Active Learning Strategies in Higher Education

Cover of Active Learning Strategies in Higher Education

Teaching for Leadership, Innovation, and Creativity



Table of contents

(18 chapters)

Section I Active Learning in Higher Education: A Theoretical Background


This chapter concerns itself primarily with questions of how students in higher education studies can best acquire, apply, create, and share knowledge. Over the past several decades, multiple forms of active learning have been proposed in order to increase student engagement and deepen their understanding. This chapter, accordingly, examines the epistemological claims of the supporters and detractors of active learning while simultaneously exploring the nascence and development of some of the major understandings which presently underpin an epistemology of active learning. While the focus of earlier works may have been on changes that higher education instructors should make to improve student understanding of key STEM concepts, this chapter addresses changes in the roles of both students and instructors as the co-creators of active learning environments and learning communities. A particular focus is given to the significance of metacognition as a critical skill that enables students to assess their own learning and also critically assess sources of information. The chapter includes a framework which indicates trends toward high-impact active learning skills for students in STEM higher education and the research which theorizes and supports these new instructional imperatives.


This chapter outlines potential steps to take in designing active learning experiences based on several theories underlying the learning process. The chapter examines theories of learning and instruction including information processing, schema acquisition, and cognitive load theory. Next follows an explanation of how these theories support problem-centered learning as well as a rationale for the need to help learners develop domain-general, flexible problem-solving skills that will transfer to future needs and contexts. The second half of the chapter focuses on designing active learning experiences based on the selection of real-world problems as the foundation for learning, activating prior knowledge, demonstration of the process or concept, multiple opportunities for practice with relevant scaffolding, and the chance to integrate that knowledge into the learners’ own context based on M. D. Merrill’s (2002) First Principles of Instruction. Examples of assessments, strategies, and activities to foster active, problem-centered learning drawn from the literature are also provided.

Section II Active Learning Strategies in Higher Education: “Stories” and Lessons Learnt


Active learning is not a simple practice. It is a new paradigm for the provision of high-quality, collaborative, engaging, and motivating education. Active learning has the capacity to respond to most of the challenges that institutions of higher education are facing in our time. In this chapter, we present active learning strategies used in STEM disciplines and we analyze the potential of active learning to redefine the value proposition in academic institutions. After providing the theoretical underpinnings of active learning as an evolving practice, an attempt is made to connect it with different learning theories and present an integrative model in which institutional strategies, learning strategy and information, and communication technologies work synergistically toward the development of knowledge and skills. We then present the results of a survey examining “stories” of active learning from the STEM disciplines, identifying good teaching practices, and discussing challenges and lessons learned. The key idea is that active engagement and participation of students is based on faculty commitments and inspiration and mentoring by faculty. We finally present a stage model for the implementation of active learning practices in higher education. Emphasis is put on a new vision for higher education, based on systematic planning, implementation, and evaluation of active learning methods, collaboration, engagement with society and industry, innovation, and sustainability, for a better world for all.


To meet the needs of the professional environment sector, environmental science graduates need to be suitably equipped in terms of their knowledge, understanding, and skills. At the University of Southampton, the first-year module Environmental Science: Concepts and Communication aids students in their journey into Environmental Science by preparing them to face the challenges of university study and beyond. This module thus engages students in independent learning and provides them with opportunities to develop and enhance the skills necessary to do so. Formative and student-led activities and tasks are considered important tools to achieve this aim. This review provides an overview of selected formative and student-led activities with focus on methods and approaches, values and benefits, and the practicalities of delivery. Three assessments are reviewed: a practice essay, a communication exercise, and a practice presentation. The intended benefits and value of these assessments are (1) engagement with environmental issues and topics and (2) development and enhancement of study skills. The value of such work is only realized, however, with student engagement. Delivering this module has demonstrated that formative elements are most effective when orientated to tutor group activities. Motivation for engagement appears most effective when the visibility – or absence – of students’ work is brought to the foreground through working in small groups. There is added value in that the collation and sharing of feedback within a small group permits students to learn not only from their own work but also from their peers.


Field-based education for environmental studies has been a foundational principle for the Environmental Studies program at Stockton University, which began in 1971. Located within the 445,000 hectare Pinelands National Reserve, on an 800-hectare campus near Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA, two professors in the program discuss our rationale and experiences teaching students about the environment within the environment. Expounding on the interdisciplinary literature of field-based learning, we present four unique case studies including local and regional experiences, as well as student learning abroad. The first case proposes that learning outdoors might be beneficial for students with learning disabilities. This is exemplified during a one-week field study to the 2.4 million hectare Adirondack Park & Preserve. The second instance reveals the benefits of working with local towns and environs acting as consultants in a multidisciplinary capstone experience. Next, we show how on-campus data collection and hypothesis formulation help students to learn about environmental design and statistical analysis. Finally, an international trip to the Caribbean opens the minds of students through a service learning project. While on campus, in town, across the United States or at an international destination, learning in the field gives students the opportunity to expand their knowledge through field-based active learning strategies.


