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Techniques For Active Learning

Updated: May 23, 2023

Tasks achieved through a direct, hands-on approach involve active learning techniques. For example, participants might work together to solve a real-life problem related to the training; or practice using newly learned skills in a simulated environment.

Lots of practice creates "muscle memory" and preferably is accompanied by best practices. While this may seem simplistic, this is active learning at work. And this simple technique is actually one of the most successful training approaches you can employ when you're looking for performance-based results.

What is Active Learning?

Active Learning is learning that involves participation of the learner. This type of learning happens when students have an interactive relationship with the course subject matter, allowing them to work actively to generate information instead of passively receiving information. Active learners are involved in their learning (i.e. they want to learn). This makes them much more successful and optimistic about their ability to learn more.

Motivation is Key

As you probably already know, motivation is a key factor in adult learning. So what is it about active learning that influences motivation and improves mastery and recall? As it turns out, this technique fits perfectly with a number of key adult learning principles: readiness, experience, autonomy and action.

  • Readiness: adults must see the benefits of what they are learning and have an open mind

  • Experience: adults learn best when the content and activities integrate with what they already know

  • Autonomy: adults must participate in and contribute to their learning

  • Action: adults must see how they can apply what they have learned immediately

Think about it: the hands-on work in active learning naturally promotes a reliance on experience and action, while the internal and external feedback learners receive after performing a hands-on task promotes further autonomy. It's a win-win situation for learners, who learn through practical application of their skills and experience the feel-good vibes that come from personal accomplishment.

Getting Started

How can you incorporate active learning techniques into your current training?

You can begin by examining the goals of the training as well as the class size. Then, simply choose an active learning strategy that fits. After gaining some experience retrofitting your old lectures with active learning, many of the new techniques will become second nature. The good news is that some of the best active learning ideas require the least production effort. It only requires planning.

Address Learner Needs and Stay Flexible

The key to using active learning is to incorporate techniques that address adult learner needs while keeping learners engaged and primed for more. Above all, be flexible. If the class grows or shrinks in size, make sure that you adapt your active learning approach. For example, if your learners are a mix of knowledgeable pros and newbies, ensure that the active learning activities you use are challenging to both learner groups. With a little forethought and planning to leverage your learners' strengths, you'll be on your way to training smarter.

Various Active Learning Techniques

Some of the most effective techniques for active learning you can implement in your classroom training are listed below:



3-2-1 Format

The instructor asks students to jot down and share with a partner or small group:

  • 3 ideas/issues, etc.,

  • 2 examples or uses of the idea/information covered, and

  • 1 unresolved/remaining question/area of possible confusion.


The instructor places a flipchart with a question written on it in each corner of the room, and then:

  • Assigns students to groups of 3-6 (or allows self-assignment).

  • Asks groups to move from corner to corner and discuss answers to each posed question; group response is posted on the flipchart.

  • Next group revises/expands/illustrates the previous group’s response with additional information.

Guided Reciprocal Peer Questioning

In this activity:

  • The instructor conducts a brief lecture on a topic or content area or assigns a reading or written task.

  • The instructor then gives students a set of generic question stems.

  • Students write their own questions based on the material.

  • Students do not have to be able to answer questions they pose.

  • Students use as many question stems as possible.

  • Grouped into learning teams, each student offers a question for discussion, using the different stems.

Sample question stems are:

  • What is the main idea of...?

  • What if...?

  • How does...affect...?

  • Explain why or how...?

Jigsaw Technique

A jigsaw is a team-based exercise in which the instructor:

  • Divides a general topic into smaller, interrelated pieces.

  • Assigns each team member a different piece of the puzzle to become an expert on.

  • Asks team members to teach other team members about their puzzle piece.

After each person finishes teaching, the puzzle is reassembled and everyone in the team knows something important about every puzzle piece.

One Minute Papers

The instructor asks students to comment on the following questions.

  • What was the most important or useful thing you learned today?

  • What two important questions do you still have; what remains unclear?

  • What would you like to know more about?

The instructor can use these papers to begin the next discussion, to facilitate discussion within a group or to provide feedback on where the student is in his or her understanding of the material.

Question and Answer Pairs

In Q & A Pairs:

  • Participants respond to a presentation (video, panel, readings) and compose one or two questions about it.

  • Participants then pair up. A asks a prepared question and B responds, then B asks a prepared question and A responds.

  • The leader may ask for a sampling of questions and answers in order to bridge to a full group discussion.


In this activity:

  • The instructor poses a question.

  • Each group is provided with one piece of paper and a pen.

  • First student writes one response, and says it out loud.

  • First student passes paper to the left, second student writes response, etc.

