to complete before receiving instruction on a topic.
  • GoodFors - essays that start classroom discussions and help students connect the class to the real world.
  • Puzzles - are short, web-based assignments created to help develop a wrap-up session on a topic already covered in a class. 

Easy active learning ideas and activities to try in the classroom

Boost student interaction and get them moving with the simple and fun collaborative activities below. Teachers can customize the active learning exercises to suit different grade levels, skills, and learning abilities.

Collaborative multimedia projects

Having students collaborate on video projects is a fun way to introduce multimedia while incorporating active learning. For example, one project idea is to have students work in groups to research an environmental topic that impacts their school or community. Next, have students write a script creating awareness around the topic and rehearse the dialog. Once complete, students can develop a video to share their research findings with the class and inspire advocacy.

The "simple and serious" debate props

Begin this activity by writing simple or silly but debatable propositions on cards. For example, "Boba tea is delicious." Then, write "move" words like 'however' or 'but.' Arrange students in a circle with you planted in the middle. Introduce the simple proposition and let students know you'll randomly present them with a "move," to which they'll respond. Then, encourage students to continue their peers' line of argument with the next card from the deck.

For example, if the first student says, "Boba tea is delicious," and the second student receives the card saying "however," he might say, "However, caramel frappuccinos are better tasting." After this warm-up, you can present the more serious propositions. Topics can be adapted according to age and grade level. For instance, for higher education students, the proposition may be:

"It is contrary to academic beliefs and standards to deny controversial speakers a platform on campus."

Pair students and have them arrange the cards of debate moves in the order they might use to build an argument for their proposition. Allow them to practice speaking their way through the argument to each other.

Ride the "idea wave"

Remember doing the “wave” at concerts or football games? Well, this strategy is similar in nature. The idea wave is when a teacher asks students to list three to five ideas about an assigned topic. For example, a middle school teacher may post the question, "How can we prevent cyberbullying?" One student begins the "idea wave" by sharing their idea. The student to the right of the student shares one idea; the next student to the right shares another idea. The instructor leads the idea wave until several different ideas have been shared. For an added twist on the idea wave, have students who did not share discuss what they learned from all the ideas. 

The "muddiest point" activity

Educators can use this simple activity to collect students' real-time understanding of a topic. At the end of class, ask: "What was the muddiest (least evident) point from today's class?" or "What are the two most significant points from today's class?" Provide students a few minutes to write brief answers to turn in anonymously as they leave the classroom. Discuss student responses during the next class.

The gallery walk

Want to get students out of their chairs and actively involved in discussion? Try the gallery walk exercise. This active learning strategy allows students to practice team building, use high-order thinking skills, synthesize concepts, and perform public speaking for any subject. Teams rotate around the classroom, writing answers to questions and reflecting upon the responses given by other groups. This activity works best with open-ended questions that students can analyze from several perspectives.

First, post questions on charts or pieces of paper and arrange them in different parts of the classroom. Each "chart" or station has a question related to an important class concept. Students can state their viewpoints or respond to questions by writing on the chart. They can also add to what other teams have written. After students make their rounds, have them close with an oral presentation or report in which each group synthesizes comments on a question.

Active learning makes the learning experience more interactive and dynamic. It also promotes critical thinking skills and fosters a deeper understanding of the subject matter. The benefits of this method are apparent across all age groups, from kindergarteners experiencing hands-on activities to college students engaging in problem-solving exercises. By including active learning strategies, educators will witness the change it brings to classrooms and students' lives.

Victoria Sambursky.
Victoria Sambursky
Victoria began her career in secondary education, where she worked as a high school English teacher for several years. Eventually, she transitioned to the nonprofit world, working in adult education and later as a scholarship fund director. After the birth of her daughter, Victoria took her love of writing in a different direction and became a professional content writer. Her published works include feature articles, blogs, and interviews on many topics, including higher education and social-emotional learning. These days, you can find Victoria hiking around the Northeast and spending time with her dog, Shelby.