Active Learning at Princeton

In its simplest definition, active learning seeks to amplify student participation and involvement in his or her own learning experience. Since the 1980s, an extensive body of research on college teaching has convincingly demonstrated that students are more creative, engage more, and retain that learning longer when faculty deploy more learner-centered teaching methods . . . As educational pedagogy changes, our campus classroom design process can further these goals.

 --  Chang, et. Al., The Special Committee on Classroom Design, (2013, Office of the Provost, Princeton University.)
See appendix A1 of preceding link for complete list of committee members.

Discussions of active learning are often aspirational: they are defined by images of students in technology-rich classrooms, equipped with movable chairs, tables, and walls that beg to be written upon. While such classrooms exist, and are in future development at Princeton, it is important to stress that in its most basic and essential definition, active learning is a technique that places the responsibility for the act of learning upon the student.

While students certainly use time outside of class to study, synthesize, and internalize lecture notes and readings, active learning asks the student to immediately reflect upon and engage with learning objectives—essentially to be active in the moment, in class, in the presence of other course participants.

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, to invite students to take one minute to discuss a lecture slide with the person sitting next to them, or, perhaps, to undertake a solitary, focused writing exercise on an emergent topic. In other scenarios, the course 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.

Active learning isn’t about the furniture. It can take place in any environment where students and instructors meet to engage in teaching and learning.

Recent literature has shown that although students may prefer a traditional, passive lecture experience, in which the instructor lectures and they take notes, it is shown that student learning and retention is increased by active learning strategies. Active learning involves a different level of engagement with course content. Students must stop, participate, and reflect on their knowledge of lecture material in the moment—in other words they must change their way of thinking to be actively present while instruction is taking place. A review of active learning literature can be found in this McGraw blog post.

Would you like to try active learning strategies in your classroom? You can find a few tips here.

We invite you to consult with us on active learning strategies.

Interested in finding the classroom that best suits your teaching goals? Use this interactive finding aid from the Office of the Registrar.