Active Learning, Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Active Learning

Active learning, as a term, may raise some eyebrows! One instructor at Illinois has said that there is no such thing as passive learning, so why should we call something active learning? This is like saying ATM machine—there is redundancy in the term. He says that all learning is active since learning is the cognitive activity happening in the brain. Marchese (1997) wrote, “Active learning has the ring of a slogan; passive learning is an oxymoron”. He goes on to say that he prefers the language of deep and surface learning—the search for meaning and understanding vs. short-term memorization of facts, equations, and concepts, or making connections with the material and building new mental models vs. superficial engagement with the subject matter. Active learning, then, refers to the teaching approaches, strategies and learning activities that promote active engagement with the material and lead to deep learning. Click here to read more about this idea. 

How do people generally define “active learning”?

  • Bonwell (1991): It is proposed that strategies promoting active learning be defined as instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing.
  • Meyers and Jones (1993): Active learning involves providing opportunities for students to meaningfully talk and listen, write, read, and reflect on the content, ideas, issues, and concerns of an academic subject.”
  • Additional Definitions of active/engaged learning from the Center for Teaching and Learning, Brigham Young University
  • Additional Definitions of active learning from the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology, Illinois State University

The teaching methods described on this website—from lecture to discussion to small groups, from asking questions to using cases to assigning team projects—are intended to actively engage students in their own learning. They all could be called active learning strategies. The following resources describe some strategies to promote learning, the benefits and obstacles of using these strategies, and links to articles about active learning.

Active Learning Defined and Different Approaches to Its Use

Active Learning Teaching Strategies

Articles on Active Learning

Active Learning: Good Practice Uses Active Learning Techniques