Instructional Strategies

Active learning is a proven strategy that engages students for an entire class period and may also take the form of interactive lecturing where instructors integrate varied instructional techniques into every class.

Active learning maintains rigor while increasing student engagement, critical thinking, connections to learning objectives, use of effective learning approaches, and student success for all learners.

Engaging Online Students

While your primary teaching focus here at Colorado State University (CSU) may be in residential-instruction (RI) classrooms, there is a growing number of us who teach online, as well, or who will be expected to teach online at some point during our careers. While most of the information on teaching effectiveness pertains to both RI and online classrooms, following are a few key points for online courses.

In online education, we generally talk about three types of engagement: student-to-student, student-to-content and student-to-instructor. Just as you would in an RI classroom, vary what you do in your online course to incorporate these different types of engagement. Examples include:

  • Student-to-student engagement
    • group assignments
    • discussions
    • peer reviews
    • debates
    • roleplaying exercises
    • student-led discussions or exam-reviews
  • Student-to-content engagement
    • quizzes
    • discussions
    • games
    • writing assignments
    • reflections
    • lab simulations
    • presentations
    • eportfolios
    • research
    • using a variety of content and technology
      • Make sure you're using tools and technology because they are necessary-not just because you can use them.
    • offering choices on assignments
    • authentic assignments (ask students to do something closely related to how they will use their new knowledge in the real world) (See mod8 topic6 alkyl halide problems video [7:26]. In this video, the instructor provides examples for the students to prepare them for problems that the students will need to solve as part of the homework assignment.)
    • concept mapping (students create a visual representation of models, ideas and relationships between concepts)
    • student-generated study guides or quiz and exam questions
    • videos of guest speakers or virtual field trips
  • Student-to-instructor engagement

Active Learning

A small number of students are disciplined enough to actively engage their brains during class regardless of pedagogical techniques. They take notes, process information, make connections and ask questions. These elite students will likely be successful in any class regardless of intentional pedagogy. Most students, however, for a myriad of reasons, benefit from a classroom structure that includes planned and purposeful opportunities to engage with the content and each other. The following list includes some of the many considerations when planning for active learning:

  • Chunking class time into 10-15 minute segments with processing time after each segment to increase learning and retention.
  • Giving students time and guidance to reflect about content, metacognitive processes, or study techniques. Increasing wait-time to improve student the quality and depth of student responses.
  • Individual processing activities
  • Partner work
  • Small group activities
  • Self-reflection and metacognition
  • Discussion techniques – small group, discussion protocols (Brookfield and Preskill)
  • Service-Learning

When integrating active learning into your class, you will need to plan and practice more classroom management, figure out how to best utilize your classroom's physical space, and consider whether or not you will want to integrate teaching assistants or learning assistants into your teaching practice.

Related Resources:

Active Learning in the Online Classroom

While your primary teaching focus here at Colorado State University (CSU) may be in residential-instruction (RI) classrooms, there is a growing number of us who teach online, as well, or who will be expected to teach online at some point during our careers. While most of the information on teaching effectiveness pertains to both RI and online classrooms, following are a few key points for online courses.

Not everything in your online course needs to be active. Readings and short lectures have their uses. But strategically including some active learning helps increase student motivation, and, in turn can improve students' understanding. For example, you might intersperse readings and short lectures with games, activities and short assignments.

  • A common fear is that the online classroom doesn't lend itself to active learning in the same way that the RI classroom does. While it may look a little different or be asynchronous, you can use active learning in your online course just as you would in your RI course. A few ways to incorporate active learning in the online classroom are included below, but the list goes on. In short, you can do nearly everything online that you can in the classroom—you just might have to make a few tweaks to get there!
    • Discussions
    • Chats
    • Blogs
    • Wikis
    • Journals
    • Short lectures interspersed with quizzes
    • Case studies
    • Role plays
    • Authentic assignments (See SOWK 511: Joni and Tim video [15:00]. In this video, the instructor and a helper play the roles of therapist and client. Students are asked to critique the therapist's strengths and areas for improvement in a discussion forum.)
    • Portfolios, projects and presentations
    • Writing and research assignments
    • Reflections
    • Peer reviews
    • Games and simulations
    • Group work
      • It's important to keep in mind that many students take online classes because they have full-time jobs or military or family obligations that prevent them from being available at certain times. While much group work can take place asynchronously, some tools-like chats or Web conferences-are synchronous and can be more difficult to manage across the different time zones of your students. This isn't to say you should never incorporate synchronous learning online, but be considerate of the reasons that students take online courses. Use this type of learning sparingly, communicate any requirements well in advance and be prepared to offer alternatives to students who do not have flexible schedules.

Brookfield, Stephen D. & Preskill, Stephen (2005). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Learning Technology

Learning technology is a collection of tools, software, hardware, and platforms that have the potential to improve teaching and learning. Learning technology in and of itself does not improve learning. Rather, it is the thoughtful and strategic implementation of technology that creates an improved learning environment. ACNS provides information and training about various educational technologies provided by the university through its Technology Training Center in Morgan Library.

Science of Learning

Scientific research over many decades has established some general principles of learning, including systematically identifying factors that lead to a greater overall amount of learning for the same overall amount of time spent trying to learn. In other words, science can inform us regarding how we can be more efficient and effective for the amount of time we spend trying to learn or teach. The science of learning directly offers students researched strategies for studying and remembering information, but it also offers instructors strategies to use while planning and presenting content to students:

  • Test frequently
  • Be aware of cognitive overload
  • Teach with stories and case studies
  • Give students frequent and timely feedback
  • Teach students to ask "deep" questions
  • Provide students with many opportunities to determine what they don't yet know or understand about a topic

Resource: Dr. Anne Cleary describes Science of Learning concepts.

