Active Learning

In a seminal report co-sponsored by the American Association for Higher Education and the Education Commission of the States, Chickering and Gamson emphasized that: 

Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves (Chickering and Gamson, 1987, p. 3). 

They proposed seven principles of good practice for undergraduate education (Chickering and Gamson, 1987). Good practice: 

  • Encourages contacts between students and faculty 
  • Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students  
  • Uses active learning techniques 
  • Gives prompt feedback  
  • Emphasizes time on task  
  • Communicates high expectations  
  • Respects diverse talents and ways of learning  

More recently, Kuh (2008) and (Kuh, O’Donnell and Reed, 2013) identified high-impact practices that research suggests increase rates of student retention and student engagement, including first-year seminars and experiences, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, diversity/global learning, eportfolios, internships, service and community-based learning, and capstone courses and projects.  

Active Learning Strategies 

Bonwell and Eison (1991) noted that “…students must do more than just listen in order to learn. They must read, write, discuss, and be engaged in solving problems.”  Active learning involves students “doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (Bonwell and Eison, 1991). Active learning activities  

invite students to participate in learning, including developing conceptual awareness, applying knowledge through experience, and transferring skills across contexts. Active learning helps students to ascend Bloom’s Taxonomy from remembering and understanding to analyzing and creating (Yale University Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, 2020).

Active Learning Resources


Library of Teaching and Learning Strategies 

The K. Patricia Cross Academy sponsors a free library of teaching and learning strategies, including videos which can be searched by teaching environment, activity type, teaching problem addressed, and learning taxonomic dimension and accompanying downloadable Instructor Guides.  

K. Patricia Cross Academy Library of Teaching Techniques 


Information Literacy, Research, and Writing Support Available for Students 

These resources can provide support for students completing a wide variety of assignments. 

Information Literacy 


A guide to help faculty incorporate the skills of information literacy and critical thinking into their courses, with a focus on information resources and library faculty expertise. 

Research Support  

Research Guides in a wide range of subject areas.  

Commonly used citation styles. 

The Connors Writing Center offers one-on-one writing conferences to current UNH undergraduate and graduate students, an Online Writing Lab, and information and guidelines on Writing Intensive (WI) courses for both faculty and students.  


UNH Fundamentals of Active Learning Online Course 
This course comprises two weeks of asynchronous online modules and an optional synchronous, hands-on component for TEAL technology training (required to use the TEAL classrooms). Cohorts begin each February, July, and October. Learn about simple and adaptable active learning strategies that you can immediately incorporate into your current syllabus and prepare for teaching in a Technology-Enabled Active Learning Classroom. 


The close relationship between classroom/learning assessment techniques and active learning techniques demonstrates the interplay between learning, instruction, and assessment (Benassi, Overson & Hakala, 2014).  

Classroom and learning assessment techniques employ many active learning principles and provide the faculty with useful formative data about students’ prior knowledge and misconceptions as well as student understanding following instruction.  

Cognitively Based Learning Interventions 

Theory and research in cognitive psychology has had an enormous impact on understanding how students learn most effectively. The resources in this section summarize this research and theory and provide recommendations for faculty implementing cognitive learning science in their classrooms – either on site or remotely.  

In their freely-downloadable e-book, Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum, Benassi, Overson, & Hakala (2014) provide a substantial summary of the scholarship on learning science and its classroom application. The book is written for a faculty audience and includes extensive actionable recommendations for applying the concepts and principles supported by theory and research in cognitive psychology, including: 

  • Cognitive load theory 
  • Desirable difficulties 
  • Effect of worked examples 
  • Expertise reversal effect 
  • Generation effect 
  • Guiding questions 
  • Intelligent tutoring 
  • Metacognition and self-regulation of learning 
  • Multimedia design principles 
  • Prior knowledge and student misconceptions 
  • Role of feedback 
  • Self-explanation 
  • Spacing and interleaving of study and practice 
  • Test-enhanced learning 
  • Text learning techniques 
  • Worked examples 


Nilson and Goodson (2017, Chapter 4) summarize twenty-five universal principles of learning derived from cognitive psychological research, then explore the implications of these principles for course design and teaching. While their focus was on online learning, the principles are applicable to any teaching modality. These principles are listed below; the chapter provides extensive recommendations for applying each of the principles in the classroom. 

