What is active learning?

Active learning is an umbrella term for activities designed to bring more structure to what students do during lectures and other teaching sessions. As defined by Barkley and Howell-Major (2018, p4),

“Active learning is a pedagogical approach that puts into practice over a half-century of research that demonstrates that, to truly learn, we need to make new information our own by working it into our personal knowledge and experience.”

Bonwell and Eison (1991) identify some common characteristics of sessions which bring about students’ efforts: students are involved in more than listening; there is less emphasis on lecturer exposition and more on students working with concepts; and students engage in higher order thinking. Brame (2016) emphasises the link between activity and learning,

“…activities that students do to construct knowledge and understanding. The activities vary but require students to do higher order thinking. Although not always explicitly noted, metacognition—students’ thinking about their own learning—is an important element, providing the link between activity and learning.”

Active learning has been shown to improve attainment and retention. Research has identified benefits for all students (Freeman et al, 2014), most markedly for those from backgrounds historically under-represented in higher education, or more likely to be affected by awarding gaps (Eddy and Hogan, 2014; Roberts et al, 2018).

Benefits are largely (though not exclusively) attributed to group work – the kind of active learning which brings students into closer and more fruitful contact with each other to work with the disciplinary ideas, fostering positive interdependence. As the ‘What Works’ team at King’s emphasises (Todman, 2018), this meaningful contact is associated with academic success – particularly for students from under-represented backgrounds.

Another likely factor is that increased structure provides helpful signposts for students whose social networks have not so far included academic role models, and who have little prior knowledge of academic practice to draw on. Not all forms of contact and structure are equally beneficial, however – your decisions about selecting and designing them will be based in your context, goals, and students’ characteristics. In this resource you will find active learning techniques which (Tanner, 2013):

  • Give students opportunities to think and talk about the discipline.
  • Encourage, demand, and actively manage the participation of all students.
  • Build an inclusive and fair classroom community for all students.
  • Monitor behaviour to cultivate divergent thinking in the discipline.
  • Teach all the students in the room.


Barkley, E.F., Howell Major, C., 2018. Interactive lecturing: a handbook for college faculty. Jossey-Bass. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/kcl/detail.action?docID=5254245 .

Bonwell, C.C., Eison, J., 1991. Active learning. Creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED336049.pdf .

Brame, C., (2016). Active learning. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [todaysdate] from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/active-learning/ .

Eddy, S.L. and Hogan, K.A., 2014. Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work? Cell Biology Education 13, 453–468. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.14-03-0050

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, 8410–8415. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111.

Roberts, J.A., Olcott, A.N., McLean, N.M., Baker, G.S., Möller, A., 2018. Demonstrating the impact of classroom transformation on the inequality in DFW rates (“D” or “F” grade or withdraw) for first-time freshmen, females, and underrepresented minorities through a decadal study of introductory geology courses. Journal of Geoscience Education 66, 304–318. https://doi.org/10.1080/10899995.2018.1510235.

Tanner, K.D., 2013. Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity. CBE—Life Sciences Education 12, 322–331. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.13-06-0115.

Todman, V., 2018. The importance of social capital. Behavioural insights in higher education blog. https://blogs.kcl.ac.uk/behaviouralinsights/2018/12/10/the-importance-of-social-capital/ .