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Active learning involves strategies/instructional activities that engage students in higher-order thinking tasks such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation. This issue of CDTL Brief on Active Learning discusses some strategies and offers some tips on how to incorporate active learning in the classroom.

January 2005, Vol. 8, No. 1 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Active Learning: Engagement for Meaningful Learning
Miss Chua Siew Beng
NUS Business School

“Active learning means that they [students] can no longer look on with glazed eyes while their minds wonder to other thoughts” (Meyers & Jones, 1997, p. 162).


Thinking about classes in higher education often conjures images of large lecture theatres with students listening attentively to the lecturer and taking notes furiously. It seems that students who practise the above are to a certain degree, engaged in active learning. If this is so, why are lecturers are often encouraged to look beyond traditional pedagogy to introduce ‘active learning’ in their classes?

What is ‘active learning’?

According to the literature on education, active learning goes beyond listening and taking notes. Bonwell and Eison (1991) define active learning as instructional activities “involving students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing”. Simons (1997) says that active learning has two dimensions: independent learning and active working. Independent learning refers to involving students in making decisions about the learning process (e.g. choosing a research topic, evaluating peers’ contributions in a group project and setting learning goals for a task). Active working refers to “the extent to which the learner is challenged to use his or her mental abilities while learning” (Simons, 1997, p. 19).

Active learning is based on the assumptions “that learning by nature is an active endeavour and that different people learn in different ways” (Meyers & Jones, 1993, p. xi). It can be promoted through the introduction of classroom activities which require students to exercise higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation through participation in learning activities such as reading, discussion, writing and problem solving (Hativa, 2000). The successful implementation of these learning activities will “foster curiosity and the capacity to manage one’s own learning agenda” (Stern, 1997, p. 13) and align the learning outcome to the life-long learning imperative of the knowledge-based economy.

How can active learning be incorporated into the classroom?

The active learning continuum

Bonwell and Sutherland (1996, p. 5) propose the following the concept of an “active learning continuum” to help lecturers incorporate active learning in the classroom:

Simple tasks ——————— Complex tasks

The continuum moves from simple tasks (short and relatively unstructured activities) on one end to complex tasks (activities of longer duration, carefully planned and structured) on the other end. Neither end of the continuum is preferred over the other. An example of simple tasks is the ‘pause procedure’ where a lecture is punctuated by pauses at appropriate times to allow students to compare and rework their notes for a few minutes. Complex tasks could include a case discussion during the class session or a group project for the duration of the course (Bonwell & Sutherland, 1996). Regardless of where one’s teaching methods fall on the continuum, active learning is practised as long as students are actively engaged in a lesson. The choice of teaching methods depends on the course objectives, the lecturer’s teaching style and students’ level of experience in active learning (Bonwell & Sutherland, 1996).

Other teaching methods that facilitate active learning

In addition to incorporating student participation, discussion and questioning into the traditional lecture, the lecturer can also consider teaching methods such as visual-based instruction, in-class writing, case studies, cooperative learning, debates, drama, role-playing and simulation, and peer-teaching (Bonwell & Eison, 1991).

Indeed, the range of learning activities and demands of active learning can be a source of pressure and confusion for both lecturers and students. In order to effectively implement active learning, structure is important.

Structure in active learning

In active learning, lecturers need to structure the learning activities to engage students in the learning process. The most important factor which determines the design of the course structure is the delineation of course objectives. Though most of the course objectives will probably relate to the course content, Miller, Groccia and Wilkes (1996) suggest that course objectives relating to personal development (e.g. appreciation of ethnicity and the eradication of stereotypes) and professional skills (e.g. problem solving and teamwork) be included in active learning courses as well. In addition, a lecturer should take into consideration different learning styles and needs of students, in order to engage the maximum number of students possible in the learning process when designing the course structure (Miller, Groccia & Wilkes, 1996).

Miller, Groccia and Wilkes (1996) recommended the following levels of structure to prepare students for active learning:

  • Structuring the intellectual environment. Help students develop a mindset that the course will be taught differently. Instead of going through a list of procedures and requirements for the course, communicate the course objectives to the students, show your enthusiasm in the subject and be open to shared inquiry.

  • Structuring the curriculum flow and tasks. Structure the early assignments with step-by-step instructions to help beginning students, especially those who do not have much exposure to project work/teamwork. The less structured tasks can be reserved for a later part of the course.

  • Structuring the class meetings. Incorporate active learning activities such as group discussions, quizzes and group cooperative activities (e.g. critical thinking questions) into lecture time at appropriate intervals. These activities allow the students to learn from one another as they interact.

  • Structuring the assessment process. Align the design of assessments to course objectives. As students are expected to share ideas or information in active learning, it is important that the grading scheme does not result in students preventing their classmates from obtaining valuable information. In active learning, a ‘criterion-referenced’ grading system that compares students against a standard of performance might be more appropriate. However, lecturers need to take note of:

i) prevailing grading policies of the school, and

ii) problems in grading group-based assignments as social loafing and interpersonal conflicts may exist.