Research and Resources

Active Learning

Active learning is a proven strategy enhances learning and effectively addresses student engagement. (Freeman et al., 2014; Haak, HilleRisLambers, Pitre, & Freeman, 2011; Prince, 2004). Students not only report higher levels of satisfaction and engagement in active learning classrooms(Armbruster 2009), they also show increased academic performance and persistence (Freeman 2014). This is especially true with students from historically underrepresented groups (Haak 2011).

Active learning techniques such as chunking content and providing students adequate time to reflect on course content and class materials produces responses that demonstrate a depth of thought and learning not seen in traditional lecture classrooms.(Rowe 1974). Leveraging active learning in this way teaches self-regulated learning and helps students develop and use metacognitive skills that increase learning and retention (Fountain 2012, Nilson 2014).

Mastery Learning

You can design your course to promote mastery learning, which involves internalizing key concepts and skills through practice, recognizing when to apply such knowledge, and (eventually) applying this knowledge without conscious effort (Ambrose et al., 2010). While typically mastery takes longer than a semester to achieve, you can structure students' effort so that they're working toward it. The approaches used intersect with those suggested in the tabs on Student Engagement and Active Learning Techniques. For instance, as you introduce a new concept, complex relationship, problem type, or skill, ask students to example a variety of cases and to identify key similarities and differences or provide students with a series of worked example problems, decreasing the proportion of the answer provided with each new example and asking students to complete the missing steps. Diagrams and images that demonstrate complex processes aid in understanding when concepts may be difficult to grasp through words alone. Likewise, use visuals to organize hierarchical content in a systematic manner with specific examples that demonstrate the application (Rhodes, Cleary, & Delosh, 2019).

After introducing new material, provide multiple opportunities for students to practice. Eventually, provide students with practice in identifying when to apply knowledge they've been using (Ambrose et al., 2010; National Research Council, 2000). Some forms of practice produce greater learning per study hour invested when compared with other approaches often more commonly used. For instance, rereading and highlighting offer little gain in recall or conceptual understanding, in contrast with two other methods that offer significant gains: spaced practice, in which the learner spaces out shorter practice sessions over time (ideally with sleep in between sessions) and interleaved practice, in which the learner alternates between topics or problem types (Rhodes, Cleary, & Delosh, 2019). See the linked resources for information and instructor toolkits on spaced practice and interleaved practice. For additional information and video resources, please see TILT's science of learning page. By explaining to students what each of these approaches is and how it will help them learn more effectively and efficiently, you can motivate students to invest the added effort required to use these approaches.

You can also structure homework or in-class assignments that require students to use the above approaches and others shown to be effective. For example, self-testing substantially improves recall, especially when the learner must produce answers rather than select a multiple choice option. You might ask students to create challenging short-answer quizzes and to then take their own or peers' quizzes. Because using delay to monitor one's learning provides a more accurate assessment of what's internalized and what isn't, you might ask students to spend two minutes at the beginning of class testing their recall of facts or concepts introduced earlier in the course. You can help students use study time most effectively and efficiently by requiring them to use the syllabus or other information you've provided to Identify specific facts, concepts, theories, or skills to be tested (Rhodes, Cleary, & Delosh, 2019).

You can also help students to deepen their understanding of concepts, relationships, or systems. For instance, you might use think-pair-share activities that ask students to explain the material to themselves or others (Rhodes, Cleary, & Delosh, 2019). Because making connections between new concepts and prior knowledge improves recall and understanding, you can ask students to explain how material you've just introduced relates to material covered earlier in the course or in a prerequisite course (Lang, 2016). Challenge students to expand on their knowledge and elaborate on specific concepts. Encourage deep engagement rather than superficial thinking. Greater depth and breadth of study will create greater gains in learning, understanding and retention (Rhodes, Cleary, & Delosh, 2019). In the classroom, increase wait times for student responses to encourage more thoughtful responses (Rowe 1974).


Active Learning: A Practical Guide for College Faculty, Magna Publications 2017

Ambrose, S.A., Brides, M.W., Lovett, M.C., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fountain S. B., Doyle K. E. (2012) Learning by chunking. In Seel N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning.

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, 111(23), 8410–8415.

Haak, D. C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E., & Freeman, S. (2011). Increased Structure and Active Learning Reduce the Achievement Gap in Introductory Biology. Science, 332(6034), 1213–1216.

Lang, J. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Expanded edition. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Nilson, L. (2014). Creating Self-Regulated Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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

Quaye, S., & Harper, S. (2015). Student Engagement in Higher Education (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Rhodes, M.G., Cleary, A.M.,& Delosh, E.L. (2019). A guide to effective studying and learning: Practical strategies from the science of learning. Oxford, 2019.

Rowe, M (1986), Wait Time: Slowing Down May Be a Way of Speeding Up!, Journal of Teacher Education.

Tanner, K. D. (2013). Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12(3), 322–331.

Woosley, S. A. (2003). How important are the first few weeks of college? The long term effects of initial college experiences. College Student Journal, 37(2), 201-207.

Cohen, Z. (2018, July 17). Small changes, large rewards: How individualized emails increase classroom performance The evoLLLution. Retrieved from: "

Darby, F. (2019). Small Teaching Online. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.