Active learning

Use active learning techniques.

Active learning is a pedagogical approach in which educators use problem-solving and other in-class activities to engage students in the learning process. Through these activities, which emphasize higher-order thinking and group work, students construct their understanding of the material themselves. This approach stands in contrast to classic “chalk and talk” presentations in which students passively receive information that an instructor delivers. A substantial body of research shows that active learning is beneficial for all students and particularly so for women and students from racial minority groups in fields where they are underrepresented.1,2

Unfortunately, traditional lecturing continues to dominate economics teaching, and economists underestimate the amount of time they spend lecturing (Watts and Schaur 2010, Sheridan and Smith 2020).

Researchers liken ignoring the research on active learning to educational malpractice.

Sathy, Viji. 2018. Charting a new course: Fixing my broken statistics class with high structure active learning

You don’t learn by listening, you learn by doing…When you want to train for a marathon, you don’t sit on a couch eating popcorn and watching tapes of marathon runners.

Dr. Eric Mazur, Confessions of a Converted Lecturer

There are lots of ways to incorporate active learning in your classes. Choose some of the activities listed here, and plan to allocate a nontrivial portion of class time to them.


If our goal is to teach students to become problem solvers, critical thinkers, and lifelong learners using the logic and tools of economics, students must learn how to gather, analyze, and evaluate information themselves.

Active learning increases performance for undergraduates in science, engineering, and mathematics. Freeman,Eddy, McDonough, Smith, Okoroafor, Jordt, and Wenderoth (2014) conduct a large and comprehensive metaanalysis of undergraduate STEM education and find that active learning increases examination performances by half a letter grade and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.

Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Theobold et al. (2020) “conducted a comprehensive search for both published and unpublished studies that compared the performance of underrepresented students to their overrepresented classmates in active-learning and traditional-lecturing treatments. This search resulted in data on student examination scores from 15 studies (9,238 total students) and data on student failure rates from 26 studies (44,606 total students). Bayesian regression analyses showed that on average, active learning reduced achievement gaps in examination scores by 33% and narrowed gaps in passing rates by 45%. The reported proportion of time that students spend on in-class activities was important, as only classes that implemented high-intensity active learning narrowed achievement gaps. Sensitivity analyses showed that the conclusions are robust to sampling bias and other issues.” See also Lorenzo, Crouch, and Mazur (2006) on reducing gender gaps below.

Deslauriers, Schelew, and Weiman (2011) “compared the amounts of learning achieved using two different instructional approaches under controlled conditions [in large-enrollment physics classes]. [They] measured the learning of a specific set of topics and objectives when taught by 3 hours of traditional lecture given by an experienced highly rated instructor and 3 hours of instruction given by a trained but inexperienced instructor using instruction based on research in cognitive psychology and physics education. The comparison was made between two large sections (N = 267 and N = 271) of an introductory undergraduate physics course. We found increased student attendance, higher engagement, and more than twice the learning in the section taught using research-based instruction.”

Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom, Deslauriers et al. (2019) “compared students’ self-reported perception of learning with their actual learning under controlled conditions in large-enrollment introductory college physics courses taught using 1) active instruction (following best practices in the discipline) and 2) passive instruction (lectures by experienced and highly rated instructors). Both groups received identical class content and handouts, students were randomly assigned, and the instructor made no effort to persuade students of the benefit of either method. Students in active classrooms learned more (as would be expected based on prior research), but their perception of learning, while positive, was lower than that of their peers in passive environments.” Instructors may want to address student perceptions by explicitly discussing their methods and the evidence supporting active learning.

Sheridan and Smith (2020) investigate economists’ teaching behaviors. “Substantial evidence suggests active learning pedagogies are superior to lecturing, but little evidence exists on the prevalence of such methods. Watts and Schaur (2011) find, based on self-reported data, the median instructor lectures 83 percent of the time. We analyze audio recordings of 535 total classes from 30 different instructors to show instructors greatly underestimate how often they use passive learning pedagogies such as lecturing. Survey results show instructors estimate they lecture approximately 78.5 percent of class time; our data reveals the true average is 89 percent. This gap between perception and reality is statistically significant.”

Here is a sampling of works that may be particularly useful to economists as they incorporate active learning into their classrooms. The Journal of Economic Education and other outlets offer many more.

With conventional teaching, the material frequently “comes straight out of textbooks and/or lecture notes, giving students little incentive to attend class. That the traditional presentation is nearly always delivered as a monologue in front of a passive audience compounds the problem…It is even more difficult to provide adequate opportunity for students to critically think through the arguments being developed. Consequently, lectures simply reinforce students’ feelings that the most important step in mastering the material is memorizing a zoo of apparently unrelated examples.

