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Common Active Learning Mistakes

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Many of your students may have experienced only traditional lecturing before they show up in your class. If you suddenly plunge them into active learning with no preparation, their assumption may be that you’re either playing some kind of game with them or conducting an experiment with them as the guinea pigs, neither of which they appreciate, and you may experience some vigorous pushback. 




The posting below, as the title suggests, looks at several common active learning mistakes that teachers make.  It is from Chapter 6, Active Learning in the book Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide, by Richard M. Felder and Rebecca Brent. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1000, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 Copyright © 2016 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.  Reprinted with permission.

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Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Leading Difficult People


Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Common Active Learning Mistakes


Active learning is an easy and remarkably robust teaching method that functions well in every conceivable academic setting – a claim supported by a mountain of literature. Instructors who start using it often limit its effectiveness by making certain mistakes, however, and many drop the method when the results disappoint them or they experience vigorous student resistance. Table 6.5-1 lists six mistakes to avoid when you use active learning and strategies to avoid making them, and the paragraphs that follow elaborate on the strategies.


Table 6.5-1. Six Common Active Learning Mistakes



How to Avoid the Mistake

1.     Plunge into active learning with no explanation.

First explain what you’re going to do and why it is in the students’ best interests.

2.     Expect all students to eagerly get into groups the first time you ask them to.

Be proactive with reluctant students in the first few group activities you conduct.

3.     Make activities trivial.

Make active learning tasks challenging enough to justify the time it takes to do them.

4.     Make activities too long, such as assigning an entire problem in a single activity.

Keep activities short and focused (five seconds to three minutes). Break large problems in to small chunks.

5.     Call for volunteers after every activity.

After some activities, call randomly on individuals or groups to report their results.

6.     Fall into a predictable routine.

Vary the formats and lengths of activities and the intervals between them.


Set the stage before you start using active learning.

Many of your students may have experienced only traditional lecturing before they show up in your class. If you suddenly plunge them into active learning with no preparation, their assumption may be that you’re either playing some kind of game with them or conducting an experiment with them as the guinea pigs, neither of which they appreciate, and you may experience some vigorous pushback.

You can minimize and possibly even eliminate student resistance to active learning by taking a little time on the first day of class to explain what you’ll be doing, why you’ll be doing it, and what’s in it for the students. An illustrative explanation in the interlude “Sermons for Grumpy Campers” preceding Chapter 11 may be helpful. Felder and Brent (1996), Felder (2011a), and Seidel and Tanner (2013) discuss student resistance to learner-centered teaching methods – why it occurs, what forms it may take, and how instructors can deal with it when it arises.

Be proactive in the first few group activities.

When you first ask students to get into small groups in class and do something, if they are active learners (see preceding interlude) or accustomed to group work they are likely to jump right into it. However, if they are reflective learners or novices or veterans of bad experiences with groups, they may ignore your request and start to work alone. Instructors who encounter that behavior tend to be discouraged by it, and when they encounter it they may be tempted to give up on active learning.

If you find yourself in that situation, don’t give up. When you assign your first activity, give the instructions calmly and confidently, as though fully expecting all of the students to do what you ask. If some start working individually, casually move toward them and tell them to work with each other. With rare exceptions, they will. The second time you call for an activity, most of the class will engage immediately, and by the third time you should see at most one or two students remaining isolated. Don’t worry about them – it’s their loss. (We’ll explain that statement later in the chapter.)

Make group activities challenging.

Students expect to be treated like adults and are likely to resent being asked to do anything they consider trivial. A common active learning mistake is to put students in groups to address questions with obvious answers.  You are wasting their time, and they don’t appreciate it. Make the questions and problems hard enough to justify the time it takes to get into groups and figure out the answers.

Keep activities short.

Two problems commonly arise when students are given, say, ten minutes to solve a problem. Some finish in two minutes and spend the next eight on their smartphones or talking to their neighbors about the football game, which is a waste of valuable class time. Other students struggle for the full ten minutes and fail to complete the task, which is intensely frustrating and also generally a waste of time after the first few minutes. If you keep the activities short and focused – anywhere between five seconds and three minutes – you avoid both problems.

Most technical problems take more than three minutes to solve, so rather than allowing enough time for most students to get complete solutions, break the problems into chunks. The students may struggle with something but only for a short time before they get feedback and clarification, and they can then proceed to the next step.

Sometimes call on individuals after activities.

Probably the most common active learning mistake is to call on volunteers for responses after every activity. When you do that, many students won’t even bother to think about what they were asked to do, knowing that someone else will eventually provide the answer. The benefits of active learning will then be realized by only a small fraction of the class.

However, most students don’t want to be in the embarrassing position of having had time to work on something, individually or with others, and then being called on and having nothing to say. If they know that after any given activity you might call on them, most or all of them will make a serious effort to do whatever you asked them to do. You don’t have to call on individuals after every activity – as long as you do it often enough for students to be aware that it could happen, it will have the desired effect.

Don’t be predictable.

Active learning has the potential to create a lively and instructive classroom environment. If you conduct it with the monotonous regularity of a cuckoo clock, however (lecture ten minutes, one-minute pair activity, lecture ten minute, one-minute pair activity, etc.), it can quickly become as monotonous as straight lecturing. The key is to mix things up. Vary the type of activity (answering questions, beginning problem solutions, taking the next step in a problem solution or derivation, brainstorming, etc.); the activity duration (five seconds to three minutes); the interval between activities (one to fifteen minutes); and the size of the groups (one to four students). If your students can never be sure what you’re going to do next, you have a good chance of holding their attention for the entire class session.

Thought Question

If you are not experienced in active learning and you are like most instructors, you probably still have worries about it that could discourage you from trying it. What are they? Make a list before reading the next section, which reviews and addresses the concerns we hear most often. See how many of your worries show up on our list, and then see if you find our reassurances convincing.



Felder, R. M. (2011a). Hang in there: Dealing with student resistance to learner-centered teaching. Chemical Engineering Education, 45(2), 131-132. Retrieved from

Felder, R.M., & Bret, R. (1996). Navigating the bumpy road to student-centered instruction. College Teaching, 44, 43-47. Retrieved from

Seidel, S.B., & Tanner, K.D. (2013). “What if students revolt?” – Considering student resistance: Origins, options, and opportunities for investigation. CBE Life Sciences Education, 12, 586-595. Retrieved from