IVLE discussion forum—A tool for active learning

From the preceding sections, it is obvious that the active learning approach requires substantial efforts in planning and implementation. Here, I would like to share my experience of using the IVLE discussion forum to complement various learning activities in class and to engage the students in the learning process.

In my General Education Module (GEM) GEK 1030 on service work in Semester I (Academic Year 2003/2004), I used the IVLE discussion forum for students to share their observations and viewpoints on service-related issues from everyday experiences. My role was to keep the discussions going by suggesting appropriate topics for discussions (i.e. providing the structure for discussions). Although many students were using the IVLE discussion forum for the first time, various interesting topics related to the course materials surfaced in the forum and served as invaluable resources for discussions. Some students even shared their knowledge from other courses and work experiences to explain their observations. Others posed questions that reflected higher-order thinking. Students who did not participate in the discussions were kept updated during class discussions and encouraged to participate in future discussions.

A field trip—lunch at a restaurant with fine service—was organised for approximately 45 students. The field trip’s objective was to allow students to have real-life experience of concepts and theories discussed in the classroom. A veteran with more than 10 years’ experience in the service industry was invited to speak at the lunch. After the trip, students were required to post their experience on the IVLE discussion forum and relate it to what they have learnt from the module. Most students were delighted with the learning session outside campus and postings on the IVLE discussion forum showed that students were generally were able to critically evaluate their experience based on fundamental concepts discussed in class.

The use of IVLE discussion forum took the time required for an active learning activity (discussion) out of the classroom and served as a useful tool for students to continue their engagement in course -related discussions even after class. Although the participation rate was not 100%, it was observed that some quiet students took the opportunity to voice their opinions in the forum. This was indeed a small step forward in promoting active participation from students who, for various reasons, were quiet in class.

An informal poll conducted at the end of last semester in my general education module revealed that students liked the interactive format of learning:

  • “…the discussions helped develop our thinking ability.”

  • “...the individual project was more helpful than the tests where you don’t have much choice of topics.”

  • “…we can understand many concepts without having to memorise them.”

  • “The group discussions provided a lot of insights and creative ideas.”

  • “Every lesson is slightly different. Lunch was the best—real life experience.”

Last but not least, my satisfaction with the active learning approach in teaching the module was succinctly reflected by the following student feedback:

“The course enabled me to look beyond my own point of view and made me realise that my scope of thinking was actually very narrow. Never gave much thought to service but nowadays, I pay more attention.”


As Sutherland & Bonwell (1996) suggest, active learning should not be implemented for its own sake, but for its ability to engage students in the learning process. Using the active learning approach does not mean splashy, highly-charged sessions with lots of group work. Rather, each lecturer needs to consider his or her own course objectives, teaching style and reflect upon what suits his individual needs in building up a repertoire of active learning strategies (Sutherland & Bonwell, 1996).


Bonwell, C.C. & Eison, J.A. (1991). ‘Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom’. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education. (Last accessed: 24 February 2004).

Bonwell, C.C. & Sutherland T.E. (1996). ‘The Active Learning Continuum: Choosing Activities to Engage Students in the Classroom’. In Sutherland, T.E. & Bonwell, C.C. (Eds.), Using Active Learning in College Classes: A Range of Options for Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. pp. 3–16.

Meyers, C. & Jones, T.B. (1993). ‘Developing and Assessing Instructional Expertise’. Promoting Active Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Miller J.E.; Groccia J.E. & Wilkes J.M. (1996). ‘Providing Structure: The Critical Element’. In Sutherland T.E. & Bonwell, C.C. (Eds.), Using Active Learning in College Classes: A Range of Options for Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. pp. 17–30.

Hativa, N. (2000). ‘Active Learning During Lectures’. Teaching for Effective Learning in Higher Education. Dordrecht; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers. pp. 87–110.

Hativa, N. (2000). ‘Teaching Methods for Active Learning’. Teaching for Effective Learning in Higher Education. Kluwer Academic Publishers. Dordrecht; Boston: pp. 111–129.

Simons, P.R.J. (1997). ‘Definitions and Theories of Active Learning’ in Stern, D. & Huber, G.L. (Eds.), Active Learning for Students and Teachers: Reports from Eight Countries. Frankfurt & New York: Peter Lang. pp. 19–39.

Stern, D. (1997). ‘Genesis of the Study’ in Stern, D. & Huber, G.L. (Eds.), Active Learning for Students and Teachers: Reports from Eight Countries. Frankfurt & New York: Peter Lang. pp. 13–18.

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Inside this issue
Teaching Engineering Fundamentals by Using a Hands-on/Historical Approach
Active Learning: Scenario Thinking in an Uncertain World
Taking Charge of Learning
Sample Interactive Lesson to Promote Comprehension Skills
Active Learning: Engagement for Meaningful Learning