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5 evidence-based reasons to use active learning strategies in your course

The ANU Learning and Teaching Strategy outlines a goal to promote active, collaborative and engaged pedagogies. Active learning refers to teaching strategies that engage students as active participants in their learning. In other words, students “doing things and thinking about what they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). It contrasts against approaches like “traditional” lectures where students are passive recipients of information (Schmidt et al., 2015). Here we share five reasons why active learning approaches can bring meaningful benefits for students.

1. Students learn more 

Many studies have shown that active learning strategies improve learning outcomes. A meta-analysis of 225 studies comparing courses with only traditional lecturing to those using active learning strategies at least 10% of the time, found students were 1.5 times more likely to fail in traditional classrooms (Freeman et al., 2014). Since this work in STEM subjects, others have shown the positive impact of active learning in social sciences and humanities (Kozanitis & Nenciovici, 2022). Even with this compelling evidence, many educators continue using more traditional lectures because students expect and prefer them, and it is true that students can feel that they are learning more in lectures even though active approaches consistently improve their learning (Deslauriers et al., 2019). This is partly because it takes more cognitive effort to engage than to listen to a beautifully structured lecture. Unfortunately, the elegant way content is taught is not necessarily how it is learned: constructivism tells us that students learn by constructing their own understanding in the context of what they already know and have experienced (Piaget, 2013). Educators can better support this process by taking a facilitator-style role during class sessions, sometimes referred to as the “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on a stage”.

Try This! In the last 2 minutes of class, ask students to answer reflective questions and to submit them anonymously via post-it notes or a digital tool (e.g. Poll Everywhere). For example – What was the most important thing you learned in this class? What question is still unanswered for you?This process supports learning and creates artefacts that can inform your teaching approach.

2. It provides safe opportunities for failure and feedback

Activities built around problems, scenarios, case studies and big questions lend themselves to active learning. Particularly if these activities are formative (i.e. not graded), they create a safe space to try, fail and learn through feedback. This feedback could be via peers, educators, or automated feedback from a digital tool. Creating these regular opportunities for feedback is an excellent way to support learning (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). We also know that failure is an integral part of learning; a big challenge for educators is to avoid penalising students so much for it. This is tricky in the context of assessment, but activities in class can provide an environment to encourage risk-taking and creativity, and reward effort and engagement. This is important for fostering growth mindsets – that is, the belief that our abilities are not fixed and can improve through hard work – which powerfully impact achievement (Dweck & Yeager, 2019; Willingham, 2021). Even short activities can help students identify their own misconceptions, and retrieval practice significantly improves knowledge retention even when students make mistakes (Brown et al., 2014). 

Try This! At the midpoint of class, ask students to respond to an anonymous poll that checks their conceptual understanding (e.g. using Poll Everywhere). Next, spend a few minutes explaining the answer and exploring any misconceptions. This process gives feedback to both students and educators about the learning that has occurred.

3. It supports students from minority groups 

Research suggests that active learning can effectively support under-represented student groups (e.g. racial minority groups, low SES students). Interventions have been shown to reduce achievement gaps (Theobald et al., 2020) and close the gap in learning gains (Ballen et al., 2017) when compared to well-represented student groups. Ballen et al. (2017) also demonstrated that active learning strategies improved under-represented students’ sense of belonging. 

4. Students learn better together

Collaborative and active approaches to learning go hand-in-hand. The theory of social constructivism suggests that we co-construct knowledge with the people around us (Vygotsky, 1980). “Peer Instruction” provides perhaps the most powerful evidence of this effect in education: if students attempt a problem independently and then discuss it in small groups, the learning of the group is strikingly and consistently enhanced even if no students in the group know the correct answer (Crouch & Mazur, 2001; Smith et al., 2009). We also see evidence that fostering belonging through collaborative work and learning environments promotes student performance, and an emphasis on student communities can enhance student motivation (Eyler, 2018).

Try This! During class, pose a problem or scenario to students. Ask them to consider the question themselves and then spend 2 minutes speaking to their neighbour about it. Finally, ask some volunteers to share what they discussed.

5. It supports the development of higher-order thinking skills 

Active learning often involves some form of “doing” where students participate in an experience or get hands-on with solving problems. Such activities give students the valuable opportunity to gain new experiences to build their understanding, and to practice skills and apply knowledge in authentic contexts with the support of their peers and educators. The more authentic – in other words, the more closely the scenario resembles the discipline or career in which they might use these skills in the real world – the better prepared they will be when encountering new scenarios outside of the classroom (Eyler, 2018). Evidence from studies of problem-based learning suggests that this approach results in enhanced critical thinking and (unsurprisingly) in problem-solving skills (Prince, 2004). 

Try This! Find an existing lecture or module that could use a problem-based learning approach. To do this, you might assign some materials for students to read/watch beforehand and use your class time for small group problem-solving activities.

We will be sharing further tips and examples of active learning in practice throughout 2023, so consider subscribing to our newsletter to stay connected! If you want to share your experiences and success stories (big and small) about promoting active learning at the ANU, we would love to hear from you at

May 2023

Education Design team, Centre for Learning and Teaching


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Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. 1991 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports. ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, The George Washington University.

Brown, P. C., III, H. L. R., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Harvard University Press.

Crouch, C. H., & Mazur, E. (2001). Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics, 69(9), 970–977.

Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(39), 19251–19257.

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Eyler, J. R. (2018). How Humans Learn. West Virginia University Press.

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Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.

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

Schmidt, H. G., Wagener, S. L., Smeets, G. A. C. M., Keemink, L. M., & van der Molen, H. T. (2015). On the Use and Misuse of Lectures in Higher Education. Health Professions Education, 1(1), 12–18.

Smith, M. K., Wood, W. B., Adams, W. K., Wieman, C., Knight, J. K., Guild, N., & Su, T. T. (2009). Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions. Science, 323(5910), 122–124.

Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E. N., Behling, S., Chambwe, N., Cintrón, D. L., Cooper, J. D., Dunster, G., Grummer, J. A., Hennessey, K., Hsiao, J., Iranon, N., Jones, L., Jordt, H., Keller, M., Lacey, M. E., Littlefield, C. E., … Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(12), 6476–6483.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1980). Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.). Harvard University Press.

Willingham, D. T. (2021). Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.