Leading an Effective Intern Prep Course (IPC)

Active Learning

“Learning is more effective when it is an active rather than a passive process.” - Kurt Lewin

Key Learning Points

  1. Active learning strategies are effective in promoting engagement throughout a session and make your teaching more effective.

  2. Incorporating active learning into your session requires thoughtful planning.

  3. Provide clear instructions for activities.

  4. Leave sufficient time for sharing out.

Abstract of many dull unsharpened pencils contrasted with one perfectly sharpened pencil

1. Overview

Active learning refers to any instructional method that promotes student engagement in the learning process while in the classroom. The benefits of incorporating active learning strategies are myriad, not just promoting student engagement in a longer, lecture-based session. Active learning increases content knowledge, critical thinking abilities, and enthusiasm for learning among students and instructors compared to traditional, lecture-based teaching.

Incorporating active learning into your teaching requires planning and flexibility. In this module, we will review key considerations to employing active learning techniques and provide an array of potential activities for you to consider.

2. Guiding Principles

Active learning activities can be used to break up a longer, lecture-based session.

Please see our "Delivering a Great Lecture" module for a recommendation on how to structure your time effectively. Remember student attention span tends to wane after 15-20 minutes - use active learning techniques to get them engaged in the session again.

Keep an eye on the clock

Be aware of the time during your teaching session. Allot a sufficient amount of time for active learning activities and debriefing. When providing instructions for an activity, given students a precise time limit and remind them when time for the activity is nearing an end. 

  • Times up! If you are at risk of running out of time during your session, anticipate content that can be omitted - do not try to rush through all your slides! A strong conclusion and revisiting your key points is important and should be prioritized.


No matter which active learning technique you use, consider the following key points to ensure a smooth, successful delivery.

  • Consider room arrangement: If you can, rearrange furniture to set up desired group numbers in advance. If you don’t have that flexibility, consider how the seating arrangement will impact your learning activity.
  • Provide clear instructions for the activity. Let students know exactly what you want them to accomplish, how long they have to do it, and how they will be sharing the results of their work. Having these instructions displayed or written for reference during the activity is useful.
  • Consider your transitions ahead of time. Practice how you will set up the activity and how you will return to the larger group once the activity is complete.
  • Circulating throughout the room during the activity keeps learners on task and makes you more available for questions. This will also allow you to identify groups with points you’d like shared with the larger audience after the activity has concluded.

Sharing out

Allocating sufficient time to share out after a learning activity is important and should not be overlooked. Often, it is best to conclude the activity at the point of maximal discussion so students remain energized for the larger group debriefing. To initiate discussion, consider a clear structure for turn-taking [hyperlink to classroom management module]

  • Asking for volunteers: Depending on the group of learners, this may lead to engaged discussion or dead silence.
  • Cold calling: Ensures sharing out will begin quickly, however, can be stressful for more introverted students.
  • Round robin: A designated spokesperson from each group is identified and the instructor goes from group-to-group for sharing out.

Whichever method you choose for sharing out, let learners know your plans ahead of time.

Selected Active Learning Techniques


“Empty Outlines”

Distribute a partially completed outline of the session’s content and have learners fill it in at the end of the session.

Background knowledge probe

Using an audience response system, probe baseline knowledge with content related questions at the beginning of the session

Minute paper

At the conclusion of the session, learners write for one minute on a prompt such as “What was the most important thing you learned today?”



Students individually reflect, then share with a partner, their response to a question. For an added layer, have learners then pair up with a new partner and share conclusions from their prior discussion.

Teacher and student

Each individual writes down the main points from the session. One partner, the ‘teacher’ instructs the other partner on the main points. The ‘student’ fills in any missed by the teacher.


Each student must defend a opposing side of an issue. More impactful if they defend a position opposite their personal opinion.

Small groups

“Buzz groups”

Instruct students to simply discuss a question or topic at hand for 2-3 minutes.


Assign each group a single question of topic to being “expert” in. Re-mix the groups and have each individual teach their new group on their assigned question or topic.

Case studies

Provide students with written cases, guiding them through key points through pointed questioning.

3. Practice

Made with Padlet

4. Apply

In your outline include one new active learning activity, either as an addition or in place of prior used activity.

5. Wrap Up

Active learning promotes student engagement, content retention and enthusiasm. Use these techniques to break up your longer teaching sessions and to reinforce key points. From allocating time in anticipation of your session to being intentional about sharing out, planning for these learning activities is key!

Other Resources

View this video on circulating during a learning session on active learning from Teach Like a Champion.Lang, J.M. (2008). 

On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that put Students on the Path to College. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Queen’s University. Active Learning Classrooms.

University of Wisconsin - Madison, Academic Technology. Active Teaching Lab.

Yee, K.  Active Techniques.  Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.  Last updated 4/10/2018.


Anderson William L., Mitchell Steven M., & Osgood Marcy P. (2006). Comparison of student performance in cooperative learning and traditional lecture‐based biochemistry classes. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 33(6), 387–393.

Angelo, T.A. & Cross, K.P. Classroom Assessment Techniques, 2nd edition. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 1993.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(23), 8410–8415. Kember, D. & Leung, D.Y.P. (2005). The influence of active learning experiences on the development of graduate capabilities. Studies in Higher Education, 30(2): 155-170.

Michael, J. (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works? Advances in Physiology Education, 30(4), 159–167.

Morrison-Shetlar, A. & Marwitz M. Teaching Creatively: Ideas in Action. Outernet: Eden Prairie, 2001.

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. J Engr Education, 93(3):223-231.

Silberman, M. Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Each any Subject. Allyn and Bacon: Boston, 1996.

Thaman, R., Dhillon S., Saggar S., Gupta, M., & Kaur, H. (2013). Promoting active learning in respiratory physiology - positive student perception and improved outcomes. National Journal of Physiology, Pharmacy, & Pharmacology, 3(1): 27-34.

VanGundy, A. 101 Activities for Teaching Creativity and Problem Solving. Pfeiffer: San Francisco, 2005.

Watkins, R. 75 e-Learning Activities: Making Online Learning Interactive. Pfeiffer: San Francisco, 2005.


Next up: Classroom Management