What is Active Learning?

“Active learning is anything that involves students doing things or thinking about what they are doing.” – Katherine Spilios

Learn more about what active learning is

To view the full active learning module in the CIRTL online course “Introduction to STEM Teaching”, click here.

Why Active Learning?

Active Learning Found to Improve Student Learning and Persistence

In recent years, more and more evidence is accumulating about the difference in effectiveness between traditional lecture-style courses and courses designed with an active learning approach.

Active learning is proving to improve learning outcomes for all students, while decreasing the achievement gap for underrepresented minority students.


Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt, information on active learning: https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/active-learning/

Freeman, et. al. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics (2014)

Haak, et. al Increased Structure and Active Learning Reduce the Achievement Gap in Introductory Biology (2011)

CEILS Guide: Active Learning Activities by Effort

Using Electronic Polling and Tech-Free Polling for Peer Instruction

What is Peer Instruction and Why Does It Work?

In the following video, Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur shares the story of the moment he realized his outstanding teaching reviews were not actually resulting in the student learning outcomes he believed he was achieving – a harsh wake-up call that led him to discover the teaching strategy he named “peer instruction”. Peer instruction refers to the practice of students learning through discussion with peers, and it is one of the most research-validated forms of active learning.

Using iClickers for Peer Instruction

Using electronic polling for peer instruction – best practices:

This video showcases some of the best practices and researched education theory for implementing clickers in the classroom.


Clicker Resource Guide

The Gentle Art of Questioning – Writing Great Clicker Questions

Flow Chart for Clicker Use (from Vickrey et al. 2015)

Want even more information? The Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative has a great collection of clicker resources.

Electronic Polling Applications for Smart Phone or Other Devices

Interested in alternative polling tools to i>clicker?

There are several free or low-cost polling tools for your smart phone or other electronic device. Note that some UCLA faculty have reported experiencing wi-fi issues when trying to use these online polling applications (i>clicker uses radio frequency rather than a wi-fi signal and thus bypasses this issue). That being said, if you opt to try an alternative polling system, please test the online application prior to use in a specific classroom, especially if implementing the technology in a large class.  Note that we also suggest using these online polling tools at workshops and conferences — they provide an excellent way to make your seminar talks interactive!

Here are some polling tool alternatives to i>clicker:

Tech-Free Voting Cards for Student Polling


We recommend using iClicker software if possible in order to not only view student responses, but also to be able to analyze the results of your polling by individual student or the class as a whole and award participation points.

However, if you would prefer a non-technology option or want to provide non-technology options to your TAs for their discussion sections, you can use these voting cards. Either print them for students or ask students to print (in color!) and bring one to all classes.

These cards can be folded and held up during class as you ask multiple choice questions.

Resources for Active Learning

Active Learning Activities by Effort

The following resource outlines several active learning strategies that you can use in your classroom, categorized by effort and research validation: Active Learning Activities by Effort

Framing active learning for students

Wondering how to introduce your students to this type of learning, and “frame” the classroom structure to them?


In this set of Expert Recommendations, you will find research-based (not necessarily research-tested) recommendations for helping students get introduced to and engaged productively in active learning, along with concrete examples of how to incorporate these ideas in your classroom. Compiled by Stephanie Chasteen of the University of Colorado Boulder in collaboration with Andrew Boudreaux of Western Washington University and Jon Gaffney of Eastern Kentucky University.

For a pdf summary, go here: https://www.physport.org/recommendations/files/Framing%20Summary%20and%20Checklists.pdf.

Active Learning Resources by Discipline and Course

Here is a collection of active learning materials for a range of STEM courses, curated by the Science Education Initiative.