This chapter explores issues of quality teaching, learning, and assessment in higher education courses from the perspective of teaching fully online (polysynchronous) courses in undergraduate and graduate programs in education at a technology university in Ontario, Canada. Online courses offer unique opportunities to capitalize on students’ and professors’ digital capabilities gained in out-of-school learning and apply them to an in-school, technology-enabled learning environment. The critical and reflective arguments in this paper are informed by theories of online learning and research on active learning pedagogies.

Digital technologies have opened new spaces for higher education which should be dedicated to creating high-quality learning environments and high-quality assessment. Moving a course online does not guarantee that students will be able to meet the course outcomes more readily, however, or that they will necessarily understand key concepts more easily than previously in the physically copresent course environments. All students in higher education need opportunities to seek, critique, and construct knowledge together and then transfer newly-acquired skills from their coursework to the worlds of work, service, and life. The emergence of new online learning spaces helps us to reexamine present higher education pedagogies in very deliberate ways to continue to maintain or to improve the quality of student learning in higher education.

In this chapter, active learning in fully online learning spaces is the broad theme through which teaching, learning, and assessment strategies are reconsidered. The key elements of our theoretical framework for active learning include (1) deliberate pedagogies to establish the online classroom environment; (2) student ownership of learning activities; and (3) high-quality assessment strategies.


This chapter describes and analyzes the result of an active, cooperative learning design adopted in “Change Management,” an elective course at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), which is a fully online university. The paper describes the context and foundations that support the learning design, outlines the learning activities and their evolution, and presents the results of a student survey to assess the design’s effectiveness in reaching its main goals. The results of the survey suggest that students perceived this design as enhancing their teamwork abilities, while being interesting and motivating, as well as useful in learning the course’s content. Therefore, the desired goals were attained and the design was kept, with minor changes, in subsequent editions of the course. In addition, students without prior teamwork experience valued the collaborative activities more than students who had previously worked in teams in other subjects of their degrees. In contrast, no differences were found for individual learning activities. This suggests that the design can be useful in introductory courses where students are asked to learn in virtual teams for the first time.


How was I going to engage the students in my ancient Roman Art and Architecture course, especially the five football players who had signed up in the fall of 2015? In this chapter, I will discuss the commitment I made to the students and myself to ensure that each class period was one in which an active learning technique was used, often paired with some lecture, and sometimes not, to engage students and help them learn about Roman Art and Architecture. I will discuss what assignments I chose based on research and my own observation, as well as the results of a focus group held with the football players a year later about what they remembered. Football players tend to be kinetic learners and thus were chosen as the follow-up to see how the active learning techniques in this class met objectives. Specifically, this chapter will discuss the inclusion of a Reacting to the Past role-playing game, a research project on “Daily Life in Ancient Rome,” and presentations on different methodologies of interpreting an image from a Pompeiian tavern.


This chapter presents innovative approaches to active learning that were introduced into the teaching of preservice teachers at the Faculty of Education of University of West Bohemia, Pilsen, in the Czech Republic. Over the last three years, the Technology-Enhanced Learning course has seen substantial innovations in both the content and use of teaching strategies designed to prepare the students for their professional lives. The whole update of the course was implemented using the results of action research – all individual changes were rigorously tracked and analyzed. The state of the art in the active learning domain in education of preservice teachers is presented in this chapter.

There is a description of the procedure to update the course, based on the reflections of teachers and feedback from students, gathered during action research. Detailed evaluations of particular methods of active learning that have been proven in teaching are provided.

Besides practical activities with tablets and smartphones, during which students familiarize themselves with various types of applications and reflect on their use in teaching, the course was extended by the use of practical aids for the efficient inclusion of mobile technologies for teaching – the Czech version of Allan Carrington’s Padagogy Wheel. This aid is derived from the revised Bloom’s taxonomy and SAMR model and helps the systematic reflection of preservice teachers when preparing for technology-enhanced teaching.

A significant part of the teaching consists of cooperative projects between preservice teachers and pupils of elementary schools – for example, the preservice teachers help elementary school pupils discover possibilities of virtual reality during Google Cardboard activities, or preservice teachers in teams with elementary school pupils create digital stories together on the topic of Internet safety.

The innovative approach to active teaching in the Technology-Enhanced Learning course is apparent even during the exam. In the course of the exam, students process, present, and defend a lesson plan for the implementation of an activity using digital technologies.

Throughout the learning, as well as at the end, preservice teachers are encouraged to reflect on the teaching in the Technology-Enhanced Learning subject.


