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Active Learning

This page provides resources first presented by Jennifer Gong and Gretchen Guiton at the September ECBD meeting

What is Active Learning?

Below is a Wordle image based on the definitions provided by block directors in the ECBD meeting.

Active learning is an instructional approach that engages students in manipulating knowledge (facts, concepts, principles) in real time in front of peers and instructors. It requires students to:

  • Recall prior knowledge, from concepts and facts read the night before or learned in prior sessions or courses.
  • Sorting, categorizing, and selecting the knowledge most relevant to the given task.
  • Applying and justifying use of that knowledge in front of peers.
  • Incorporating and responding to the peers in a group problem-solving situation.

The instructor sets up the context – that is, the activity, the situation, the task, the process – that engages the student in “active learning.” Usually the instructor provides some kind of prompt – a question to answer, a problem to solve, a task to do – and sets up a process for students to follow (e.g., think about this alone for x minutes, write down your answer; now for 2 minutes talk to the person sitting next to you).

How can it be done?

In our curriculum some examples of active learning include: clinical-case based small group discussions, in-lecture case-based vignettes, game-oriented reviews (e.g., crossword puzzles, jeopardy games), and use of clickers to answer questions in class. The resources below provide a variety of ideas.

Here are some ideas specific to the lecture format:

The Pause Procedure: Pause for two minutes every 12 to 15 minutes during a 50 minutes lecture. During the pause, students discuss what the lecturer has just presented, reworking notes together without any instructor feedback.

Modifying the “Random Call”: The instructor poses a question to the class. Gives the class 15 to 30 seconds to think about the question. Then the instructor calls on a random student to provide an answer. This can help with students “freezing up” when called upon.

Think-Pair-Share: Students independently review information presented in lecture, prior reading, viewing a video. The instructor gives a single question for each student to independently reflect and write an answer to. Students then pair up with another student and share their responses. Why does this work? It enables independent formulation (reflect by yourself, write down an answer) as well as collaborative group work. It engages self-reflection and higher order thinking skills.

Conduct a “lecture check” using clickers (Mazur, 1997): After a 15 or 20 minute lecture, the instructor poses a question to “check” for student understanding (e.g., putting up a multiple choice question on a slide). Students signal their responses using clickers or “low tech” using a set of colored index card (e.g., personal response system). If 80% of the answers are correct, the instructor continues lecturing. If 20% or fewer of the students get it wrong, then the instructor asks students turn to each other, and attempt to convince their peer of the correct answer. Students are asked to signal their responses again. Here’s a quick video of this process in action​.

Leave Students With a Question: If the instructor gives a series of lectures, the instructor can pose a question or set of problems that will begin the next class. Students can go away and work on the question, and come back to the next lecture prepared to respond. Use random call to begin the next lecture period.


What kinds of considerations do I need to think about before jumping in?

Here’s a set of considerations from Eison’s paper (see above):

  • Amount of Class Time Required (short to long)
  • Degree of Structure (more structure to less)
  • Degree of Planning (meticulously planned to spontaneous)
  • Subject Matter (relatively concrete to relatively abstract)
  • Students’ Prior Knowledge (better informed to less informed)
  • Student’s Prior Experience with the Teaching Technique (familiar to unfamiliar)
  • Instructor’s Prior Experience with Teaching Technique (considerable to limited)
  • Pattern of Interaction (between faculty and students to among students)

Questions seem to be an important driver for active learning. What kinds of questions work?

Bloom’s taxonomy presents a way of thinking about the types of questions you can ask students in order to elicit different levels of knowledge. The diagram below show the six levels in Bloom’s taxonomy and actions students engage in at each level. Questions could be built off of the verbs under each column.


How can I flip my classroom?

For a quick start, explore these resources:

Who’s talking about “active learning” in medical education?

  • Horton R. Offline: To wonder is to begin to understand. The Lancet. 2013; 381:1610 [RE: Manzur’s approach]

  • Prober CG, Health C. Lecture halls without lecturers – A proposal for medical education. New England Jl of Medicine. 2012; 366(18):1657-1679.
  • Prober CG, Kahn S. Medical education reimagined: A call to action. Acad Med. 2013; 88:1407-1410.

What’s the evidence that active learning strategies can work in the lecture hall?

  • Deslauriers L, Schelew E, Wieman C. Improving learning in large-enrollment physics class. Science. 2011; 332:862-864.
  • Freeman S, Haak D, Wenderoth MP. Increased course structure improves performance in introductory biology. CBE-Life Sciences Education. 2011; 10:175-186.