Dr. Eric Mazur, Confessions of a Converted Lecturer

Descriptions of active learning techniques

  • Become familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy and show it to your students to direct efforts toward moving up the pyramid.
    • Students often mistakenly believe that learning means memorizing, while college courses in economics expect students to apply, analyze, and evaluate. Show students the following diagram to explain the levels of cognitive skills important in learning (Bloom 1956, Anderson 2001).
    • Here is an illustration of the framework as applied in Economics, starting at the bottom and moving up to higher-order cognitive skills.
      • Can you remember/recite the definition of opportunity cost?
      • Can you understand/restate/explain the definition of opportunity cost?
      • Can you apply the concept of opportunity cost to a situation you care about?
      • Can you use the concept of opportunity cost to analyze/compare/contrast decisions?
      • Can you suggest and justify using the concept of opportunity cost to analyze a novel economic situation?
      • Can you evaluate/critique an analysis based on opportunity cost?
      • Can you create a new use of the concept? Can you create a related concept?
  • Use Think-pair-share, an easy and effective way of engaging all students in classes of any size in just ten minutes.
    • Allocate 3 minutes to each of 3 steps.
      • THINK: Provide each student the opportunity to think independently about the prompt (such as a question or problem based on a particular scenario or current event). Direct students to identify relevant economic concepts or tools and to formulate answers on their own.
      • PAIR: Have students pair up and take turns explaining their thinking to a partner (e.g. each could identify an essential piece of information, concept, or tool and explain its relevance to the partner). The students discuss, provide feedback to each other, and construct a more complete and correct answer together.
      • SHARE: Conclude by asking some students to share their pairs’ analyses with the class.
    • For example, in a micro principles class, you could use one of the following prompts in a think-pair-share activity. Starting Point offers more information and examples.
      • The rent that a firm pays for its factory has just increased. Would you advise the firm to 1) raise its output price to recoup the higher costs of production, 2) lower price in order to sell more units of output and therefore spread the added production cost over more units of output, or 3) neither? Why? Use course concepts and graphs to explain your answer.
      • Why might firms in a perfectly competitive industry make zero economic profit in long-run equilibrium? Use course concepts and graphs to explain your answer. What real-world industries and firms might serve as possible examples of this phenomenon?
  • Incorporate “breaks” into your lectures.
    • During lecture, it is hard to maintain a student’s attention for long (Bligh 2000, and any of us who teach). Take a break after every 10 or 15 minutes of lecture by offering an activity that re-engages students and gets them ready for the next lecture block. During this “break” you can:
      • Ask students to jot down a rough outline of the lecture so far.
      • Conduct a 5-minute question session.
      • Have students discuss the lecture with their neighbors for 3-5 minutes.
      • Offer a Think-pair-share or Peer Instruction activity.
  • Use one-minute papers.
    • The one-minute paper is a “modest, relatively simple and low-tech” innovation designed to obtain regular feedback from students. In the final minute or two of class, the teacher asks students to respond to the following two questions:
      • What is the most important (or surprising or meaningful) thing you learned today?
      • What question(s) do you have after today’s class?
    • Using an experimental design, John F Chizmar and Anthony L. Ostrosky (1998) report an approximate 6.6 percent increase in economic knowledge relative to pre-treatment levels.
  • Flip your classroom.
    • In a flipped classroom model, the lecture component of the material is transferred to an out of class setting while the synchronous, in-classroom time is used for non-lecture based learning components that can be grouped together under the category of active learning. Many are drawn to flipped classrooms for the increased classroom customizability, integrated use of technology, and ability to let students set their own pace. 
    • Read this background and how-to post by guest contributor Rebecca Stein, Executive Director of the Online Learning Initiative and former member of the Economics department at the University of Pennsylvania. Stephen D. Morris flipped an introductory macroeconomics class at UC San Diego and teaches an active learning intermediate macro class at Bowdoin College.
    • Watch an example from PBS NewsHour on what a flipped classroom looks like for high school classes.
    • The evidence on the implementation of flipped classrooms offers helpful tips and caution.
      • In The Flipped Classroom: A Survey of the Research 24 flipped classroom studies done before 2012 are evaluated and synthesized. Authors Bishop and Verleger find generally positive student results across the studies and that “students supplied with optional video lectures came to class much better prepared than when they had been given textbook readings… Students preferred live in-person lectures to video lectures, but also liked interactive class time more than in-person lectures.  Shorter, rather than longer videos were preferred.”
      • Wozny, Balser, and Ives (2018) “implement a randomized controlled trial to evaluate the effect of a flipped classroom technique relative to a traditional lecture in an introductory undergraduate econometrics course…and find that the flipped classroom increases scores on medium-term, high-stakes assessments by 0.16 standard deviation, with similar long-term effects for high-performing students. Estimated impacts are robust to alternative specifications accounting for possible spillover effects arising from the experimental design.”
      • Setren, Greenberg, Moore, and Yankovich (2021) report the results of a randomized controlled trial at West Point, finding that “the flipped classroom produced short-term gains in math and no effect in economics. The flipped model broadened the achievement gap: Effects are driven by white, male, and higher-achieving students…[T]he exacerbation of the achievement gap, the effect fade-out, and the null effects in economics, suggest that educators should exercise caution when considering [and implementing] the model.”
  • Trust Peer Instruction.
    • Peer Instruction has been shown to increase understanding for all students and to decrease the gender gap in Physics and other disciplines.
    • Peer instruction is a pedagogical approach that involves every student in their own learning by mixing mini-lectures with conceptual questions and peer interaction. As developed by Professor Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard University, an instructor lectures for 7-10 minutes and then asks a conceptual question that requires students to think through the concepts being developed. In the following 5-8 minutes, students first commit to answers individually and then discuss their answers with their peers, trying to convince each other of their own answer by explaining their reasoning. Instructors encourage students to ‘find someone who disagrees with you’ and thus forces students to think through the arguments and to assess their understanding of the concepts before they leave the classroom.
    • Crouch, Watkins, Fagen, and Mazur (2007) report data from more than ten years of teaching with PI in the calculus- and algebra-based introductory physics courses for non-majors at Harvard; their results indicate increased student mastery of both conceptual reasoning and quantitative problem solving upon implementing PI.
    • Lorenzo, Crouch, and Mazur (2006) find that the gender gap in conceptual understanding in an introductory university physics course is eliminated by using interactive engagement methods, such as Peer Instruction, which promote in-class interaction, reduce competition, foster collaboration, and emphasize conceptual understanding.
    • “In comparison with traditional lecture, [Peer Instruction] overwhelmingly improves students’ ability to solve conceptual and quantitative problems and to apply knowledge to novel problems. Students value PI as a useful learning tool and are more likely to persist in courses utilizing it. Likewise, instructors value the improved student engagement and learning observed with PI” (Vickrey, Rosploch, Rahmanian, Pilarz, & Stains 2015).
    • As in all interventions, implementation matters. “Extensive research has been conducted by physics and biology education researchers to evaluate the effectiveness of this practice and to better understand the intricacies of its implementation. PI has also been investigated in other disciplines, such as chemistry and computer science. [Vickrey, Rosploch, Rahmanian, Pilarz, & Stains (2015)] reviews and summarizes these various bodies of research and provides instructors and researchers with a research-based model for the effective implementation of PI.”
  • Ask better questions.
    • Prompt students to answer why questions.
      • Pressley, McDaniel, Turnure, Wood, and Ahmad (1987) presented undergraduate students with a list of sentences, each describing the action of a particular man (e.g., “The hungry man got into the car”). Students in the treatment group were prompted to explain “Why did that particular man do that?” Another group of students was instead provided with an explanation for each sentence, and a third group simply read each sentence. On a final test in which participants were cued to recall which man performed each action (e.g., “Who got in the car?”), the treatment group substantially outperformed the other two groups. (Summary from Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, and Willingham, [3]) Economists could extend this research to identify the efficacy of questioning techniques that lead students to develop and retain higher-order learning beyond pure recall.
    • Emphasize the how rather than the what of knowledge.
      • Discuss the methods economists use to build economic predictions and evidence. For example, help students think about how economists investigate the causes of increased income inequality (or the effects of minimum wage policies) rather than simply reporting causes (or findings). By placing an emphasis on the knowledge-creation process, students learn basic concepts and begin to learn how to generate knowledge themselves.
    • Acknowledge that there is more than one right answer.
      • An emphasis on a single correct answer to a question discourages student involvement and critical thinking. When students contribute to classroom discussions, identify the value in their comments. Then, clearly explain the generally accepted answer, why that answer is valuable, and under what conditions it becomes the wrong answer.

