Five Reasons to Embrace Active Learning in Large Classrooms

The latest discoveries in cognition and the learning sciences show that learning is not a passive process. In order to learn, the brain can’t just receive information—it must processes it in a meaningful way.

One of our partners, the University of Arizona, has embraced that “active learning” concept in a big way. Through its Collaborative Learning Spaces Project, the Tucson campus is transforming large classroom environments to be less centered around traditional lectures and more focused on techniques and strategies that are proven to increase student engagement and learning.

ACUE collaborated with experts and faculty at the University of Arizona in the development of the “Active Learning in Large Classrooms” module for the Course in Effective Teaching Practices. We observed and filmed their classes and interviewed the instructors so they could explain the practice in more detail.

Here’s why they believe active learning is crucial in large classroom settings.

Active Learning classroom environments improve student learning.



“In chemical engineering, the course I teach, I know nationwide the attrition rate is 55 percent. Nationwide, you start with 100 students and 45 will make it. Right now, I’ve lost four students out of 108 that started the semester. That’s pretty good. When I did these same activities in a traditional classroom my attrition rate was 20 percent last year.” 

Dr. Paul Blowers, University Distinguished Professor, Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of Arizona.

Active Learning doesn’t mean an end to lectures

“You know, one of the misconceptions about active learning you often hear from faculty is that it’s a black or white thing. People think oh, you either lecture or you have the students just talk in groups and stand around and you don’t do anything. It’s really not like that at all.”

Dr. John Pollard, Associate Professor of Practice, Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Students want to engage in material with their peers and professors


“Asking students to critically think is hard on them and so you have to condition them to that intellectual behavior in your class and push a little bit. But overwhelmingly I have had nothing but positive feedback from my students about asking them to engage in their own thinking and construction of their own knowledge in class.”

Dr. John Pollard

Active Learning in large classes is an opportunity to encourage diversity

“In large classes you’ve got students from so many different backgrounds and interest areas and knowledge bases that you really do get a much stronger understanding overall. I think the students really get a lot of different opinions which you can’t really get in a small class.”

Dr. Zoë Cohen, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiology at University of Arizona.

Active Learning can happen anywhere, even lecture halls

The traditional lecture halls are not designed for optimal active learning. That does not mean you can’t do it. For many, many years I did active learning in traditional lecture halls. Sometimes if you have the space you can leave an empty row after two or three rows. Pull your class together if there’s a lot of empty spaces. Don’t let them spread out. Pull them together as a group.

Dr. Pollard

Thanks to the University of Arizona for its partnership and to Paul Blowers, Zoë Cohen, and John Pollard for speaking to ACUE for this post.

Go to ACUE’s YouTube page for more videos from the University of Arizona faculty. Read more about the University of Arizona’s Collaborative Learning Spaces Project, which includes renovations of its classroom space.

Want to hear more from our faculty partners or receive tips on how to improve your teaching practice? Join the ACUE Community today

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