What does it mean to teach well? Accomplished biologist, Bill Wood, explains that this means shifting away from focusing on "What I do as an instructor to what students will do to learn." Here is a video with examples of different types of teaching - notice, what is the instructor doing? What are the students doing? Who is doing the thinking and the work, the instructor or the students? 

The types of teaching these instructors are doing are often described as "active learning" because, at certain points during class, the instructor stops talking and students engage in a task that helps them make progress toward achieving a learning objective

Why do we need to make use of active learning strategies instead of simply lecturing? Here from scientists across the country reflecting on teaching and learning, and why they moved away from lecturing to using active learning strategies:

How to get started

It is often difficult for instructors to envision entirely revamping their courses to use active learning, but small changes can make a big difference. Here are some places to start:

  • Ask questions and give students time to think and discuss their ideas with a neighbor before responding (also known as "think-pair-share"). At a natural stopping point in your lecture, ask a challenging question that requires students to apply what you have just lectured about. Give students one minute to think about their responses, then another minute or two to discuss their responses with a neighbor, and then call for volunteers to answer. This will help ensure everyone has time to think through the question, and to articulate and get feedback on their responses in a low stakes way before the high stakes experience of talking in front of the whole class (including the instructor!). Walk around the class to see whether students are on track with their thinking as they discuss with their neighbors. 
  • When you ask a question, wait until you have at least four students raising their hands before you call on anyone. This will help ensure everyone has time to think through and respond to the question - not just the first two to three students who always answer the questions you pose. An even better strategy for encouraging all students to think about and respond to your questions is to cold call - randomly select students from the class roster to respond to a question. This can be a scary experience for students and can backfire if the student happens to be absent for a legitimate reason. Having a back-up plan can help reduce anxiety, such as allowing students to pass and instead be responsible for answering the next question, giving students two to three passes during the semester (an absence counts as a pass), or allowing students to ask a friend for help. 
  • Diagnose what students know and teach accordingly. Ask your students a question about the material you are planning to teach BEFORE you begin to teach it. This can happen before class after they have completed a reading, or during class before you begin new material. If students already know the material, you can use the time to teach something they don't know or understand. 

See it in action

There is no single, right way to teach actively, just like there is no single, right way to design an experiment or solve a complex problem. Here are just a few examples of what an active learning classroom can look like:

Learn more

For more ideas about how to actively engage students in learning, see:

To assess your own use of active learning strategies, which are also called research-based or evidence-based teaching strategies, see: