Active Learning – The Best Strategy for Effective Teaching?

Melissa Alberts

Melissa Alberts

Recently, we’ve asked our community what they think are the most essential feature of an effective lesson. With an overwhelming 71%, it was no surprise that most thought using active learning within our lessons is an essential part of enhancing teaching and learning. 

So what is active learning?

And why is it important?

When I think back to my own school experience, I remember sitting in a classroom with a teacher in front, trying to impart their knowledge to us. Afterwards, we were given a worksheet to complete, mark and then repeat. Does this sound familiar to you? 

For decades, the method of lecturing learners was the method of choice. It is easy and does not require a lot of additional thought from the teacher. Now, we know better. And studies and research are supporting the need to change our method.  

Active learning is an instructional approach that engages students in the lesson content to play a more active role in their learning process. Learners are required to do meaningful learning activities that
develop their skills instead of being passive, where information is merely transmitted to learners. Students think about what they are doing and focus on how they learn, not solely on what. 


Opportunities are created to learn through collaboration and exploration in a more student-centred way. Using active learning strategies has yielded surprising results even beyond better understanding and retention. Students’ thinking needs to be challenged to be deepened. 

Think back to things you’ve learnt throughout your life, such as driving a car or baking a cake. A family member or friend might have instructed you, or you watched a how-to video. Still, you learnt the skill by actually driving and baking. Here, you’ve engaged in active learning without maybe knowing. 

Active learning is closely related to the theory of constructivism. Constructivists argue that students construct and build their knowledge. Teachers are the facilitators of this process, and learning is a process of ‘making meaning’. 

Your first thought might be, “Oh no, more work for me!” but no, this is not necessarily the case. Educators often make the mistake of thinking that putting active learning into practice requires thinking more about the activity’s design instead of the learning.  

The most important part is putting the student and the learning at the centre of your planning. Tasks can be simple but still get students thinking critically and independently. Think and reflect on what you want the students to learn and understand, and then shape the task to activate this learning best. 

The Cambridge Getting Started with Active Learning guide asked various teachers how they have used active learning with their students. 

Want to know more?

"As a science teacher, the challenge is always how to communicate abstract ideas to students, and I found that modelling always goes down well as they get to grips with an idea better. 
Last week, I was teaching about the idea of pressure to 11 -13-year-old students, and they were all given a scenario to make out of plasticine and explain to the rest of the class. 
For example: 'How do snowshoes work?' or 'Why do we need a sharp knife to cut the cheese?' or 'How do caterpillar tracks stop machines sinking?' Students enjoyed the modelling and were completely on task. I could see the penny just dropping with pressure is force over area. So, if you want to decrease the pressure, you need to increase the area, and that’s quite an abstract idea to get. I could see students really getting it."
Cathy Priest

Want to know more?

"So, opening up the discussion, opening up the questioning, is important. With collaboration and trying to engage everybody is an art in itself. For example, you may provide a question to a group of four sitting around a table. They have to discuss that question before deciding on a shared answer, which is then contributed to the class discussion, rather than simply one person contributing on their own and the other three not engaging. So, there's various techniques and tricks like that to ensure that everybody has some involvement in what they're supposed to be learning about."
Mark Winterbottom
"We scaffold quite a lot. We’ll give them, perhaps, a project to do, and we’d scaffold it very carefully so that every step of the way is clear to them. We tell them this is what we want. You stimulate them just enough so that they have enough tools to be able to go out then and do it themselves."
Zelda Maclear

Although using active learning methods is important, it does not guarantee that your lesson will be successful. Incorporating regular formative assessment opportunities, building on prior learning, stating clear learning aims and objectives and having a coherent lesson structure, to only name a few, all are key aspects for an effective lesson. They should not be used in isolation but on a regular and continuous basis.

Improve your practice!

These are some of the concepts of teaching and learning explored during the Cambridge International Certificate/Diploma in Teaching and Learning that GenEx offers online. Join us in engaging with these concepts and developing your skills to improve your practice. 

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