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Active Learning Strategies

David Griffin - Oct 04, 2021


The benefits of studying a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) related subject in higher education are well documented. These fields are associated with improved economic outcomes (U.S. Dept of Education, 2017a). However, great inequity exists in these subjects, with women and people of colour disproportionately underrepresented in the United States. While women receive almost 60% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the U.S., only 34% of those in STEM subjects are awarded to women (de Brey et al., 2018). Hispanic and African American populations account for 17.9% and 13.4% of the total, respectively. However, these groups only account for 12.1% and 8.6% of STEM-related primary degrees, respectively (Baumann, 2017; U.S. Dept of Education, 2017b; U.S. Census Bureau, 2018).

Improvements in STEM subject instruction have been suggested as a means of addressing these disparities. Proposed changes to instruction are generally to increase structure (Eddy & Hogan, 2014) and active learning (Freeman, 2014). To do this, four steps are required from instructors:

  1. To determine what students should be capable of demonstrating by the end of the course,
  2. To determine which skills and learning objectives are challenging for students to master alone,
  3. To develop in-class activities which allow students to practice these challenging skills under the supervision of staff (active learning),
  4. To maximise student engagement through provision of a framework of content and accountability, before, during and after class (increased structure).

For steps (c) and (d), this paper provides a range of evidence-based techniques for potential adoption by any STEM subject instructor. A supporting study is also provided for each technique.

Increasing Active Learning

Challenge: In large lectures students can feel anonymous or bothered by a lack of connection to classmates/instructors.
Technique: Use name tents to decrease this feeling of anonymity.
Impact: By demonstrating the importance of student names, the instructor can show interest in knowing their students. Being able to use student names reduces a barrier to interaction, while enabling students to introduce themselves to their peers. Allowing students to add pronouns/phonetic spelling to their name tent encourages further inclusivity.
Supporting Paper: Cooper, 2017

Challenge: Women and people of colour are less likely to volunteer an answer in class. Unconscious implicit bias may exist in instructors in their efforts to select students to answer questions.
Technique: Create a list of student names and randomly sort it before class, reducing implicit bias. The instructor must be conscious that calling on students to answer questions can be anxiety-inducing and therefore choose appropriate questions.
Impact: This can maximise involvement and student participation.
Supporting Paper: Eddy et al., 2014

Challenge: Many instructors fail to use student response systems (‘clickers’) to maximum effect.
Technique: Use of difficult and relevant questions, particularly those marked as previous exam questions, helps increase attention in students. Discussion can be promoted by displaying the poll results to the class in advance of displaying the correct answer. Asking students privately to explain their choice can also help, as can allowing students to vote again post-discussion. Explain why answers are correct or incorrect, relating them to the class’ interest.
Impact: Learning is enhanced by peer discussion, even if participants do not initially understand the topic. Appropriate clicker usage encourages discussion and argument, while suspense promotes interest.
Supporting Paper Smith et al., 2009

Challenge: Students often fail to think through multiple-choice questions sufficiently during an exam.
Technique: Use multiple-choice exam-style questions in class for group work. The activity should match the learning goal of the lecture, be of reasonable difficulty and include common incorrect responses. The instructor should sell the task to the students by explaining the relevance of the questions. Collecting responses encourages the instructor to provide clearer instructions. It also encourages student participation. Debriefing allows the instructor to expose misconceptions and explain the logic behind answers.
Impact: This encourages engagement of students and provides them with a measure of their exam preparedness. It also encourages the instructor to write effective exam questions.
Supporting Paper: Nicol, 2007

Challenge: To increase student interaction and community.
Technique: Create a two-stage exam with students tackling an exam first individually and immediately afterwards as part of a predetermined small group. The final mark is a combination of both exam scores, with a greater proportion of the exam time and mark given to the individual stage.
Impact: The group stage of the exam motivates students to understand the topic while promoting community. Students are not tempted to reduce study time since most of the mark comes from the individual effort.
Supporting Paper: Jang et al., 2017 and Roberts et al., 2018

