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Active Learning Strategies

Active learning strategies involve actively engaging students in the learning process. This approach to instruction can take many forms, but it requires us to shift the focus from knowledge transmission to knowledge construction. 

Definition and Explanation

Active learning is closely related to other instructional methods like student-centered learning, problem-based learning and experiential learning. 

Bonwell and Eison (1991) define active learning as “instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing” (p. 5). Active learning fosters understanding rather than memorization and encourages students to apply learned information to different contexts. It also gives students more autonomy over their learning.


Active learning can take many forms and can be done online or in person. You can be creative and tailor activities to shape the nature of your course, the dynamics of your class and the amount of time that you have with students. Active learning activities can be graded or ungraded. Even if it accounts for a small portion of the final grade, including active learning activities can help promote engagement and participation. 

Best practices:
  • Keep active learning activities brief (Felder & Brent, 2009). Giving students up to a few minutes to work on a small task together can help keep them motivated and focused on the task.
  • Warn students to be prepared to share when the time is up. This can be beneficial for students who may become anxious if they are called on without warning and to keep groups on-track. An online timer can be useful when using active learning tasks in class. There are a few free online stopwatches available through Google search.
  • There may be students who are uncomfortable moving into a less passive role in the classroom for a variety of reasons. It is a good practice to acknowledge this and thank students for being open enough to give these activities a try. Varying the strategies that are used and allowing options for students to express their ideas can be helpful. With time, resistant students may become more comfortable playing an active role in your classes.


  • Brainstorm

    This learning strategy requires students to generate ideas or thoughts on a certain issue, topic or question. Brainstorming can help students activate prior knowledge on a given topic and generate ideas without being too concerned about getting the right answer. This is a good strategy to use when there may be many possible solutions or ideas to explore.  

    To apply a brainstorming strategy:

    1. Pose question or problem to the class. 
    2. Ask students to brainstorm ideas, either individually or in small groups. They can do this using chart paper or online tools like Google Doc or Jamboard. 
    3. Encourage students to draw on prior knowledge and experiences.
    4. Review some of the answers as a class. 
  • Think-Pair-Share

    This collaborative learning strategy requires students to work together to answer a question or solve a problem. This strategy may be coupled with the use of a polling system like Mentimeter.

    To apply the think-pair-share method:

    1. Pose a question or problem to the class and give students time to think about it individually.
    2. Ask students to pair with a peer and discuss the question or problem. 
    3. Regroup and ask pairs to share their findings.
  • Discussion

    This learning strategy involves engaging students in dialogue and requires them to think critically about a posed question or problem. 

    To facilitate a discussion:

    1. Pose an appropriate question or problem to the class. Keep in mind that close-ended questions invite a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response and can limit the discussion. Think about a thoughtful open-ended question that can foster an engaging discussion. 
    2. Ask students to think critically about the posed question and share their thoughts and ideas when they are ready. 
    3. Encourage them to reflect on the responses being shared.
  • Jigsaw

    This collaborative learning strategy employs elements of peer instruction, as it requires students to specialize in a specific aspect of a topic and then teach it to their colleagues. 

    To apply the jigsaw method:

    1. Divide students into ‘home groups’. Number students in each group based on the number of related topics to explore. For example, if there are 6 members in each group, choose 6 subtopics so that each student is assigned one. 
    2. Split up students into ‘expert groups’ where they will learn about their assigned topic. One student from each ‘home group’ will join other students with the same number/topic. 
    3. Ask students to return to their ‘home groups’ to teach their peers about the topics they explored. 

    In some cases, students are provided resource packages to guide their learning of the topics they have been assigned to teach their peers. This could be coordinated using digital or print resources.

  • Student Response Systems

    This strategy involves the use of polling systems to actively engage students during class. Students can use their smartphones, laptops or tablets to answer questions and their responses will be displayed in real time. This can give a voice to students who may not be comfortable speaking up in class and allow you to capture more student perspectives. 

    Mentimeter is an example of a versatile polling tool that is available to all Ontario Tech instructors, staff and students. It allows you to create interactive presentations and lectures and incorporate a variety of question styles from multiple-choice to word clouds. 

  • Minute Paper

    This learning strategy requires students to write out what they believe to be the key points of the session in just one minute. This provides students the opportunity to solidify their ideas and can provide you with insight on the concepts that stood out to students.

    To facilitate the minute paper activity:

    1. Pose an open-ended question to the class.
    2. Give students a minute to write down their responses. This can be done on paper or electronically using tools like Mentimeter or Jamboard. 
    3. Review some of the answers. 

    This activity can be used at any time within the session. Starting the session with this activity can allow you to gauge the student’s understanding of the topic that you will be covering. On the other hand, ending the session with this activity can help you get feedback (similar to an ‘exit ticket’ strategy)


Active Learning Strategies for Higher Education - The Practical Handbook - CC BY-NA-SA Centre for Higher Education Research, Policy and Practice


Bonwell, C. & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1., Washington: DC: George Washington University. Retrieved from:

Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (2009). Active learning: An introduction. ASQ Higher Education Brief, 2(4), 1-5.