Active Learning Techniques

By breaking up lectures with active learning activities that help to reinforce concepts, students are able to gain a better understanding of class concepts and engage in higher-order thinking. The tips in this section help make lectures more engaging and effective.

Cooperative Groups

Description: Pose a question on which each cooperative group will work while you circulate around the room answering questions, asking further questions, keeping the groups on task, and so forth. After an appropriate time for group discussion, ask students to share their discussion points with the rest of the class.

Example: Vehicle Dynamics: Provide each group with a toy car whose front and rear wheels are selectively lockable. Ask them to experimentally investigate the stability differences between rear-wheel brake lockup and front-wheel brake lockup.

—Mark Hoffman (Former ETC)

Make it more inclusive: Remind the groups to switch off roles so all members have hands-on time with the car and all members have to take notes.

Video Example 1(11:44) This video shows how Dr. Rich Felder, Chemical Engineering professor at N.C. State University, uses cooperative groups to engage students in class.

Video Example 2(7:53) This video shows Dr. Monica Lamm, Associate Professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering at Iowa State University, describing how to form groups, how to grade group work, how to encourage participation, etc.

Paired Problem Solving (Thinking Aloud)

Description: In pairs, students describe in detail how they would solve a problem, approach a case study, or interpret data. Taking turns, one student would serve as the “explainer,” while the other student listens and asks clarifying questions. After a while, the students switch roles.

Example: A computer programming instructor could show code on the board and ask one of the students in the pair to describe aloud what the code will do. The task would be repeated with another example code for the second student to describe. Afterward, the code is implemented and the results are observed. The instructor then asks why the program behaved in the expected or unexpected way.

—Adapted from Fernando Tavares (Former ETC)

Make it more inclusive: Tell students they will be responsible for paraphrasing their partner’s explanation if called on.

Video Example(3:53) This video provides an overview of thinking aloud paired problem solving including best practices for instructors and students.


Description: Introduce a topic or problem and then ask for student input. Give students a minute to write down their ideas, and then record them on the board. For example, “What are possible safety (environmental, quality control) problems we might encounter with the processing unit we just designed?” could be a brainstorming topic in an engineering class.

Example: During a biomedical design course, the students are presented with a problem about how to help patients with severe tremors (e.g. from Parkinson’s disease) be able to do common tasks, such as eating and writing. The students break up into groups of 4-5 and write down ideas on a board, and then follow-up by further developing those ideas on a Google doc.

—Matt Gibson (Former ETC)

Make it more inclusive: Ahead of the activity get anonymous feedback from students about any real-life experiences of Parkinson’s disease that students would be willing to share. Then sort, filter, and share respectfully.

Video Example(3:42) This video provides an overview of best practices for brainstorming.

Minute Paper

Description: At an appropriate point in the lecture, ask the students to take out a blank sheet of paper. Then, ask the topic or question you want students to address; for example, “Today, we discussed conductive heat transfer. List as many of the principal features of this process as you can remember. You have one minute.”

Example: In AERO 550, Linear Systems, the instructor says, “Today, we discussed the controllability of linear time-invariant (LTI) systems. Without looking at your notes, list all of the equivalent ways to test for the controllability of an LTI system.
You have two minutes.”

—Amor Menezes (Former ETC)

Make it more inclusive: Deemphasize speed overthinking by allowing 30% more time than your first estimate for how long it should take students to write.

Video Example(6:05) This video describes how instructors can use low-stakes writing to assess student learning.


Description: Have students first work on a given problem individually, then compare their answers with a partner and, finally, share ideas with the class.

Video Example(1:30) This video is a good description of how to use think-pair-share in a classroom.

Example: In IOE 310, Introduction to Optimization, the professor puts an optimization problem on the projector and asks the students to come up with the objective function and the constraints. When they have written down their answers, the students are asked to compare their solution to their neighbors. Then the instructor goes over the example for the entire class or asks students to share.

—Arleigh Waring (Former ETC)

Make it more inclusive: walk around the classroom to ensure pair members are equally participating.

Case Studies

Description: Use real-life stories that describe what happened to a community, family, school, industry, or individual to prompt students to integrate their classroom knowledge with their knowledge of real-world situations, actions, and  consequences.
(See for sample cases)

Example: In ChemE 466 (Process Dynamics and Control) the instructor provides the students with a news-article about an explosion in a chemical plant and asks students to brainstorm reasons for the accident using the concepts learned from this course. Then asks them to act as investigators and to make a list of questions they would like to ask the plant operators to find out the actual cause of the accident.

—Tabish Maqbool (Former ETC)

Make it more inclusive: Ask students ahead of time to submit cases that are relevant to their experiences.

Video Example(1:55) This video is a brief overview of how to integrate case studies in engineering contexts. For sample cases mentioned in this video visit