Cited Works

Bligh, Donald A. What’s the Use of Lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Crouch, C. H., Watkins, J., Fagen, A. P., & Mazur, E. (2007). Peer instruction: Engaging students one-on-one, all at once. Research-based reform of university physics, 1(1), 40-95.

Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(39), 19251-19257.

Deslauriers, Louis, Ellen Schelew, Carl Weiman. 2011. Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science 332: 862-864.

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 sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Knight, J. K., & Wood, W. B. (2005). Teaching more by lecturing less. Cell biology education, 4(4), 298-310.

Lorenzo, M., Crouch, C. H., & Mazur, E. (2006). Reducing the gender gap in the physics classroom. American Journal of Physics, 74(2), 118-122.

Moryl, R. L. (2016). Pod learning: Student groups create podcasts to achieve economics learning goals. The Journal of Economic Education, 47(1), 64-70.

Moryl, R. L. (2014). Podcasts as a tool for teaching economics. The Journal of Economic Education, 45(3), 284-285.

Sheridan, B. J., & Smith, B. (2020, May). How often does active learning actually occur? Perception versus reality. In AEA Papers and Proceedings (Vol. 110, pp. 304-08).

Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E. N., Behling, S., … & Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(12), 6476-6483.

Vickrey, T., Rosploch, K., Rahmanian, R., Pilarz, M., & Stains, M. (2015). based implementation of peer instruction: A literature review. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 14(1), es3.

Watts and Schaur 2010