In a previous post, I cited this simple definition for active learning:

Active learning is a process where students engage in classroom activities that promote critical engagement with course materials. Activities may include text analysis, collaborative writing, various forms of discussion or problem solving. Although active learning transfers, in part, the responsibility of learning to the student, the course must also be designed to make student activities meaningful and goal-oriented.

In one definition, when done well, “active learning engages students in two aspects – doing things and thinking about the things they are doing (Bonewell and Eison, 1991*).

So, active leaning is about students “doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.”

Like to learn more? The monograph from which that quote is extracted is a good place to start reading. Charles Bonwell, and colleague, James Eison, were early adopters of current concepts of active learning:

Bonwell, Charles C.; Eison, James A., Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. 1991 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports. (full text version) —This work is an early definition of what active learning is, and why it might be adopted.

Bonwell, Craig. Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, (, Green Mountain Falls, CO) —-These are working documents from a workshop on active learning created by one of the two authors of the preceding monograph.

There’s also A Digest of Bonwell and Eison, if you want the gist of this formative work in a few paragraphs.

For a review of the literature see:

Prince, Michael. “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research.” (Journal of Engineering Education, , 92 (3) 223-231, 2004.

For more practical examples:

The University of Minnesota has prepared a guide on “How to prepare your class for active learning.” This page is useful in pointing out that active learning is NOT doing your traditional lecture while occasionally moving the deck chairs–um, I mean “classroom furniture” — around. A class needs to be designed around active learning, with clear goals, and adapted curricular materials. There might be fewer lectures. (You may have expected that.)

Cornell has a more general reference page on “Engaging Students,” which includes many ideas for active learning.

A recent article by James Lang, in the Chronicle for Higher Education suggests some simple exercises you can do in the first five minutes of class to engage students and help them internalize course content.

We (meaning the authors of this blog at Princeton, suggest some strategies for including “Technology in the Classroom.” Some of these encourage student-centered learning. You can also use the search form on this page to explore terms like “active” or “large class” to find more suggestions for student engagement.