Not All Active Learning Activities are Created Equal

Students working together at tableConsider two types of active learning in Classrooms A and B.

In Classroom A, students work individually to solve problems and write explanations on a worksheet. In Classroom B, students explain to their neighbor how to solve a problem that was just introduced to them by the lecturer.  

Both cases are far more effective in enhancing student learning than in cases where students passively watch a lecturer solve problems. When students work on problems themselves and deepen their engagement by writing explanations or discussing explanations with others, they engage in active or generative learning (Fiorella & Mayer, 2016). A large body of research has established that active learning is far more effective than passive learning (Brame, 2016; Freeman et al., 2014; Prince, 2004). Now the question of interest is: which kinds of active learning are most effective?  

In order for this to be an active learning activity for you, the reader, decide whether Classroom A or B is more effective in enhancing student learning. Bonus points: explain why to yourself or someone else in your physical or digital reach. 

Why are some active learning activities more effective than others?  

One of the best syntheses of research on active learning is the ICAP framework, developed by Micki Chi and her associates (Chi & Wylie, 2014; Chi et al., 2018). ICAP stands for Interactive > Constructive > Active > Passive, which indicates order of effectiveness from interactive activities as most effective, to passive activities as least effective. Chi conceptualizes the three lower levels (passive, active, and constructive) as more individual experiences at different levels of knowledge building. The interactive level then adds collaboration where students build knowledge together. The table below shows a breakdown of each type of activity ordered from passive to interactive to show how they increase student engagement, along with examples and related cognitive activity (Chi & Wiley, 2014): 

Activity TypeExamplesCognitive Activity
Students read a text, watch a lecture, or copy notes.

Students watch a lecturer solve a problem.
Students store information, which remains inert until retrieved for a specific task
Students highlight a text, review a lecture at their own pace, or write class notes on key concepts.

Students solve a problem by applying processes and concepts shown in the textbook, lecture, or notes.
Students integrate new information by making connections to prior knowledge, which is activated to accomplish a specific task
Students summarize or map key concepts from a text, lecture, or set of notes in their own words.

Students solve problems by synthesizing concepts and processes using multiple sources, diagrams, conceptual frameworks, or other tools used in the discipline. They may produce new perspectives or solutions to a problem.
Students infer and construct new knowledge from the integrated knowledge
Students discuss or teach each other key concepts in a text, lecture, or notes.

Students solve problems collaboratively; they discuss the problem, apply concepts, and review each other’s work.
Students co-infer knowledge when they collaborate on a learning task

Another fantastic comprehensive overview of the ICAP framework and related outcomes is available in this tweet from Harjiv Singh.

The framework separates passive activities from active learning activities, which fall into three levelsactive, constructive, or interactive. Each shift towards higher levels of engagement, from passive to active, active to constructive, and so onhelps increase students’ cognitive activity and participation in knowledge building (Chi et al., 2018).  This general hierarchy of instructional activities helps us identify which ones may be most effective for fostering student learning. 

Which types of activities are more effective? 

Let’s go back to the question about whether activities in Classroom A or B are more effective. Maybe you’ve already found the answer in the examples above and mapped each of the classrooms with a level of engagement.  

  • Classroom A engages students at the constructive level, where students are individually integrating and generating explanations. However, if the problems are fairly straightforward and only engage students in using steps outlined in class materials, the problem-solving activity may instead fall into the active level, where students are simply applying the content.  
  • Classroom B engages students at the interactive level, where students are co-inferring knowledge, getting feedback, and teaching one another how to solve the problem. However, if students do not engage in true dialogue, but simply  state their own solutions without attending to each other’s thinking and responding adaptively, this activity could also fall into the active or constructive level, without achieving the benefits of co-constructing knowledge.  

In general, the interactive activities in Classroom B are more effective than the constructive activities in Classroom A, with some variation due to student effort and pedagogical choices. Remember, both are far more effective than passive activities, so both are still great ways to engage students!

The fact that interactive, social learning is most effective may ultimately be unsurprising, considering much of our best work in the professional setting occurs through sharing ideas with others and building upon these ideas. In fact, what higher education has deemed high-impact practices, which include undergraduate research, internships, first-year seminars, and service learning, all engage students with peers, mentors, and/or community members in productive dialogue about complex topics.  

How do I help students engage in effective active learning activities? 

Consider how you can promote productive dialogue and knowledge building around content in your classes. Activities that support higher levels of engagement are not necessarily more complex or difficult to implement. You can engage students at the interactive level by allotting one minute for students to teach a concept to their neighbor using their own words. Or you can engage students at the constructive level by having them identify one key takeaway from the day or asking them to map the key ideas within a unit. Simply reminding students to take notes, posing a question as you lecture, or giving feedback on their assignments can help them increase their cognitive activity.  

Ultimately, the most effective types of active learning are those that align with your course goals and content, and those that students are motivated to engage in. Identify what learning goals you have for your students first, and then consider how students can achieve those goals through active, constructive, or interactive activities. It can be especially motivating if activities align with or build on professional practices in your field (e.g., research projects, summary reports, client meetings, performances). When you implement the activity, make sure to explain why it will help them achieve specific learning goals and join in the activity yourself so they can build upon your knowledge as well. 

If you do not know where to start, google “active learning” for hundreds of activities that you can easily integrate into your classroom, or check out resources on active learning from Vanderbilt UniversityUniversity of Michigan, and Harvard University. To identify the best options for you and your students, engage with them actively, constructively, and interactively: write down activities that appeal to you, map your learning goals to potential activities, discuss with your peers, or consult with an experienced instructor at the Center for Teaching and Learning.  

We look forward to hearing more about your ideas for active learning and seeing them in action across campus! We are also considering forming a learning community on facilitating active learning at WashU, so if you are interested in learning more, please contact me at   

References and Resources

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., Norman, M.K., and Mayer, R.E. (2010). How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Brame, C. (2016). Active learning. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved September 13, 2021 from  

Chi, M. T., & Wylie, R. (2014). The ICAP framework: Linking cognitive engagement to active learning outcomes. Educational psychologist49(4), 219-243.  

Chi, M. T., Adams, J., Bogusch, E. B., Bruchok, C., Kang, S., Lancaster, M., … & Yaghmourian, D. L. (2018). Translating the ICAP theory of cognitive engagement into practice. Cognitive science42(6), 1777-1832.  

Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). Eight ways to promote generative learning. Educational Psychology Review28(4), 717-741. 

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences111(23), 8410-8415. 

Michael, J. (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works?. Advances in physiology education. 

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of engineering education93(3), 223-231. 

Streveler, R., & Menekse, M. (2017). Taking a closer look at active learning. Journal of Engineering Education, 106, 186-190.