Actively Teaching Active Learning

Image of students

Students in 5.95 engage in “lightning round” discussions.

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

When you think about education, it’s easy to feel jaded. After all, waves of education reform have swept over American schools and colleges for decades, and tangible improvements—let alone a sea change—don’t exactly spring to mind.

But new hope has arisen in recent years, and with good reason, because for the first time teaching practices are being aligned with how the mind actually works. Studies are showing that there are certain things that teachers can do to make substantial improvements in student learning.

Action and Interaction

One of the key discoveries is that students learn best when they are actively engaged in their own learning, rather than sitting back passively and just listening (or not) to an instructor. And they learn even better when this active engagement is accompanied by interactive exchanges with other students.

How to put this wisdom into practice is at the center of 5.95 Teaching College-Level Science and Engineering, just published on OCW. As taught in Fall 2015, the course surveys all aspects of teaching a STEM course, including what is known about student learning and cognition, how to design a course and develop learning outcomes, how to design effective assignments and assessments, and even how to grade.

The instructor is Dr. Janet Rankin, the acting Director of MIT’s Teaching and Learning Lab, which has been helping to boost effective educational practices on campus for many years.

Well-Informed Practice  

The centerpiece of the 5.95 course site is a collection of videos that show why Dr. Rankin is such an avid advocate of active learning and how she puts active learning to effective use in her own classes. In other words, she doesn’t just preach. She practices.

Three class videos show how Dr. Rankin combines short lectures with a variety of active learning techniques to bolster student learning and knowledge retention.

In a number of video Instructor Insights, Dr. Rankin explains the virtues of active learning in its various manifestations, and footage from her class shows how the different techniques played out. With experience teaching in a variety of settings, from discussion-based seminars to large lectures, Rankin knows how to adapt the techniques to different situations in order to get the best results and avoid missteps.


Many Methods to Success

The techniques often have intriguing names: mud cards, think-pair-share, debate, beach ball, personal response systems, lightning round, jigsaw. And they often produce scenes that would surprise STEM educators accustomed to giving non-interactive lectures. How can serious learning take place with students tossing a beach ball around the classroom?  If each student who catches the ball has to say what they think about a given question, discussion is rapid-fire, participation is high, and the often inhibiting dynamic in which the all-knowing instructor puts students on the spot with pointed questions never comes into play.

In the lightning round, students line up face to face so that each person briefly shares with their counterpart their views on a given question. Then students shift places in the line, and begin again. In this way, students can quickly get a sense of how others in the class think about a topic. They get comfortable talking to one another.  They have fun! And their understanding is broadened and made more sophisticated. Knowledge gets reinforced.

Coming up with productive questions can make a big difference in these activities, and Dr. Rankin offers advice on this as well.


OCW has another version of 5.95, taught in Spring 2009 by Sanjoy Mahajan, also an advocate of active learning. Now a Professor at Olin College, Mahajan was at the time Associate Director of the Teaching and Learning Lab. The course site has full videos of the class sessions and is also worth a visit.

4 thoughts on “Actively Teaching Active Learning

  1. This subject is near and dear to my heart. Are there credible data indicating the degree to which “active learning” techniques have penetrated the education establishment, from preschool to post-graduate levels? (Effectiveness is a separate but interesting topic.)

    My history includes discovering “how to learn” via MIT’s Experimental Study Group (ESG) in the early ’70s, and my work at Boston Children’s Museum for the ensuing decade, helping 950,000 kids-of-all-ages understand (and take control of) technology via hands-on discovery.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great question, Bill. We checked with the experts over at the MIT Teaching and Learning Lab, and they had this to say:

      “We do not know of any credible data reporting extent of use of active learning in higher education, but we suggest looking into the efforts of AAC&U, AAU, and APLU (large consortia of colleges and universities) to support the use of active learning pedagogies on their respective campuses. The total number of universities encompassed in those consortia is ~ 450. You can find info about their initiatives on their respective websites.

      We also don’t know of any data available for PK12, but in general, they tend to be more active, and there are also concerted efforts to increase thoughtful use of active learning pedagogies. 100Kin10 is one organization (which is actually a collection of organizations known for developing high quality instructional materials) leading efforts in that area.”

      On a related note, TLL received a grant from AAU to increase communication among faculty about the pedagogies they use in their classrooms and facilitate the dissemination of active learning pedagogies used here at MIT both across the campus and nationally.

      Thanks, again, for your question. It looks like you’ve identified a gap in the literature that would be fascinating to fill.


  2. very nice. However, my students who have been learning by pedagogy do not think they are learning if you are not lecturing and showing notes. They think you have run out of stuff. Besides they do not read! They want to get it out of the mouth of the professor. Active learning for them looks like what they call NGO gimmicks. But in the field with peasants, it has worked very well and produced results. Help please!


    • Thanks for your comment, Magdalena. In her “Active Learning Overview” video, Janet shares that many students in 5.95 have never experienced active learning prior to taking the course. In that sense, they may have expectations—similar to those of your students—that a professor should lecture. To challenge these expectations, Janet opens the course with a discussion of what we know about how people learn. They look at Freeman et al.’s (2014) paper, “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics” to dig into the active learning data. Learning why (from a scientific standpoint) active learning works goes a long way in reframing students’ expectations about how classroom learning should unfold.

      She also suggests that immersion in active learning can help deepen students’ understanding of (and enthusiasm for) this type of educational experience: “So many of the students haven’t had the experience of being in a class where active learning was used, so they don’t really understand it. When we start to talk about it as a way of teaching, they may not really get it. So, throughout the course, from the first class all the way through, I try to use several different types of active learning exercises each class. Students themselves are actively engaged with the material from the first day.”

      As far as getting students to read prior to class. . . well, that’s a conundrum educators, including those at MIT, have been pondering for ages! We’ve tried a few different things here:

      Professor Jeff Gore flips the classroom and requires that students respond to short-answer questions about readings using Google Forms™.
      Instructor Metali Thakor assigns weekly reading response memos.
      Professor Dennis Freeman uses concept questions in class to encourage students to complete readings.
      Instructors Jeremy Orloff and Jonathan Bloom use targeted course readings and online reading questions.

      Let us know if any of these ideas work for you and your students!


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