Increasing Structure and Accountability

Challenge: Instructors waste time teaching basic topics that students could, but often do not, learn from assigned reading before class.
Technique: Provide clear instructions on what students should learn before class, as well as questions they should answer based on this learning. Pre-class work should be straightforward and short. Use an assignment/quiz on this content to promote accountability. Do not cover this material in class.
Impact: More class time can be dedicated to difficult concepts.
Supporting Paper: Moravec et al., 2010 and Heiner et al., 2014

Challenge: Textbooks are not always an ideal source for individual pre-class student learning.
Technique: Create simple videos that focus on critical content. Use visuals with little on-screen text. Provide students with accompanying instructions on note-taking for the videos or provide guiding questions.
Impact: A video can provide a connection between student and instructor not found in a textbook. This can assist students in learning more complex topics before class. Instructions on note-taking or guiding questions help create accountability in students.
Supporting Paper: Stockwell et al., 2015

This paper has provided five in-class techniques for educators to promote active learning. It has also provided two mechanisms to increase structure by freeing up in-class time and promoting student accountability. These seven techniques are suggested to improve instruction in STEM subjects as a means to increasing enrolment and retention of students in underrepresented groups.


[1] Bauman K, School Enrolment of the Hispanic Population: Two Decades of Growth, U.S. Census Bureau, 2017, p. 28.

[2] Cooper KM, Haney B, Krieg A, Brownell SE, What’s in a name? The importance of students perceiving that an instructor knows their names in a high-enrolment biology classroom, CBE—Life Sci. Ed. 16 (1) (2017). DOI: 10.1187/cbe.16-08-0265

[3] de Brey C, Musu L, McFarland J, Wilkinson-Flicker S, Diliberti M, Zhang A, Wang X, Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups 2018, NCES 2019-038. National Center for Education Statistics, 2019.

[4] Eddy SL, Brownell SE, Wenderoth MP, Gender gaps in achievement and participation in multiple introductory biology classrooms, CBE—Life Sci. Ed. 13 (3) (2014) 478–492. DOI: 10.1187/cbe.13-10-0204

[5] Eddy SL, Hogan, KA. Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work? CBE—Life Sci. Ed. 13 (3) (2014) 453–468. DOI: 10.1187/cbe.14-03-0050

[6] Freeman S, Eddy S.L., McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H, Wenderoth MP, Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 111 (23) (2014) 8410–8415. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1319030111

[7] Heiner CE, Banet AI, Wieman C, Preparing students for class: how to get 80% of students reading the textbook before class, Am. J. Phys. 82 (10) (2014) 989–996. DOI: 10.1119/1.4895008

[8] Jang H, Lasry N, Miller K, Mazur E, Collaborative exams: cheating? Or learning? Am. J. Phys. 85 (3) (2017) 223–227. DOI: 10.1119/1.4974744

[9] Moravec M, Williams A, Aguilar-Roca N, O’Dowd DK, Learn before lecture: a strategy that improves learning outcomes in a large introductory biology class, CBE—Life Sci. Ed. 9 (4) (2010) 473–481 DOI: 10.1187/cbe.10-04-0063

[10] Nicol D, E-assessment by design: using multiple-choice tests to good effect, J. Furth. High. Educ. 31 (1) (2007) 53–64. DOI: 10.1080/03098770601167922

[11] Roberts JA, Olcott AN, McLean NM, Baker GS, M¨oller A, Demonstrating the impact of classroom transformation on the inequality in DFW rates (“D” or “F” grade or withdraw) for first-time freshmen, females, and underrepresented minorities through a decadal study of introductory geology courses, J. Geosci. Educ. 66 (4) (2018) 304–318. DOI: 10.1080/10899995.2018.1510235

[12] Smith MK, Wood WB, Adams WK, Wieman C, Knight JK, Guild N, Su TT, Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions, Science 323 (5910) (2009) 122–124. DOI: 10.1126/science.1165919

[13] Stockwell BR, Stockwell MS, Cennamo M, Jiang E, Blended learning improves science education, Cell 162 (5) (2015) 933–936. DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2015.08.009

[14] U.S. Census Bureau, Quick Facts, 2018. Retrieved April 19, 2018.

[15] U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2017, 2017a. Table 501.10.

[16] U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2017, 2017b. Table 318.45.

[17] U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2017, 2017. Table 322.30.