Instruction that requires students to engage cognitively and meaningfully with content results in better learning than instruction where students are solely exposed to information passively. Active learning can be generally classified by the level of behavioral activity (hands-on activity or discussion) and by the level of cognitive activity (cognitive processes for selecting, organizing and integrating). High cognitive activity is necessary for learning, wheras high behavorial activity is not. For example, it is possible to design effective learning experiences with low levels of behavorial activity (ex: students studying and annotating a worked example on their own), and conversely, it is possible to design ineffective learning exercises that involve high levels of behavorial activity (ex: following a protocol mindlessly in a laboratory class). 

  • Administer in-class activities that ask students to cognitively engage with the information presented.
    • Consider breaking up a lecture with polling or clicker questions. For asynchronous engagement, embed questions in a Panopto video or within a module in Residential MITx.
  • Provide opportunities for students to engage cognitively with each other through the use of collaboration and community tools such as collaborative annotators.
    • Explore tools that encourage student collaboration and co-construction of knowledge, such as:
  • While demonstrating or providing worked examples, ask probing questions that require explanation of solution steps (see section on 'Worked and faded examples'). 
    • Instructors can record a Lightboard video to work through an example problem and model how to explain each step. Follow this up with opportunities for students to practice the steps through p-sets or problems in the platform. Reminder – spacing out these opportunities to practice has been shown to support students learning more effectively than single practice.

8.02 Physics (TEAL + MITx) | John Belcher, Peter Dourmashkin, David Lister & Saif Rayyan:

8.02’s TEAL format involves peer instruction, group problem-solving, and the use of technology like software for multimedia visualization as part of the in-class experience. To improve how students learn outside of class, the Department of Physics leveraged the MITx platform to create TEAL+x, which students use to do pre-class exercises involving immediate, automated feedback. Read more about TEAL + MITx here.


15.010 Management | Alessandra Bonatti & Michael Whinston:

In consultation with the Sloan IT department and Open Learning, the faculty team for 15.010 used a flipped instructional approach for specific areas of the curriculum, which involved students engaging with voice over animated videos with concept check problems prior to attending class. Students were then required to use the skills learned from the videos to work on “lab” questions in small groups during class, followed by a whole-class discussion. Read more about this use of video for active learning here.


11.124 Urban Studies and Planning | Eric Klopfer & Wendy Huang:

As preparation for in-class discussion, Profs. Eric Klopfer and Wendy Huang had students discuss pre-class readings on a Moodle forum. For students, this activity initiated early conversation around the text rather than limiting it to class time, while faculty were able to identify emerging themes and questions from the discussion posts in order to address them in class. Read more about this use of an online discussion forum here.


SCM.260/SCM.266 Management | Chris Caplice:

Prof. Caplice uses technology like Lightboard and interactive polling to reach learners in different modalities across his Supply Chain Management courses. 5-15 minute Lightboard videos that introduce each class turn quantitative material into an engaging presentation, while polling via Slido facilitates more Socratic, student-faculty interaction during class. Read more about Prof. Caplice’s teaching innovations here.


18.01 Mathematics | Jennifer French & Martin Segado:

Dr. Jennifer French and Martin Segado designed a Sketch Tool – a digital app that runs in the MITx platform – for their 18.01 Calculus course that automatically grades and provides feedback on student graphs and sketches. The tool allow students to actively engage with homework/exercises by constructing graphs themselves rather than passively recognizing others’ sketches, as when choosing a multiple choice answer. Read more about the calculus Sketch Tool here.


3.032 Mechanical Behaviors of Materials | Lorna Gibson:

Professor Gibson uses the MITx platform to flip her course: students watch recorded lectures before coming to class and class time is used to solve problems and discuss difficult concepts. Here is a brief explanation about her blended learning implementation in 3.032 (2:07-2:27).


6.005 Elements of Software Construction | Robert Miller:

This course follows a flipped-classroom model. Professor Miller uses handx, a course management system he developed to deliver course content. Prior to class students read the course textbook and answer embedded questions and exercises. Professor Miller begins each class with a graded quiz (an example of Retrieval practice employed to promote student learning). 

During class, students answer concept questions and work on programming problems together, annotating each other's code, using a plug-in for Eclipse.

In this video from the MacVicar Day Symposium, Robert Miller further explains how he incorporates active learning in 6.005 (22:33-34:04):



5.111 Principles of Chemical Science | Catherine Drennan:

Professor Drennan conducts 'clicker competitions' during Friday's class to motivate students to participate in active learning activities. Every week the recitation that wins the most points gets a small reward. Student surveys indicated that after clicker competitions were implemented, student motivation for engaging during class activities and preparing for class increased dramatically.

Winners of 5.11 clicker contest









Victors of the clicker competition. Photo Credit: MIT News


Key resource: 

  • 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. DOI


  • Chi, M. T. H., & Wylie, R. (2014). The ICAP framework: Linking cognitive engagement to active learning outcomes. Educational Psychologist, 49(4), 219–243. DOI
  • Crouch, C. H., & Mazur, E. (2001). Peer instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics, 69(9), 970–977. DOI 
  • Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66(1), 64. DOI 
  • Knight, J. K., & Wood, W. B. (2005). Teaching more by lecturing less. Cell Biology Education, 4(4), 298–310. DOI 
  • Lasry, N., Mazur, E., & Watkins, J. (2008). Peer instruction: From Harvard to the two-year college. American Journal of Physics, 76(1), 1066–1069. DOI 
  • Miller, R. L., & Santana-Vega, E. (2006). Can good questions and peer discussion improve calculus instruction? Primus, 16(3), 193–203. DOI 
  • Smith, M. K., Wood, W. B., Adams, W. K., Wieman, C., Knight, J. K., Guild, N., & Su, T. T. (2009). Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions. Science, 323(5910), 122–124. DOI