To apply effective teaching and learning strategies, it is essential to understand the complexity of human groups, especially in educational contexts. To look for the relationship between the contributions that people make, it is critical to understand the singularities of cultures when developing innovations and to foster leadership in education. This chapter presents an experience developed in Higher Education in Chile focused on the ability of preservice teachers to enhance the development of individual talents as an active teaching and learning strategy to create a society made up of integrally developed people in educational contexts. In addition, we use virtual learning environments as a vehicle to connect students between physical and virtual boundaries. This strategy is based on the Talent Management Model which was implemented in intercultural primary schools by professors and preservice teachers from the south of Chile. The virtuality dimension promoted the detection of individual traits of students and contributed to the development of a cultural identity. Additionally, it offered theoretical and practical knowledge that implied an innovation in the training of future teachers.


The use of Active Learning (AL) techniques can significantly improve the teaching–learning process, as the content is explored in a more interactive, participative, and relaxed way. Although expositive classes are still broadly used in Brazil, in this chapter we present some AL techniques, as well as experiences of their application, used in Brazilian K-12, undergraduate, and graduate Information Systems courses. As a result, we have noticed learning has been more effective, and students have been motivated by the use of these AL techniques. Although used in the context of Information System courses, the techniques could be adapted to other scenarios.


Accounting education in universities is always a hard subject for the students, who find it boring and little stimulating. So, even though students increasingly demand the integration of varied technologies and mobile devices into learning environment (Wash & Freeman 2013), educational systems of the public universities continue to be traditional. The role of students is totally passive, so the main responsibility of class development lies on the shoulders of professors, but this situation can change with the use of Socrative App in a learning environment, since it encourages students to play an active part in class.

That is why professors have to find new ways to capture the students’ attention, facilitating their learning, and at the same time, making it fun and entertaining. In this work, a teaching innovation case to first-year students in a university is presented using Socrative App. This study aims to investigate how the university can combine ICT close to traditional methodologies of learning, in order to increase interest in the subject, awakening in them passion and vocation for the accounting area.


In recent years there has been a constant growth in digital portfolio use in tertiary education. Portfolios are used by educational institutions for assessment, as a showcase of both student and institution work, and with an increasing trend also as a tool for higher employability of graduates and support of lifelong learning. This chapter introduces concepts of portfolio, digital portfolio, language portfolio, autonomy, and self-assessment. It approaches both positivist and constructivist paradigms of digital portfolio and presents examples of ePortfolio implementation at the University of Pardubice. Selected examples of good practice with respect to autonomous learning, experiential learning, and international cooperation are also given.

Section III A Vision for Humanity Through Higher Education


In the face of the erosion of democracy and the reemergence of authoritarian styles of rule and leadership in the contemporary world scene, the author reintroduces the anthropological and pedagogical insights of Dorothy Lee and Paulo Freire in the ongoing debate on active learning and higher education. In the case of Dorothy Lee, these insights refer to “valuing the self” of the student, and to the value of learning (values) from “remote cultures” and, last but not least, on the meaning of freedom and autonomy bounded by culture and structure in the teaching–learning process. In the case of Freire, the author selectively points to: (1) the value of community as a sociocultural anchor of identity, freedom, and autonomy, (2) the view of education as a tool for raising awareness, critical thinking, inspiration, hope, empowerment, cultural action, and social transformation, and (3) the view on citizenship education. The author discusses, in this regard, the significant role assigned by Dorothy Lee and Paulo Freire to the neglected notions of dialogue, freedom, culture, self, autonomy, and structure. Lastly, the author argues in favor of reincorporating the pedagogical insights of Dorothy Lee and Paulo Freire in the curricula and structure of higher education and also reminds those concerned with upholding democracy that these formative values and concepts were acknowledged in the early conception and development of active learning.


Contemporary globalized societies face important environmental and social problems that require urgent action and citizen engagement. Active learning in contemporary societies is being reemphasized in order to prepare active learners, capable of critical thinking and innovative problem solving and able to become responsible citizens. Environmental Education (EE) and its descendant Education for Sustainability (EFS), or Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), have been a very important first effort for introducing active learning in contemporary education at all educational levels. They constitute an important variant of active learning. EE and EFS by definition propose and adopt active learning and experiential methods, as they seek to prepare people that will work for a healthy environment and better societies. And this is where the difference lies between EE/EFS and the generic active-learning approaches. EE or EFS are committed active-learning approaches; they have an explicit goal to work for social and environmental change.

The transition from learners to active learners is addressed by active learning, which however assumes that active learners will also become responsible and active citizens. EE and EFS have however demonstrated that this is not an obvious development. Education should be clear about its purpose – individual change, empowerment, integration, or social transformation – and pedagogical methods and tools should be selected appropriately.

This chapter first discusses the main characteristics of EE/EFS. Then, it explores what facilitates the transition from active learners to active citizens, based on lessons from EE and EFS. Finally, it reflects on the implications of these lessons for Higher Education and, as a result, a new vision for Higher Education and a brief guide for educators and Higher Educational managers are proposed.

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