Active Learning

Active Learning in Intro to Engineering Design

The term active learning can be defined as "instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing" (Bonwell and Eison, 1991). What does this mean? In practice, it often means that students are fully engaged in the learning process, particularly in the classroom. Instead of sitting in their seats passively listening to a lecture and maybe asking the occasional question, students are working together to solve problems, come up with ideas, apply concepts, discuss important issues, and much, much more. This can take place both in and out of the classroom.

Why engage in active learning? Well, as Richard Felder and Rebecca Brent point out in Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide (2016), "Hundreds of research studies and several meta-analyses of the research have shown that active learning outperforms traditional lecturing in promoting almost every learning outcome examined (Freeman et al., 2014; Prince, 2004; Wieman, 2014)." 

This doesn't mean your class time should be nothing but activities. As with all teaching and learning strategies, it's about finding the right balance for you and your students. Maybe you lecture 1-2 days a week and then have a "free-for-all Friday" where students can come in and work on projects or homework assignments in the classroom. Maybe you start each class with a 10-minute activity to introduce them to the content. Or you end class with a 15-minute activity applying what they've learned.

There are LOTS of resources for active learning. We've provided several different options below, but don't be afraid to go looking for "active learning activities" in your favorite search engine. We in CAFE are also available for brainstorming various strategies. Feel free to schedule a consultation through the button below.

The Active Learning Spectrum, presented from Simple to Complex: Pause for reflection, writing (minute paper), self-assessment, large-group discussion, think-pair-share, informal groups, triad groups, group evaluations, peer review, brainstorming, case studies, hands-on technology, interactive lecture, active review sessions (games or simualtions), role playing, jigsaw discussion, inquiry learning
Active Learning activities by complexity, prepared by Chris O’Neal and Tershia Pinder-Grover, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan


Bonwell, C. C., and Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom. ASH#-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1,

Felder, R., and Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide. Jossey-Bass.

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 Science, June 10, 204, Vol. 111, No. 23. Retrieved from

Prince, M.J. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.

Wieman, C. (2014). Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 111(23, 8319-8329. Retrieved from