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Notes on Teaching and Learning

Getting Students Engaged: Active Learning for Beginners

November 5, 2021
Kathryn Trentadue

Looking back on my own experiences in undergraduate and graduate classes, those that stood out to me the most were the classes where I felt engaged in the material.  I recall my interest and excitement when a professor would pause in lecturing and pose a question to discuss or a problem to solve, allowing me to engage in the material and test my understanding. Incorporating these pauses for active learning and participation is a valuable way to increase student understanding and interest.

According to Felder and Brent, “active learning is anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than watching, listening and taking notes.” Bonwell and Eison provide another definition, writing that active learning is “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” Both of these definitions have in common the idea that students are participants in their own learning, engaging and struggling with the material, rather than passively receiving it.

Why is active learning important?

Research on student learning suggests that uninterrupted lecture is not the most effective way to teach students. In fact, incorporating active learning into a classroom has a number of benefits, including:

  • Leading students to develop a deeper understanding of course content
  • Offering instructors the opportunity to quickly assess comprehension and provide immediate feedback to students
  • Encouraging students to interact with one another, building a sense of community and also developing valuable collaboration skills

How can we incorporate active learning?

Incorporating active learning strategies into a traditionally lecture-based class can feel intimidating. How can we include these activities when we already barely have time to cover the material that the students need to know? Fortunately, there are a number of options for encouraging student engagement without completely abandoning traditional lecture. One popular option is to alternate periods of lecture with complementary activities which ask students to engage with the material that has just been described to them. Several possible activities include:

  • Think-Pair-Share activities: students are asked to independently consider a question, then discuss it with a partner or small group, then groups are asked to share with the rest of the class.
  • Classroom polling: students are asked to vote on a question, either by a show of hands or using a tech option such as Poll Everywhere. This technique is especially useful in larger classes and as a way to gauge student comprehension.
  • Small group discussions: students are given a discussion question or problem and asked to discuss/solve in small groups.
  • Jigsaw: students are divided into small groups and each student within a group is made responsible for a different portion of the topic. Students then learn from each other, collaborating to gain an understanding of the topic as a whole.

By incorporating some of these strategies, you can encourage students to actively participate in their own learning, leading to better understanding of the material and, often, increased engagement in the class. Want to learn more about the benefits of active learning and how to incorporate it into your classroom? Check out some of the resources below!

Resources for Further Reading:

Active Learning | Notre Dame Learning (

Active Learning in Higher Education: Benefits and Examples (

Active Learning: An Introduction (

Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research – Prince – 2004 – Journal of Engineering Education – Wiley Online Library

Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics | PNAS