  • This continues around group until time elapses.

  • Students may say "pass" at any time.

  • Group stops when time is called.


In this activity:

  • Each member of a group generates a problem and writes it on a card.

  • Each member of the group then asks the question of other members.

  • If the question can be answered and all members of the group agree on the answer, then that answer is written on the back of the card.

  • If there is no consensus on the answer, the question is revised so that an answer can be agreed upon.

Shared Brainstorming

The instructor gives sheets of paper to each small group of 3-5 people, each with a different question. Then:

  • Team members generate and jot down answers to the given question.

  • Each group is asked to rotate to another sheet containing a different given question to answer.

  • This procedure is repeated, giving each group the opportunity to respond to as many questions as possible.

  • At the end of this activity, each group returns to their original question sheet, reviews the given responses, generates a summarization of ideas, and shares their conclusions etc. with the entire group.

Structured Problem Solving

Structured problem-solving is used in conjunction with several other cooperative learning structures.

  • Participants brainstorm or select a problem to consider.

  • Assign numbers to members of each group (or use playing cards). Have each member of the group be a different number or suit.

  • Discuss task as group.

  • Each participant should be prepared to respond. Each member of the group needs to understand the response well enough to give the response with no help from the other members of the group.

  • Ask an individual from each group to respond. Call on the individual by number (or suit).

Student-led Review Sessions

For the first part of the session, the instructor asks students to:

  • Divide into small groups.

  • Ask at least one question related to the material that he or she doesn’t understand.

  • Try to answer a question posed by another student.

For the second part of the session, the entire class works together:

  • Student volunteers ask questions

  • Other students volunteer to answer them

  • Instructor intervenes only if there is a problem

The Fish Bowl

Students use index cards and write down a question concerning the course material. At the end of the class, students deposit their questions in a fish bowl. The instructor then draws several questions out of the bowl (either then or at the beginning of the next class period) and answers them for the class or asks the class to answer them.


The instructor gives students a task such as a question or problem to solve or an original example to develop. Students then:

  • Think: Work on the question/problem alone for a few minutes

  • Pair: Discuss their ideas for 3-5 minutes with the student sitting next to them

  • Share: Student pairs share their ideas with the whole class.

Of course, active learning is not just for facilitator-led training. Try these ideas with eLearning or online training programs:

  • If the content relates to a computer or software system, create a test system to use for training. As learners progress through information, allow them to practice freely in the test system and apply what they learned.

  • Include interactive simulations, animations, and other engaging activities and incorporate them into the learning.

  • Create scenarios based on the content, and have learners develop solutions. Then, allow learners to check their answers based on a suggested solution. You may want learners to send their solution to a mentor, supervisor or subject matter expert (SME), then allow that person to provide feedback and guidance.

  • Provide learners with a partial job aid, and have them complete it based on what they learn.

  • Provide a partial pictogram of the training, and allow participants to draw images that complete it.

  • Provide a portable MP3 player with learning content, so the learners can be active while listening to the course.

  • Incorporate videos, either in the eLearning or as an additional learning aid.

  • Provide relaxing music that learners can play while completing exercises.

  • Present webinars or virtual-led training, so learners can interact, ask questions, and provide feedback on the learning.

  • Create an online community for learners to interact and share best practices.

  • Assess learners with online simulations.

  • Encourage continued practice by providing role-playing scenarios for managers to use at future meetings.

  • Provide an online bulletin board where learners can post their successes or get feedback.

  • Create a scavenger hunt that makes learners leave the computer to find answers to the questions.

  • Provide learners with a visual course map that they can follow while progressing through the training.

  • Integrate user-generated content into the training program.

  • Have learners stop the training and look for a real-world application of what they just learned.

  • Have learners search for information on the company intranet, or have them visit competitor websites to compare your company to others.

  • Have learners complete the training in pairs, and pose discussion questions throughout the program.

  • Create an action plan in which learners can select from a list of practice activities they must complete after the training and set a date to follow-up with their manager for a question/answer session.

  • Create an ambassador program, allowing learners who have completed the training to become a mentor to up-coming students in the course.

Incorporating Active Learning into Your Training

As you can see, there are many strategies you can use. Once you've had a chance to review the different techniques, focus on ways to transition your own training.

Here’s an idea to try: Instead of lecturing the next time you're tasked with classroom training, try involving your learners in a friendly debate or discussion about the key points you're presenting. Alternatively, ask learners to create a quiz based on the new information.

When learners are actively engaged in a task related to their learning, neurons are firing and retention is increased. Active learning keeps your learners' bodies active and brains tuned in for outstanding results.

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