active learning classroom with multiple monitors, chairs and tables on wheels, and multiple whiteboards

About Active Learning

What Is Active Learning? 

Active Learning is a high-impact teaching practice that engages students in meaningful ways with each other and with the course content to enable them to be "co-creators of knowledge." Students are active participants in class sessions and in their own learning. Implementing active learning strategies means shifting the focus of instruction away from the instructor's knowledge transmission to learners' knowledge construction through the guided tasks, interactions, assignments, and environments that cultivate deep, meaningful learning.

Active learning strategies range from quick whiteboard brainstorming tasks to course-long projects. Active learning strategies often incorporate the use of technology to enable students to collaborate and share research, documents, reflections, and responses. Technology is not a requirement for engaging students in a course; however, blended two-way delivery courses will need to use technology tools to engage face-to-face students with their virtual peers.

Why Use Active Learning?

infographic of Active Learning at USC Upstate: 11 classrooms, 3000 students, 74 faculty, 82% persistence/graduationUsing active learning strategies in your courses can increase student engagement, student motivation, student success, and student attitudes towards the subject. Students can make connections to the real world and their prior learning, which increases students’ retention of course material. They can develop their critical thinking, communication, interpersonal, organizational, and technology skills they will need in their careers after college. Active learning courses can promote discovery and creativity among students.

At USC Upstate, a five-year Title III grant enabled the construction of 11 active learning classrooms across campus. Over 3000 USC Upstate students have enrolled in active learning courses taught by more than 75 faculty members since 2015. 82% of students who completed active learning courses returned to USC Upstate the following semester or graduated. This is 12% higher than the rate of persistence or graduation among students who did not complete an active learning course.   

Course Design Considerations

Active learning courses require more preparation on the front end for instructors. Design your course with meaningful projects and tasks as well as meaningful assessments for both you and your students. How can you give students more ownership of creating resources, designing case studies, collaborating to find solutions, and actively exploring the course content and its applications? What is the most effective and meaningful way for you to assess your course learning outcomes? How can students show you what they have learned from that class or module? 

Phase 1: Before the Scheduled Class Session

Make a plan. Make sure you and your students have the information, content, and background knowledge needed before the activity begins. This may mean you assign students a video, lecture, reading, task, or assignment to complete before class. Explicitly tell them why they are completing the assignment and why they need to complete it before class so students will do it and come prepared to do active learning activities during class.

Before the session, you will need to develop the activities, gather the resources, and create any technology integration to use with your activity for the class session. You will also need to determine how you will assess students’ learning from the session. Can students complete an exit ticket at the end of class? Do they need to write a summary or complete a quiz? Will a larger assignment they complete show you their learning from this class?

Phase 2: During the Scheduled Class Session

  • Give specific directions for tasks you expect them to accomplish and a time limit.
  • Repeat the directions before students start working in groups and/or post directions electronically or physically in the class where students can refer back to them as they work.
  • Rotate between groups to answer any questions students may have or to redirect when needed.
  • Leave enough time for groups to share out their work and hear from other groups.
  • This will always take longer than you anticipate because students will get excited about sharing what they have discovered or produced.
Tools for Implementing Active Learning

Which technology tools should you use? This will depend on your goals for the course and session. Some suggestions: