Active Learning

by MU Instructional Designers
October 17, 2022
10-15 min read

puzzle pieces with one moving into placeBuilding Associations

When students can connect course ideas, theories and concepts to what they already know, they are more likely to remember the information and apply it in new contexts. Providing options for students to discover those associations will help them engage with the material you want to share. Encouraging students to build associations also validates the unique and varied experiences they bring to the classroom.


  • Spaced Practice – revisit information throughout the semester, including questions from previous units on tests and quizzes and connecting previously learned content to current information.
  • Varied Content – provide content in different ways to support students in forming connections between what they see, what they hear and what they read.
  • Engaging Emotion – help students form an emotional connection to the content in your course by using stories, evocative images, and/or personal examples.
  • Background Knowledge – activate students’ background knowledge by helping them discover the value of what they already know and how it contributes to a foundation for new learning.
  • Skeleton Handout (or guided questions) – help students focus on the key points of readings, lectures, etc.

photo and video iconDual Coding

Dual coding is a way of describing how we as humans process the information we take in. We often form mental pictures in our mind as we read or listen to a story. As educators we can use that method to help students learn new content.


  • Words/Images – encourage students to use images to define concepts or ideas. Use icons as a visual marker for what part of course material you are covering. Encourage students to create mental pictures while you are talking about a topic.
  • Visual/Auditory – provide options for students to receive information both visually (text, image, or video) and aurally (podcast or lecture).
  • Mind Mapping – have students create and share mind maps demonstrating the connections between course topics.
  • Charts/Graphs/Diagrams – use these data visualization tools to present numeric data effectively.

pie with one slice highlightedChunking

Breaking content into manageable chunks provides students with an opportunity to process what they are learning as they progress through the material.


  • “10/2 Chunk and Chew” – for every 10 minutes of content, students should have at least 2 minutes of processing time.1
  • 3-4 Main Concepts – limit each learning session to 3 -4 main concepts to help reduce cognitive load.2
  • Strategic Pausing – helps students define chunks.

conversation bubblesPracticing with Feedback

Providing formative feedback during the learning process allows students to think not only about the content, but about the process of making meaning and incorporating those new concepts into their working memory.


  • Drafts/Checkpoints – create opportunities for formative feedback from both you and student peers in early stages of an assignment.
  • Peer-Feedback and Self-Assessment Scaffolds – guide students toward giving helpful feedback, such as with rubrics and/or models/samples.
  • Feedback Sandwich – use and promote the pattern of praise/constructive criticism/next steps.
  • Check out The Thinking Classroom for more ideas that get students involved in the learning process. If your class is f2f you may want to get students moving with a higher ed version of Chat Stations.

Learn More!

Annotated Bibliography – A collection of research on the topic of active learning.


Kasia M. Derbiszewska and Nicole Tucker-Smith,  Supercharge Your Professional Learning: 40 Concrete Strategies that Improve Adult Learning, (Wakefield, MA: CAST Publishing (2020), x-x.

Stephen M. Kosslyn, Active Learning Online: Five Principles that Make Online Courses Come Alive. (Boston, Alinea Learning, 2021) .

image credit: created by Freepik –