Active Learning at Princeton

“Classrooms should be profound places of revelation and discovery. Well-designed space has the ability to elevate discourse, encourage creativity, and promote collaboration.” Lawson Reed Wulsin Jr, “Classroom Design – Literature Review” (Princeton University, 2013)

As the name implies, active learning refers to any type of instructional activity that encourages interaction and collaboration. Active learning can be as simple as pausing a traditional lecture to invite feedback. The instructor might stop to ask a question about a topic just presented, invite students to take one minute to discuss a lecture slide with the person sitting next to them, or complete a short writing exercise on an emergent topic. In other scenarios, the instructor might devote an entire class period to learning objectives that invite group discussion, collaborative work, and active participation in a room designed for the purpose. In either scenario, active learning aims for a different type of engagement with course content. Students must stop, participate, and reflect on their knowledge in the moment—in other words, they must be actively present.

Active learning strategies have been shown to improve students’ academic performance, decrease failure rates, and address issues of equity and inclusion. An analysis of 225 studies on active learning, for example, found that active learning strategies in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses led to improvements in examination scores by about 6% (Freeman, et al., 2014). Other studies have examined the difference in achievement gaps of underrepresented students in active-learning classrooms experiences against those in traditional lecturing classrooms. A 2020 cumulative analysis of examination scores from 15 studies and failure rates from 26 studies found that “active learning reduced achievement gaps in examination scores among underrepresented students by 33% and narrowed gaps in passing rates by 45%” (Theobald, et al., 2020).

Test scores aside, active learning strategies can foster students’ interactions with peers, provide opportunities for students to develop disciplinary skills and expertise, and provide practice expressing learning through the formulation of questions and articulation of ideas. The addition of active learning elements can also provide you, the instructor, with valuable feedback on student comprehension and provide students with opportunities to compare their understanding of course materials with that of their peers. Even large classes, including those that take place in lecture halls, can incorporate activities that encourage students to take time to reflect upon their learning and interact with their peers. The use of audience response systems (“clickers”) with the ability to conduct anonymous polls can help you to quickly gauge student understanding in large classes, but it can also simply lighten the mood and help bridge the gap between lecturer and audience.

Most often, active learning approaches include in-class collaborative work within groups of students, but independent comprehension checks such as quick reflection writing, pair-work, and before and after polls can be valuable. The well-known Think-Pair-Share activity, for example, asks students to first consider a question independently, then to discuss their thoughts in pairs, and then report back to the entire class. This activity, while very easy to set up, provides time for students to think critically and to formulate quality responses. More structured collaborative group activities might allow students to tackle larger problems. The jigsaw method, for example, is a learning strategy in which students actively help each other build comprehension. In this method, groups of students are tasked with becoming experts in a specific portion of a larger issue or problem, a portion of a challenging reading, or a single theme within a larger work. These groups can then contribute their knowledge back to the class as a whole or act as content expert consultants to other groups.

view of an active class in progress

Classroom search

The Classroom Search tool provides information about the many classroom on campus, including the number and configuration of seats, whether tables are loose or fixed, and available hardware.

Classroom Search Tool

Active learning spaces and technologies

While even simple interventions and low-tech in-class activities can lead to more engaged learning and unique classroom experiences, Princeton has available technology, equipment, specialized furniture and classroom layouts that facilitate active learning approaches. 

Active learning spaces

A classroom search tool is available online. This directory of campus classroom spaces offers information about the number of seats and whether tables and chairs are loose or fixed.

Several classrooms have been specifically designed around the idea of active learning. These classrooms include:

  • Andlinger Center Room 017
  • Friend Center Room 016
  • Green Hall Room 1-C-4C
  • Thomas Laboratory Room 005
  • Wilcox Hall Room 208

The McGraw Center’s Digital Learning Lab (DLL) is a technology-enhanced teaching and learning space in the Lewis Science Library designed with interactive, media-rich learning in mind. The space includes movable whiteboards, large displays, and computers loaded with a wide variety of digital media software, including the entire Adobe Creative Cloud suite, 3D design programs, audio software like Audacity and Logic, and coding tools. Any of the 15 computer stations can be displayed on either of the two room displays.

Frist 330, the McGraw Center's teaching lab, offers a place in which faculty and instructional staff can explore the latest in instructional technology. The room is host to many McGraw Center events and workshops, such as the annual new faculty orientation, undergraduate tutoring, and AI training. It can also be booked for the occasional experiment in teaching by faculty who wish to learn more about innovations in educational technologies. Furniture can be easily moved into a wide range of configurations, and the room is equipped with digital whiteboards, wireless projection, writable walls, and four points of projection. For more information, contact the McGraw Center at [email protected]

Active learning technologies

screenshot of iclicker cloud app

In addition to the physical space of the classroom, some technologies lend themselves to participatory activities. Audience response systems (“clickers”) allow you to conduct polls in class to gather feedback from students, prompt discussion, or gauge student understanding. Responses can be anonymous if you wish, with questions being multiple choice, short answer, or requiring a numeric response. Clickers can also be combined with break-out group discussion. Have students vote individually on a difficult question. If the results show that a majority of the group did not answer correctly, but ask students to work in pairs or in small groups to come to a consensus before voting and then do the vote again. The McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning supports the use of two systems for audience response: iClicker and Mentimeter. Contact [email protected] to learn more.

In a large class, a throwable microphone can facilitate discussion and collaboration. These wireless, padded microphones connect to the existing audio system of the classroom and can be passed from student to student. The McGraw Center offers a limited number of these microphones for temporary loan for use in Princeton courses.

Perhaps often overlooked as in-class teaching and learning tools are digital applications like Google Docs, Sheets, and Jamboard, a shared digital whiteboard.  All of the applications can be edited in real-time by all participants of the course, allowing students to report back group findings, to collaboratively keep notes, or to brainstorm new ideas. Google Workspace also includes Google Forms, an easy way to create forms for gathering student feedback.

Another tool for collaborative decision-making and brainstorming is IdeaBoardz. IdeaBoardz is a free tool that allows groups of users to place virtual sticky notes on a shared screen.  Those notes can then be arranged on the screen or into colored sections to categorize and organize ideas.

Example active learning activities

See also

Interactive Techniques, Kevin Yee, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, University of South Florida

References

Lawson Reed Wulsin Jr, “Classroom Design – Literature Review” (Princeton University, 2013)

Freeman, Scott, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth. “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111, no. 23 (June 10, 2014): 8410–15.

Theobald, Elli J., Mariah J. Hill, Elisa Tran, Sweta Agrawal, E. Nicole Arroyo, Shawn Behling, Nyasha Chambwe, et al. “Active Learning Narrows Achievement Gaps for Underrepresented Students in Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 117, no. 12 (March 24, 2020): 6476–83.