Teaching for active learning

Rather than the transmission of predefined knowledge to passive recipients, teaching is increasingly designed to foster students’ active knowledge construction, by interacting with other students, classroom materials and the teacher. Research consistently shows that actively engaging with content (for instance by discussing course material, linking it to previous understandings, looking at it from different perspectives, and reflecting on one’s choices, motivation and arguments) leads to more effective learning than what is referred to as the “consumption of knowledge”. Yet, the design of university education does not always foster active learning, and this is reflected in student evaluations of teaching. This calls for (re-)designing teaching to (further)  stimulate students’ active learning through engaging with relevant disciplinary issues and research questions.


  • Students participate actively in the teaching and learning activities
  • Students participate in small learning communities and gain shared knowledge and insights
  • Teachers use teaching approaches for active learning to promote student engagement and student achievement
  • The design of educational programmes encourages students to progressively take responsibility for their own learning and become autonomous learners

What are the key aspects?

In teaching for active learning, knowledge is not predefined, but always enriched by interaction with teachers, students and classroom materials, and students progressively take responsibility for their own learning throughout their university careers.
There are at least three ways in which students can become active learners:

  1. Active learning invites students to actively construct knowledge, for instance by teachers and students linking course content to prior understanding and looking at issues or questions from different perspectives. Teaching activities, ranging from asking questions during a lecture to mind mapping and (digital) classroom polls, reveal existing student understandings and can be used as starting points for further enrichment.
  2. Active learning invites students to interact with other students, teachers and classroom materials. Collaborative teaching activities as debates, think-pair-share, peer- or self-feedback are useful here, and are likely to enrich students’ understanding.
  3. Active learning also entails students progressively taking responsibility for their own learning. Larger assignments,  in which students have more freedom to pursue individual interests at their own pace, require students to plan their own learning and also tend to trigger reflection on the learning process.

Changing role of the teacher

Active learning is more than adding assignments, activities and technological tools to a lesson or course, as active learning not only changes the role of the students, but also the role of the teacher. Activating students’ learning requires students to prepare before class, interact during class and reflect after class. The student needs to do the learning and therefore at some times the teacher needs to fade out to provide the students with space and time to progress by themselves. Teachers need to resist their impulse to “take over” the learning process when students appear to be struggling; typically, the struggle shows that students are actively engaging in the learning process.

Designing teaching approaches for active learning starts with thoroughly thinking about students’ needs and learning objectives. Starting with these learning goals, teachers should consider the different ways students could achieve these goals and design (inter)active learning activities in line with these objectives. In this process, the assessment design also deserves attention, as it is important that assessment is constructively aligned with the learning objectives and learning activities. This way students’ learning is optimally supported (see also Biggs, 1996, and chapter Assessment and Feedback)

Learning to learn actively

The extent to which students will be actively engaged in class depends on the learning activities and how the lesson is planned, but also on what students are familiar with. When students have little experience with teaching approaches for active learning, or when they are confronted with different approaches to teaching and learning, they may express dissatisfaction at first. This signals that students may need guidance on how to learn actively. Vermunt and Verloop (1999) describe how teachers and students can balance the regulation of learning. They highlight how providing just a little less guidance than students might (think they) need (i.e. creating “constructive friction”) can support students taking increased responsibility for their own learning.

How do you know you are on the right track?

Further reading

Different websites offer examples of a range of activating teaching  practices (“activerende werkvormen/didactiek” in Dutch) for university teaching. Examples include:

Karel Roos (ICT coördinator at ICLON) has made an informative animation about active learning during lectures


Teaching example

The first and second year bachelor courses in EU law have large working groups, where students can ‘hide’ behind active students. Making sure students come prepared, is a challenge. Lecturers, among which Dr. Armin Cuyvers, have experimented with using obligatory prior submissions and peer-review of the take home questions, to improve the preparation as well as the interaction. They experience a higher level of (academic) discussion as well as fun in the working groups.