  1. Students learn procedures and processes best when they learn the steps in the same order that they will perform them. 
  2. Students learn new material better and can remember it longer when they learn it by engaging in an activity than when they passively watch or listen to an instructor talk. 
  3. Students learn from practice, but only when they receive targeted feedback that they can use to improve their performance in further practice.  
  4. Students relate new material to their prior knowledge about it, which highlights the importance of the validity and the organization of that prior knowledge. 
  5. Students learn best and most easily when they feel they are in a safe, low-stress, supportive, welcoming environment. 
  6. Some qualities attract and hold students’ attention and focus and therefore help students learn new material better and remember it longer: human faces, color, intensity, extreme contrasts, movement, change, drama, instructor enthusiasm, and personal relevance. 
  7. Students learn and store new material—that is, move it from working memory into long-term memory—through elaborative rehearsal, which means thinking about the meaning and importance of the new material and connecting it to their prior knowledge, beliefs, and mental models. 
  8. Students learn new material most easily when the instruction is designed to minimize cognitive load (demands placed on working memory, which has a limited capacity).  
  9. Students learn new material better and can remember it longer when they receive it multiple times and in different ways—that is, through multiple senses and in multiple modes that use different parts of their brain—than when they receive it just once or multiple times in the same way. 
  10. Students learn new material better and can remember it longer when they receive it in an organized structure or when they organize and structure it themselves (if they are ready to do so).  
  11. Students learn new material better and can remember it longer when they receive it in connection with easy-to-understand stories and example cases. 
  12. Students learn new material better and can remember it longer when they receive it in connection with a number of examples that vary by content, conditions, discipline, and level of abstraction. 
  13. Students learn new material better and can remember it longer when the material evokes emotional and not just intellectual or physical involvement.  
  14. Spaced practice: Students learn new material better and can remember it longer when they review or practice new material at multiple, intervallic times than when they review it all at one time.  
  15. Students learn new material better and can remember it longer when that review or practice is “interleaved” than when it is “blocked.” In other words, students benefit when they occasionally review earlier material as they are learning new material. 
  16. Students learn new material better and can remember it longer when they actively and effectively plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning (self-regulated learning). This means observing their cognitive learning strategies (metacognition), emotional reactions to the material, and physical reactions to their learning environment. 
  17. Testing effect: Students learn new material better and can remember it longer when they are tested or test themselves on it than they do when they just reread it (even multiple times), as the former involves retrieval practice and more effortful cognitive processing. 
  18. Students can remember material longer after repeated testing when they expect a final comprehensive exam. They will keep material more accessible in memory when they expect to have to recall it in the future than when they do not.  
  19. Generation effect: Students learn new material better and can remember it longer when they have to produce answers and not just recognize correct ones—that is, when they expect to have to free-recall material for short answer or essay questions.  
  20. Students learn new material better and can remember it longer when they have to work harder to learn it—that is, when they have to overcome what are called desirable difficulties, which can help students generate multiple retrieval paths and stretch their abilities.  
  21. Students learn new material better when it creates impasses in their current mental models—that is, contradictions, conflicts, anomalies, uncertainties, and ambiguities, which stimulate curiosity, inquiry, questioning, problem solving, and deep reasoning to restore “cognitive equilibrium.”  
  22. Students understand new material better when instructors train them to ask deep thinking and explanation questions such as why, how, and what if as opposed to simple recall questions. 
  23. Students learn new material better and can remember it longer when they can correct and learn from errors.  
  24. Students learn from their mistakes more effectively when they receive immediate feedback on an assignment, quiz, or test. 
  25. Students learn new material better and can remember it longer when they read it from printed text than from e-textbooks and websites. 

Cognitively Based Learning Intervention Resources


Facilitating Discussion 

Discussion in any modality encourages reflection sharing of different perspectives, and transfer of learning. In in online learning environments, discussion helps to develop social presence and a sense of community. 

The suggestions below were adapted from guidelines developed for the Purdue University Repository for Online Teaching and Learning (2020). While they were originally intended for online discussion, many are applicable to discussion in any modality.  

