Active learning

Active learning goes beyond recall to deeply engaging and interacting with knowledge. It involves students undertaking activities, and thinking about what they are doing, how they are doing it, and the outcomes of their actions and thoughts. It also involves students interacting deeply with ideas through examining, questioning, interpreting, reformulating, and making connections (Biggs & Tang, 2007; Crawford, et al., 2005; Vardi, 2013).

Active learning is particularly powerful when students express their thoughts. This expression can be verbal (e.g. presentations, discussion), written (e.g. notes, dot points), visual (e.g. pictures, diagrams, photos), and/or auditory (e.g. music). Expressing one’s thought processes and understandings make learning visible to others (Hattie, 2009). This visibility allows teachers and peers to impact even further on the learning by questioning, prompting, disagreeing, correcting, and adding to the intellectual exchange. When active learning is designed in a purposeful, well-organised manner, it can improve the depth of understanding, learning, achievement, and success.

Try these four steps to make sure you are including active learning in your teaching and learning plan.


Design an activity that quickly and effectively activates what the students already know, identifies their current level of understanding, focuses their attention, and provides a context for the next phase of the lesson.

Examples of activities that can do this include:

  • multiple-choice problems based on the pre-readings and/or the information that students view together in class, having students vote on the answer, rationalise their choice to their peer and then vote again
  • short revision questions for small groups to discuss and produce a mind map or list of key points for the class to consider
  • brainstorming real-life examples to exemplify concepts from readings, activities, or from a past lesson
  • small-group discussions in which students list the key ideas, causes, or relevancies arising from a case study.

Design the activity to be completed in 15 minutes or less.

Build and extend

Design activities that extend and deepen student understandings using higher-order thinking skills such as analysing, evaluating, rationalising, and problem-solving. Aim for these activities to form the main part of your lesson.

Examples of activities that can do this include:

  • simulation activities with an explanation of the outcomes, the implications for practice, and that link to or make comparisons with the readings
  • role-play activities with an analysis of the role play and implications
  • case-study analysis in a small group with the identification of pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, implications for practice, and comparisons with best practice from the literature
  • small-group problem-solving exercise with rationalisation of solutions
  • experiments with reporting of results and implications.


Plan activities that draw together the key ideas from the lesson and share the student responses and opinions to these. Design an activity that can be completed in five to ten minutes.

Examples of activities that can do this include:

  • students providing short and sharp reflections to summarise main ideas and then discuss with a peer
  • brainstorming the lessons learnt from the previous activity or session.

Determine future needs

Plan a brief activity for the final two to three minutes of your lesson. Ensure the activity links to the assessment structure and the next lesson, and provides information to teaching staff on the students’ future learning needs.

Examples of activities that can do this include:

  • discussion board and online posts, or post-it notes of what the student has found confusing or difficult that are completed at the end of the lesson or on leaving the class
  • students each writing three short quiz questions from the lesson for the teacher to use in the next lesson
  • students writing a question or comment for the teacher on the lesson to hand in at the end of class.

In summary

You can create activities for each of these four phases for all modes of delivery - face-to-face, online lessons, and written materials and guides. By planning a clear and purposeful sequence of learning activities, you will have designed a powerful method of teaching in your unit that will enable the growth and depth of your students’ skills and understandings.


Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university (3rd ed.). Maidenhead, UK: McGraw-Hill/Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Crawford, A., Saul, W., & Mathews, S. R. (2005). Teaching and learning strategies for the thinking classroom. New York, USA: International Debate Education Association.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.   

Vardi, I. (2013). Developing students’ critical thinking in the higher education class. Milperra, NSW: Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia.

Resource adapted from the SCU Inclusive Curricula and Teaching Project (2013-2014), Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP).

(Please note - it's better to refer to the Online version rather than export, as it's always up to date)