Instructional Strategies


Research and Resources

Active Learning

Active learning is a proven strategy that 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 marginalized 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 read a variety of case studies and to identify key similarities and differences. For complex problem solving 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 197).


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.