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.
  • Provide opportunities for students to engage cognitively with each other through the use of collaboration and community tools such as collaborative annotators.
  • While demonstrating or providing worked examples, ask probing questions that require explanation of solution steps (see section on 'Worked and faded examples'). 

16.06 Principles of Automatic Control | Steven Hall

Professor Hall encourages active learning during class by using concept questions. During recitation, all students work on solving problems in pairs on blackboards spread throughout the room. Here you can find four videos (two of which are posted below) on Professor Hall's reflections on various aspects of implementing active learning in his class.


This xTalk video segment summarizes Professor Hall's active learning implementation (3:07-16:06):

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:

Victors of the clicker competition. Photo Credit: MIT News

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.


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