Stay one move ahead with active learning

Contrary to what you might think, this strategy is about deep thinking rather than physical activity. Here's how it's done

Mike Gershon

Active learning is probably not what you think it is. And there is no real excuse for your error. The facts, you see, are well established. Active learning grew from a trendy 1980s buzzword into a high-calibre theory a decade later thanks to extensive academic research.

So we should know all about active learning. But if you ask teachers for a definition, many will describe a scenario along the lines of every student in the class being on their feet, moving around and engaged in skills-based activities, with only a cursory nod given to content.

That is not active learning. The term actually means that a student is giving a task their full attention, engaging with it on multiple levels. Hence, sitting motionless reading a novel could meet the definition, as odd as that may sound. As long as the reader is constantly trying to make sense of the text in front of them, then active learning is taking place. The student should be looking for connections, analysing what they read, evaluating it, judging its efficacy, deciding if they agree with it or not and using their imagination to explore the meanings conveyed.

Of course, it is tricky to ascertain whether the student is doing this or simply thinking about their lunch (or worse, nothing at all). Knowing what active learning is and ensuring that it is happening are two very different things.

Nonetheless, a considerable amount of research has verified the approach as effective - one of the most recent studies was conducted in the US by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. This states that "active learning techniques benefit all students and can close the achievement gap between ethnic groups and men and women".

So what strategies can you use to encourage active learning? They are numerous, but below I have outlined some of the most effective in my experience.


Effective questioning promotes active learning by encouraging students to direct their minds in certain ways.

Consider these two questions as an example: "Why did Hitler invade Poland?" and "What factors might have influenced Hitler's decision to invade Poland?" The second question promotes more active engagement than the first.

In the first, it is implicitly assumed that there is a single right answer and that the matter is not open to much interpretation. In the second, analysis and exploration is encouraged by the use of the word "might". The importance of evaluation is signalled by the reference to "factors". The need to think about the thought processes of those involved is highlighted by the use of the word "decision".

Paying close attention to the questions you use - both written and verbal - will help you to promote active learning.


Reading, writing and listening can all involve active learning. One way to assist students here is to do a bit of the work for them so that they can focus their minds exclusively on the task.

A reading frame indicates what students need to do or look out for while they are reading. They can use the frame to make notes or simply as a means to think critically about the text.

A writing frame provides guidance on the structure of written work. This means that pupils can channel their energies into what they actually want to write, without needing to divide their minds between structure and content.

A listening frame provides a set of questions or categories that students should make notes on while they are listening. This allows them to focus their attention on specific things at different times.

In each case, the frame helps pupils to target their attention and, as a result, to think actively throughout the activity.


After students have completed a task individually or in pairs, invite them to stand up and interview two or three of their classmates to find out their thoughts.

You can use this technique as a supplement to almost any activity. It is particularly effective at the end of an extended writing task or paired discussion. It helps pupils to think actively by encouraging them to reflect on their ideas and to contrast these with the thoughts of their peers.

Again, the work is split up (writing or discussion first, followed by interviewing), meaning that students can attend to one thing at a time. This helps to accentuate the benefits of active learning.

Welcoming mistakes

All too often, a fear of failure stands between students and success. When it comes to active learning - which necessarily involves trying things out and attempting to come up with innovative responses or solutions - the potential for making mistakes is even greater than usual.

Unfortunately, this can discourage pupils from becoming fully engaged in active learning. They perceive mistakes to be bad, so naturally avoid situations where failure is a possibility.

We teachers know that failure is a good thing; mistakes present opportunities to learn and improve. However, this concept is not always easy to communicate to students. One way to help them to understand is through sharing examples from your own life. Explain to them how these moments of failure have allowed you to grow. Encouraging your students to make mistakes will help to break down their fear of failure and foster greater engagement with active learning tasks.

Defending a position

Students are probably used to defending their own opinions, but this activity takes things a step further by asking them to defend someone else's.

Start by posing an open-ended question that is connected to your subject. Divide the class into groups of five and ask the members of each group to number themselves. Next, provide five possible answers to the question.

For example: What makes for an effective football team?

1. A high level of fitness

2. Excellent teamwork

3. Repeated training drills

4. Individual talent

5. Knowing how to take advantage of opportunities.

Students must defend the answer that matches their number to the rest of their group. Allow a few minutes for pupils to work out how they will structure their defence before asking groups to debate the question. Each student should be allowed one minute to make their case. After everyone has spoken, a free-for-all discussion can take place with everyone chipping in to defend their own position and criticise others.

The activity can be effectively concluded by asking the group to come out of role and provide a summary overview that answers the question. Alternatively, individuals could provide a written answer that takes into account the range of viewpoints put forward.

Mike Gershon is a teacher and trainer who has published a number of books on classroom practice. He shares his resources on the TES website and expands on this article in his booklet Active Learning, available to TES Pro subscribers at

What else?

A Teachers TV panel debates gender and active learning.


Use this toolkit to encourage active learning in science.


A CPD presentation on active learning for staff meetings.



Engage to Excel: producing one million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (2012), President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. bit.lyWhitehouseReport

Mercer, N and Dawes, L (2008) "The value of exploratory talk", in N Mercer and S Hodgkinson, eds, Exploring Talk in School (Sage).

Ginnis, P (2001), The Teacher's Toolkit (Crown House Publishing).

Vygotsky, L S (1978), Mind in Society (Harvard University Press).

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Mike Gershon

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