Active Learning

Active learning is an approach that engages students in the learning process, and is often thought of as an alternative to conventional lectures. Commonly accepted instructional methods used with this approach include collaborative learning, cooperative learning, and problem-based learning (PBL) (Prince, 2004). Benefits of active learning include:

  • Higher graduation rates and decreased study duration (Schmidt, Cohen-Schotanus, & Arends, 2009)
  • Higher test scores (Freeman et al., 2014)
  • Improvement of short-term and long-term retention (Ruhl, Hughes, & Schloss, 1987)
  • Optimizing student attention spans (Prince, 2004)
  • Enabling students to become self-directed learners (Moust, van Berkel, & Schmidt, 2005) 

How to Get Started

Step 1: Consider the amount of active learning you currently use in your course. 

  • Are students passively listening to you speak most of the time, or are they participating in group discussions, reflection, and/or problem-solving activities? Your course may already include a debate activity or a group project that students work on during class, for example. 
  • Review feedback from student evaluations and take note of comments regarding the level of engagement and interactivity. Do students sound pleased with the day-to-day class structure, or do you sense that there is a need to create more active learning experiences?

Step 2: Consider the types of assessments you utilize. 

  • How often is learning evaluated in your class? Do students complete self-assessments? Is classroom polling ever used to check for understanding? Regular evaluations conducted through a mix of formative and summative assessments are a key part of active learning (Dolmans, Wolfhagen, Van Der Vleuten,  & Wijnen, 2001).

Step 3: Have your course reviewed by a peer or DELTA staff member. 

  • You might be surprised by a colleague’s observations after “taking” your course (or just working through 1-2 modules). 
  • Consider scheduling an Instructional Consultation to review your strategy. An instructional designer can review your course learning objectives, activities, and assessments

Best Practices

  • Format Moodle (or another LMS) using a clear, effective structure.
  • Utilize current, readily obtainable course technology that promotes learner engagement and active learning (California State University, 2009; MarylandOnline, 2016).
  • Set Clear Expectations from the Beginning
    • Let students know how to get started in the course by including a “Getting Started” NC State Book.
    • Include a self-introduction. Ask students to introduce themselves to the class (MarylandOnline, 2016).
    • Include guidelines for Discussion Boards and other collaborative work — provide specific criteria for each assignment.
    • Create learning activities that offer opportunities for student-student, student-instructor, and student-content interaction (California State University, 2009; MarylandOnline, 2016).
  • View other online courses at NC State through the Teaching with Moodle Course. This is a great way to get ideas about Moodle’s many activities and formatting options for your course.
  • DELTA workshop recordings are available to help with various online teaching applications.


  • Pause periodically during class to let students check for understanding. This method improves student retention (Ruhl, Hughes, & Schloss, 1987).
    • During a lecture, pause every 15 minutes and have students discuss a question, compare notes, etc. Top Hat is an especially useful tool for this, and can be used for face-to-face, blended, and fully online courses. PlayPosit is another helpful tool for this method; it allows you to insert questions into videos to check for understanding or to let students self-assess.
  • Include interactive activities that promote cooperation rather than competition. 
    • Have students discuss a misconception, design solutions for a case study, or brainstorm reasons for or against a topic.
  • Include a jigsaw activity.
    • Assign students to groups. Group 1 reads article 1, Group 2 reads article 2, Group 3 reads article 3, etc for homework. The next class period, group students into teams that contain members from the original groups 1, 2, and 3. Each member explains the article that s/he read to the other group members (Grantham & Fiedor-Raines, 2013).
  • Implement self-assessments that point students toward the types of skills they should be learning (Appleby, 2013).
    • Create a quiz that covers the main topics for a unit. This should be ungraded and give students an idea of how their level of knowledge matches the assessment(s) for that unit. The Moodle “Quiz” feature allows various question types including multiple choice, matching, short-answer and numerical.
  • Allow students to vote for something that is typically decided solely by the professor, like an extra credit topic or key components for a rubric.


Appleby, D. (2013). A flashcard strategy to help students prepare for three types of multiple choice questions commonly found on introductory psychology tests. Society for the Teaching of Psychology.    

California State University, Chico. (2009). Rubric for online instruction. 

Dolmans, D., Wolfhagen, I., Van Der Vleuten, C., & Wijnen, W. (2001). Solving problems with group work in problem‐based learning: Hold on to the philosophy. Medical Education, 35(9), 884-889. 

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. 

Grantham, A., & Fiedor-Raines, L. (2013). Active learning activities and resources. DELTA. Handout.

MarylandOnline. (2016). Quality Matters rubric standards, fifth edition. MarylandOnline, Inc. 

Moust, J.,  van Berkel, M., & Schmidt, H. G. (2005). Signs of erosion: Reflections on three decades of problem-based learning at maastricht university. Higher Education, 50(4), 665-683.

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231. 

Ruhl, K., Hughes, C., & Schloss, P. (1987). Using the pause procedure to enhance lecture recall. Teacher Education and Special Education, 10, 14–18. 

Schmidt, H. G., Cohen-Schotanus, J., & Arends, L. R. (2009). Impact of problem-based, active learning on graduation rates for 10 generations of dutch medical students. Medical Education, 43(3), 211-218.