Active Learning

Active learning refers to a range of activities in which students are not passively listening to the instructor, but instead are actively engaged in the learning process (Prince 2004). Often, in-class active-learning exercises involve one or more of the following cognitive domains: applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating (Anderson et al., 2001). Active learning can help students transform factual information into useable knowledge, develop critical-thinking skills through problem-solving and project-based approaches.

Active learning can also ensure that students experience a variation in pedagogical methods that keeps them engaged and stimulates creative thinking. Such strategies can not only improve student learning and retention of material, but they can also provide students with essential teamwork and communication skills that are necessary for their future careers (e.g., Cahill et al., 2014; Freeman, 2014; Millis 2012; Prince, 2004).

What is a multi-strategy approach to improving STEM education?

Our approach to transforming our introductory STEM courses begins with the idea that there are multiple and diverse ways to integrate evidence-based teaching in the classroom. We want to transform our learning environments so that students are more creatively engaged, but this culture shift never means that faculty should adopt a “one-size-fits-all” way of teaching.

This multi-strategy approach embraces the assumption that the objectives of STEM courses vary widely, with some focusing on retention of core knowledge and others emphasizing the development of scientific process skills.

We understand that faculty need to integrate evidence-based teaching in ways that match their courses’ learning objectives, departmental curricula, and respective teaching styles. This emphasis on flexible diversity in our multiple-strategy approach is the essence of our reform.

Furthermore, we recognize that exploring and observing a variety of forms of evidence-based teaching will lead to data that contribute to the knowledge about what works when reforming undergraduate STEM education. In partnership with research scientists in The Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education (CIRCLE), we are studying the effects of active-learning approaches on student perceptions and performance. Find out more on the Evaluation page of this section.

How are we integrating evidence-based teaching into the STEM curriculum at Washington University?

We are focusing on modifying our lower-level STEM courses (the first two years), which is where students have the most difficulty in transitioning from high school to college.

Faculty in introductory courses in biology, chemistry, biomedical engineering, computer science, physics, mathematics, and psychology are making curricular innovations by integrating evidence-based active-learning pedagogies including collaborative learning and interactive lectures. One method involves replacing some or all of lecture with group work in which students struggle together with a question or problem and try to build their own conceptual understanding.

Another approach is to intersperse questions within a more traditional lecture format to check for understanding, promote retrieval practice, or just break up the lecture and better engage student attention. This interactive-engagement approach, which may include clicker questions, can deepen student learning during class sessions.

The Teaching Center is helping to create opportunities for faculty to explore, implement, and refine evidence-based pedagogies in their courses through consultations with our faculty developers and programs like the CIRCLE Fellowship and the Mentoring in STEM Teaching program for junior faculty (MiST).

Initial funding for the STEM education initiatives at Washington University was through a four-year grant from the American Association of Universities (AAU). This work continues through the Transformational Initiative for Education in STEM (TIES), which is supported by the Office of the Provost.


  • Anderson L., Karthwohl D., Airaian, P., Cruikshank K., Mayer R., Pintrich, P., Raths, J., & Wittrock, M. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing. New York: Longman
  • Cahill, M. J., Hynes, K. M., Trousil, R., Brooks, L. A., McDaniel, M. A., Repice, M., Zhao, J., & Frey, R. F. (2014). Multiyear, multi-instructor evaluation of a large-class interactive-engagement curriculum. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 10(2), 020101. DOI:
  • Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (n.d.). (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition. Retrieved from
  • Millis, B. J. (2012). Active-learning strategies in face-to-face courses. Idea Paper #53. The IDEA Center. Retrieved Nov. 14, 2014 from
  • Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93, 223-232.