When Setting Up Your Course 

  • Student expectations: Set clear expectations about discussion requirements, deadlines, and grading procedures.  
  • Set parameters. You cannot be in all discussions all the time. Set parameters for how often and when you will participate. 
  • Make good use of your time. When responding to discussion questions, respond to several postings (or a thread) at once, not each post individually.  
  • Make discussions meaningful. Assign points to your discussions based on the quality of posts, not quantity. Provide a rubric to guide the quality. 
  • Make discussions engaging. Vary the types of discussion prompts. 
  • Discussion thread settings. As appropriate, set your discussions to allow students to edit posts. Some discussion platforms allow a setting where students cannot read peers’ posts until after they post; use this feature as appropriate. 

During the Course 

  • Refer to students by name to help create a sense of instructor “presence” in the course. 
  • Participate actively by answering questions, providing feedback, and posing conflicting questions.  
  • Keep the discussion focused. Reframe questions if the discussion goes off topic.  
  • Ask for clarification when students’ posts seem cursory or incomplete. Use Socratic questioning to probe and encourage deeper processing.  
  • Draw conclusions and provide content expertise. Provide advanced insights and help students apply, analyze, and synthesize information.  
  • Recommend resources for extension of learning.  
  • Have students provide the summary and synthesis: What are the takeaways of this week’s discussion?   
  • Balance Group Dynamics: No student(s) should dominate the conversation. Intervene immediately in the case of hostile or offensive postings. Encourage “quiet” students to participate. Discussions should be an equal opportunity for all students to express themselves.  

Discussion Resources


Reflective Journals 

Reflective journal writing has a number of benefits: 

  • Students reflect on new knowledge, solidify their learning experience by recording their evolving thought process as they progress further in the course, learn new material, and form new conclusions (Stevens & Cooper, 2009). 
  • Students formulate new opinions and perspectives in a risk free venue to explore, think, and practice skills learned in class (Stevens & Cooper, 2009).  
  • Students who write regularly in a journal consistently see improvements in their writing skills, as well as their creative and reflective thinking (Stevens & Cooper, 2009). 
  • Instructors often see an increase in student participation. The requirement to respond to class material in writing encourages students to do the readings and participate more in class discussions (Stevens & Cooper, 2009).   
  • From reading journal entries, instructors can see which concepts were understood by their students, and which ones may need revisiting (Mills, 2008).   
  • Finally, through the use of assigned journal writing topics, instructors can guide and focus their students’ learning, emphasize important concepts from the lectures, and challenge students to employ their critical thinking skills (Mills, 2008). 

DePaul University’s Teaching Commons notes that “assessing reflection or reflective processes can be particularly challenging” and provides examples of models for assessing reflection (DePaul University Teaching Commons, 2020). 

Reflective Journal Resources


Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (2014). Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site: 

Bonwell, C. C., and Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom (ASHE–ERIC Higher Education Rep. No. 1). Washington, DC: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development. 

Chickering, A. W., and Gamson, Z.F. (1987). "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education." AAHE Bulletin 39: 3-7. Retrieved from 

DePaul University Teaching Commons. (2020). Assessing Reflection. Retrieved from 

Kuh, G.D. (2008) High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities. Summary retrieved from 

Kuh, G.D., O’Donnell, K. and Reed, S. (2013) Ensuring Quality & Taking High-Impact Practices to Scale. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities. Summary retrieved from 

Mills, R. (2008). “It’s just a nuisance”: Improving college student reflective journal writing. College Student Journal, 42(2), 684-690. 

Nilson, Linda B., and Ludwika A. Goodson. (2017). Online Teaching at Its Best: Merging Instructional Design with Teaching and Learning Research. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.… 

Purdue Repository for Online Teaching and Learning. (2020). Facilitating Your Online Discussions. Retrieved from 

Stevens, D., & Cooper, J. (2009). Journal Keeping: How to Use Reflective Writing for Effective Learning, Teaching, Professional Insight, and Positive Change (1st ed.). Stylus Pub. 

Yale University Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. (2020.) Active Learning. Retrieved from