Teaching & Learning


Active learning

Active learning is an approach which gets your students more involved and engaged in their learning. Learn how to incorporate it into your teaching.

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1 August 2019

Active learning puts students at the heart of the learning experience. It enables them to become much more engaged with their own learning.

By becoming active participants in the classroom, students build knowledge through their own experiences.

Research shows that active learning can help students achieve a far deeper understanding of a topic than by simply listening to lectures or reading textbooks.

For teachers, active learning provides more opportunities to interact with students. For example, it can give you more ways to get continual feedback to evaluate your teaching.

What active learning means

Active learning is an approach, rather than a fixed set of activities.

It can include any activity that encourages students to take an active, engaged part in the learning process within the classroom, such as:

  • group discussions
  • student presentations
  • experiments
  • quizzes
  • problem-solving
  • role-play

Active learning is about teachers providing the environment and opportunities for students to build knowledge and understanding of a subject for themselves.

This is in contrast to more traditional methods of teaching, such as a lecturer seeking to ‘transmit’ knowledge to students as they sit and listen.

Putting it into practice

Make lectures more interactive

There are many ways to introduce an active learning style into your teaching sessions – both with large groups and small groups.

You don’t necessarily have to make entire sessions ‘active’. Consider breaking up a lecture with other activities to make it more interactive.

Classroom response systems, also known as ‘clickers’ (hand-held devices allowing students to select answers to multiple-choice questions that you ask in class) are an easy and effective way to get students actively involved.

Clickers are installed in UCL’s larger lecture theatres. There are also several free apps, such as Socrative, that allow students to record their answers using their own smartphone or tablet.

In large classes, try dividing the students into small groups so that they can get involved in active discussions.

Top tip

Try introducing a few active learning elements into your teaching to begin with. If students respond positively, add more.

Use ‘flipped’ learning

Get students to prepare for a classroom session in advance, for example by watching a video and answering questions about it. The session could then be based around small-group activities that you facilitate.

You could use a ‘flipped’ session midway through a module as a revision session or for working on an assignment that you’ve previously set.

Flipped learning works best when all the students have done the preparation work beforehand.

Get students to present their work

Ask your students to show some of their assignments and coursework to fellow students or people outside UCL.  

Knowing there’s an audience for their work besides the tutor can encourage students to become more actively engaged with a topic.

Top tip 

Don’t just think about what you want to teach. More importantly, think about how the students will learn.

Encourage students to work together

Get your students to work with their peers to solve a challenging problem or complete a task. This can help students to develop their communication and negotiation skills, as well as helping them gain a deeper understanding of a subject.

See the small-group teaching toolkit for more ideas about how to get students to work together.

Top tip 

When running small-group discussions, choose which students are in which groups rather than allowing them to choose their groups. This will lead to a more diverse learning environment and will encourage all students to take an active part.

Get students to learn by doing research

The UCL Connected Curriculum aims to ensure that all UCL students learn through participating in research and active, critical enquiry.

Think about how you can get students to engage in the subject by doing their own research.

See the Connected Curriculum case studies on the Teaching and Learning Portal for examples of how UCL colleagues have given students the opportunity to carry out research as part of their modules.

Where to find help and support

For more ideas about how to include active learning in your sessions:

Get your students more actively engaged in their learning by getting involved with a departmental UCL ChangeMakers project. ChangeMakers projects are intended to innovate or enhance the learning experience at UCL.

UCL resources

Connected Curriculum - our framework for research-based education at UCL. Explore the six dimensions and get tips and advice on how to further enhance your programmes of study.

Distance Learning An increasing number of UCL courses are fully online distance learning, or mostly-online 'blended learning' (where students might come for compressed teaching). With recent technological developments, reaching out to a truly global audience has become ever more possible for credit-bearing programmes or the growing field of life learning (CPD, short courses etc).

Object-based learning Using objects in teaching not only helps students to understand their subject but also develops academic and transferable skills such as team work and communication, analytical research skills, practical observation and drawing skills. It can also trigger innovative dissertation topics. This link takes you to the Object-based learning section on the UCL Culture website.

External resources

Active Learning in Higher Education an international, refereed publication for all those who teach and support learning in higher education and those who undertake or use research into effective learning, teaching and assessment in universities and colleges.

Does active learning work? A review of the research, 2004, Michael Prince, Bucknell University.

Active Learning, The Higher Education Academy (HEA).

Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing, Oxford Brookes University.

This guide has been produced by the UCL Arena Centre for Research-based Education. You are welcome to use this guide if you are from another educational facility, but you must credit the UCL Arena Centre.