Today is Active Learning Day!

activelearningday-croppedIn an effort to raise awareness of active learning pedagogies, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has declared October 25, 2016, Active Learning Day.

Active learning strategies proactively engage students’ minds on relevant concepts through in-class discussions and activities. By participating in active learning exercises, students receive formative feedback on their comprehension of course concepts in real-time. Knowing which concepts students grasp and which concepts students struggle with allows instructors to adapt their lesson plans and maximize the precious face-to-face time they have with their students.

Over the last two decades, the evidence that active learning is beneficial for student learning has been mounting. Most notably, Freeman et. al.’s 2014 meta-analysis1 of 225 studies comparing student performance in undergraduate STEM courses using traditional or active learning methods showed that the incorporation of active learning strategies during class leads to improved learning outcomes for students. The cognitive science research supporting retrieval practice further promotes the use of active learning.

Freeman et. al. note that the STEM education community should no longer question whether or not active learning works, but instead explore which strategies work best and under what conditions. In fact, a question that the Teaching and Learning Lab is commonly asked at workshops and in one-on-one consultations with instructors and faculty is “Which active learning strategy works best?”

Chi and colleagues2,3 have formulated the ICAP hypothesis in an attempt to answer this question. While “active learning” is a general term that encompasses a whole variety of activities and strategies together, the ICAP framework differentiates learning activities into four categories based on student behaviors: Interactive, Constructive, Active, and Passive. Chi and Wylie3 provide excellent descriptions of the four categories in their paper, but I’ll briefly give examples of each of these terms as they might be used to describe student behaviors in a classroom:

The term “Passive” would describe students who listen to the lecturer. A step further, “Active” would describe students listening to the lecturer and taking notes. (Notice that Chi’s definition of “active” is much narrower than the general use of the phrase “active learning.”) “Constructive” would describe a student’s comment that the concept they are discussing can only be applied under certain conditions (i.e., the student reflected on what the lecturer was describing and considered when/where the concept might be useful without being explicitly told by the lecturer). Finally, the term “Interactive” encompasses “constructive” behaviors where students are discussing/debating ideas with each other.

The take away message supported by studies done by Chi and colleagues is that interactive techniques — techniques that encourage constructive dialogue between two people — tend to lead to the highest learning gains. Constructive dialogue entails clarifying ideas, generating new ideas, and extending ideas beyond what may have been presented by the text, lecturer, video, or other learning resource. In general, interactive is more effective than constructive, constructive is more effective than active, and active is more effective than passive.

OSTP is asking STEM educators to spend at least ten minutes using active learning in their classrooms on October 25 or anytime during the week. For those who may be new to active learning, TLL has distributed a flyer with some starter ideas. If you are looking for more ideas, check out this really great list of interactive techniques — not all of them will resonate with you or fit your teaching context, but skimming through them may help you come up with your own ideas.

Check out this video to see some examples of active learning in MIT classrooms. If you already use active learning strategies in your class, share your ideas and tips with your colleagues. We’re aggregating active learning strategies used on campus at #MITActiveLearning.

TLL teaching and learning consultants are here to help you brainstorm ways to incorporate active learning in your classroom and/or help with classroom implementation. Just drop us a line.


  1. 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. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 111(23), 8410-8415. doi:10.1073/pnas.1319030111
  2. Chi, M. T. H. (2009). Active-Constructive-Interactive: A Conceptual Framework for Differentiating Learning Activities. Topics in Cognitive Science, 1(1), 73-105. doi:10.1111/j.1756-8765.2008.01005.x
  3. Chi, M. T. H., & Wylie, R. (2014). The ICAP Framework: Linking Cognitive Engagement to Active Learning Outcomes. Educational Psychologist, 49(4), 219-243. doi:10.1080/00461520.2014.965823

(Image courtesy of MIT OpenCourseWare)

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