Creating An Active Learning Environment

College enrollment for the 2018 fall academic term in the United States is expected to hit more than 20 million students according to a report from Statista. The rapid enrollment is putting a burden directly on instructors for creating an active learning environment in overcrowded lectures.

These overcrowded lectures, where devices are as much of a distraction as they are a tool, can be challenging to engage students in. But students who don’t actively engage often lose interest in and become less willing to apply themselves on assignments and exams. These students are also less likely to have a positive perception of their learning experience, which can be reflected in semester evaluations.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one simple solution that will empower students and encourage them to participate. However, one popular method instructors from top institutions are successfully incorporating is active learning. In fact, many different active learning techniques can be tailored to fit any classroom and help increase student engagement.

What is an Active Learning Environment?

The term “active learning” was coined by authors Charles Bonwell and James Eison in their book Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. They define active learning as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. An active learning environment differs from a traditional lecture setting by requiring students to engage in meaningful activities and to critically think about new information. The goal of the activities is to promote a higher-order of thinking such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that creating an active learning environment isn’t just asking students to participate.  While technology such as clickers can be used to create a more active classroom, using them to reinforce facts is often not considered active learning, This “activity” promotes remembering and understanding but doesn’t drive the benefits of active learning, like helping students evaluate or apply the information.

Benefits of Creating an Active Learning Environment

Traditional classroom settings expect students to absorb information, but students learn best when they actively participate. Participation helps students take ownership of their learning, whether it’s through class discussion, group work, or even passing a microphone around the classroom. Students’ learning improves when they participate actively, whether it’s through discussion, practice, review, or application (Grunert, 1997).

Dr. Kathleen West, a psychology instructor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte made an observation in her psychology course that students are more inclined to want to learn when they see how the information impacts their lives.  

5 Techniques for Creating an Active Learning Environment

Creating an active learning environment doesn’t mean completely restructuring a course. Active learning can be achieved by incorporating simple, interactive techniques, either inside or outside the classroom. Here are five simple active learning techniques shared by instructors that are easy to implement and can lead to a more engaged classroom.


Debates are great for developing critical thinking and logical reasoning skills. Present competing viewpoints during lecture and assign students to defend one or both of the viewpoints in a written exercise or a live classroom debate. Dr. Kaston Anderson-Carpenter, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, finds that incorporating debates in his psychology course has helped students effectively communicate with peers who have different opinions.

Small-Group Work

Dr. Stacey Combes from the University of California, Davis finds her students learn best by presenting and explaining content to their peers. She encourages students to do this through conversations, games, and small-group activities. One activity Dr. Combes uses is an innovative round of rock-paper-scissors to help students make predictions about fighting strategies in game theory models. She also does an experiment with different sized piles of candy to teach optimal foraging models. Instructors can also try incorporating breakout teaching sessions where students prepare mini-lessons for a small group of peers.


Discussions not only break up lectures and help students understand information, but they also improve students’ communication skills. Hosting discussions in-class may be difficult in large classrooms, so try implementing an online discussion board where students can discuss class concepts on their own time. Dr. West not only requires online discussions, but she brings student questions from her online discussion board into the classroom. This sparks in-class conversations and to make her large lecture courses feel more connected.


This collaborative learning strategy starts with students individually analyzing a problem. They then pair up and discuss their analysis with partners or small groups. Lastly, the pair or small group shares their findings with the entire class so students can hear a variety of viewpoints and ideas. Indiana University Bloomington professor Dr. Gary Sailes gamifies his think-pair-share activity by having his TAs run around with microphones. This way students can share their groups’ learnings with the whole class.

EdTech Tools

There are a number of EdTech tools available for instructors that focus on building critical thinking and application skills. One tool, Packback Questions, is an online discussion forum that uses artificial intelligence to help instructors provide scalable feedback and motivate students throughout the term. Many instructors also incorporate technology that allows students to provide electronic responses to questions in real-time, such as clickers. Binghamton University instructor Dr. Mark Reisinger uses various EdTech tools in a single course. He uses Tophat to reinforce basic information during class, and Packback for students to critically think about the information.

Interested in learning more about how professors are engaging their students by creating an active learning environment? Read Dr. Stacey Combes’s story on using online discussions at the University of California, Davis to engage students in her large Animal Behavior course.  

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