Active Learning


Active learning keeps our students engaged and helps improve their learning outcomes. Below, we share research on active learning, we outline 12 ways to implement active learning in your classes, and we include video of active learning in progress.

Research on Active Learning

Active learning can be defined as an “instructional method that engages students in the learning process… [and that] requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing” (Prince, 2004, p.223). Whilst quantifying improvements in student learning outcomes relating to such a broadly defined approach as active learning can be challenging, “the empirical support for active learning is extensive” (Prince, 2004, p.225) and “Introducing activity into lectures can significantly improve recall of information while extensive evidence supports the benefits of student engagement” (Prince, 2004, p.226).

In science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, Freeman et al (2014) note that “average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning” (p.8410).

Furthermore, technology has long played a role in the facilitation of active learning approaches, with MIT successfully implementing its Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) project for improving physics teaching back in 1990 (Hernández-de-Menéndez,Vallejo Guevara, Tudón Martínez, Hernández Alcántara & Morales-Menendez, 2019, pp.912-913).


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 U.S.A., 111, 8410-8415.

Hernández-de-Menéndez, M., Vallejo Guevara, A., Tudón Martínez, J.C., Hernández Alcántara, D., & Morales-Menendez, R. (2019). Active learning in engineering education. A review of fundamentals, best practices and experiences. International Journal on Interactive Design and Manufacturing (IJIDeM), 13, 909-922.

Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.

Active Learning approaches

Here are twelve common active learning approaches. Teachers can select which elements best fit their learning and teaching scenarios or choose other approaches which promote active learning for their students.

Teachers can provide interactive lectures with the use of Student Response Systems (SRS) for the students to participate actively in the classroom. SRS tools often feature in the videoconferencing platforms that teachers are now familiar with, such as Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, Teams and Zoom which include polls, ‘hand raising’, ‘yes/no’ and other response mechanisms.

Kahoot, Mentimeter, Poll Everywhere and Socrative can also be used here. Students can answer questions related to educational content with their mobile devices with the results shown immediately to the class on screen. Further analysis and elaboration can then facilitate teaching and learning.

Furthermore, in online teaching, platforms such as Teams MURAL and Miro can integrate many participative activities within the lesson itself, including interactive whiteboard functionality. YoTeach! can also be used to provide a platform for online interactivity.


In a face-to-face setting, the teacher asks students a question and the students think, discuss with a partner and then share with the teacher and class. Online tools such as Padlet and a Microsoft OneDrive Word document allow users to build virtual places for sharing. Users can share messages, web links, images, videos and audio.

  • Padlet allows individual users to answer questions, keep notes or make mind-maps or bookmark useful websites. Students can share their work and discuss with their peers. Teachers can review and  give comments and further explanation when needed.
  • Miro is an online, collaborative whiteboard that can facilitate brainstorming and other collaborative creation of content.


Students can video record their individual or group presentations and then upload them to YouTube or Panopto, sharing a link with their teacher and classmates. They can then participate in asynchronous Q&A via discussion forums or synchronous Q&A via a video conferencing tool such as Zoom.

  • Instead of the more commonly used PowerPoint presentations, students can use Prezi to illustrate their ideas.
  • Within PowerPoint, Presenter Coach gives students feedback on their presentations.
  • Pecha Kucha is a presentation style. Presenters need to make a timed presentation which is usually 20 slides for 20 seconds. Pecha Kucha can enhance the quality of presentation as the presenters must keep their talks concise in order not to overrun their presentation


Gamification refers to the application of elements of gaming and competition into a generally non-gaming environment, such as education. Literature suggests that gamified learning can lead to improved student engagement and interactions. Gamified elements can include a range of interventions such as achievement markers, including badges, roleplaying, storytelling, and points awarded in competitive (group) settings. As with all forms of education, careful planning is advised and where possible, student involvement in activity design can be a positive step. 

  • uReply: There are new gaming features in uReply, including Group Competition, Speed Challenge, and Level Challenge. Kahoot includes multiple games and Socrative is worth a look too.


Peer instruction can involve an initial polling to check the students’ understanding of a particular concept in the teaching content. Students with different opinions are asked to communicate and explain to each other. A second polling is conducted and followed by analysis and elaboration of results by the teacher. Groups can be established, for example, using the Group function in Blackboard. Perusall, the social reading site can be used here with student-prepared texts.


In Case-based learning (CBL) the students prepare in advance for a subsequent guided discovery learning session in class. To support CBL, important events or scenarios can be captured and stored in a database for review and retrieval. Scenarios can be simulated to allow students to visualize the scenes and identify the causes and consequences of the events, which can then be explored in groups.

Problem-based Learning (PBL) is an open inquiry model which promotes student learning via complex real-world examples and can also greatly enhance critical thinking in addition to application of subject-based knowledge. Teachers choose an idea or concept, think of a real-world context and then present a problem via an elaborate scenario that leads groups of students to problem solving activities.


  • Teachers can create small groups using the Group function in Blackboard and then create a discussion forum for each group which is only visible to those students. After the subsequent discussion in the specified groups, the teacher can then open up the forums so that all students can view all of the discussions and can make further posts on the threads.
  • Chatrooms in web conferencing: Teachers can create several breakout rooms (which means grouping certain number of participants in a chatroom) for discussion. Teachers can join different chatrooms and facilitate participant sharing of ideas and opinions. Teaching assistants can monitor groups and assist by answering any questions that come up. Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and Zoom Breakout Rooms, and Teams Channels can be useful here.
  • A small group can be established in social media tools such as WhatsApp and WeChat to enable students to discuss learning issues and share ideas outside the formal classroom setting.

The ubiquity of internet-connected devices such as mobile phones means that teachers can set research questions in class and students can focus on different, assigned aspects of the questions and work together in groups to conduct research together, share ideas and answer questions collaboratively. Ideas can then be presented and shared with the rest of the class on shared documents or online collaborative spaces.

Lesson recordings have become an essential part of face-to-face, online and hybrid learning. They also offer many additional opportunities for active learning when combined with the University’s uRewind platform (powered by Panopto).

Students can use the discussion tool to engage in self-reflection and peer review around recordings of their own presentations (see section 3 above) or recordings of other skills, such as role-plays, lab experiments or clinical practice.

Asking students to create content can help improve their learning and this ownership of learning can lead to students who are motivated, engaged and self-directed. The Digital Literacy enhancement training and resources in PolyU advance students’ active learning through:

  • Presenting deeper case-studies and problem solutions with multimedia such as video and animation. 
  • Co-creating interactive learning objects with teachers
  • Experiencing teaching as an active and effective method of learning, through participating in the Student-Directed Series supported by the studio staff.
  • More information at

Technology can play a part in the implementation of Internationalisation, which does not need to be limited to student exchange programmes where physical travel is needed. For the past 3 years, PolyU has been operating “Global Classrooms” (both synchronously and asynchronously) by creating an extended virtual learning environment for PolyU students to co-learn with students from third party institutions. Useful tools here included videoconferencing applications and social networking – MeWe, a privacy-first social media platform could be useful here.


Active Learning ideas



Other useful resources for Active Learning