Using data to review impact of inclusive active learning practices

This document will outline some ways instructors who implement active learning approaches can measure their effectiveness in improving student learning and promoting inclusion in the classroom.


Active learning approaches can not only improve student learning but also improve equity in the classroom. When deployed purposefully active learning approaches are also measurable. While it will require some instructional adjustment, instructors can implement one (or more) active learning approaches without overhauling their entire teaching style and approach. 

What is active learning?

Active learning is an instructional approach that shifts the traditional role of students from passive recipients of information to active participants in their learning process. It emphasizes engaging students in meaningful activities, discussions, and problem-solving tasks that promote critical thinking, collaboration, and the application of knowledge. It is important to note that not all active learning is inclusive and not all inclusive teaching practices are active. Utilizing learning strategies that are both active and inclusive will provide better student outcomes for all.

The Center for Teaching, Learning, and Mentoring (CTLM) has several resources on active learning.

How can active learning promote equity in the classroom?

Research shows that effective and inclusive active learning practices can improve student success for all students but especially for students from marginalized communities and backgrounds. Academic improvements include improved overall student grades in the classroom (Ballen et al., 2017); increased student self-efficacy (Ballen et al., 2017); and improved student autonomy (Wieman, 2018). These equity gains have been experienced in STEM courses (Theobald et al., 2020), across general education curricula (Chiu & Cheng, 2017), online courses (Harris et al., 2020), and large classes (Deslauriers et al., 2011).

Active learning approaches can offer multiple ways for students to engage with and express their learning. Clear rules and expectations of engagement, such as the expectation of equal time and attention paid to students’ expressions, can contribute to feelings that the course environment is one where students are welcome and can participate. 

Using a variety of approaches (such as speaking, writing, or diagramming), offers options for students to express what they are learning. Using a variety of approaches can also call student attention to areas in which their learning is more or less developed. Through frequent uses of approaches that offer low-stakes assessments (ungraded or participation points) you and the students can have more information about their learning progress and make adjustments to help all students have better chances for success.  

Effective Implementation

Begins with you. 

Effective implementation begins with the instructor. Adopting active learning practices into your class may feel unsettling or unpredictable to instructors. If you feel some of this anxiety or nervousness, please realize that this is normal! For example, you may be concerned about some of the following: 

  • Losing the predictability that comes with a lecture-only class session
  • Lack of student engagement in an activity the first time you run it
  • Using valuable class time to facilitate an activity
  • Generating another student artifact that needs to be graded

These are very common concerns. However, with thoughtful planning and willingness to try something new, most instructors find that the benefits of incorporating active learning practices into their course far outweigh the feelings of risk they experience at the outset.

To help alleviate some of these concerns, here are a few notes to keep in mind as you consider implementing active learning practices:

  • “Good enough” really is good enough. Perfect implementation isn’t the goal.

  • Introduce your activities with both excitement and humility; both of these attitudes are contagious to your students. Normalize and model the acts of taking risks and making mistakes.

  • Start small. Try a version of an activity that is easy to implement, run it once or twice, reflect on how it went, and then adjust from there.

  • Remember that the act of discussing an idea with a peer or writing down thoughts can deepen the learning process in real time and not all activities need to be graded.

How can I do it?

Start small. Begin with low-risk practices that are easy to implement. This can be beneficial to students who may not be prepared for radical classroom activity yet. Starting small also helps the instructor align active learning practices with strategies that are already being used in the classroom. Reviewing this active learning complexity diagram from the University of Michigan may be a helpful place to start.

Communicate the benefits of the practices and how they could relate to improved educational outcomes for the students. Outlining the activity, instructions, how long it will take, potential benefits, and alignment with coursework will allow students the opportunity to follow along and may reduce implementation roadblocks. The way you communicate an activity is also an opportunity to connect with a growth mindset -- such as framing activities as opportunities to practice, get feedback, reflect, and grow -- ‘it’s okay to be learning and not know everything yet.’

After implementing any type of active learning practice, an instructor should elicit feedback, formal or informal, from the students to determine if the practice was helpful, what roadblocks or barriers occurred that could be improved, and if the practice should be repeated. This feedback could provide useful data for implementing other practices in the future.

How to measure the effectiveness

How to measure the effectiveness of the practice?

Implementation of an active learning technique in your classroom does not mean the practice is effective or equitable. It is recommended that instructors try a practice, take initiative to measure the practices, analyze the data, and repeat.

One option for measuring the effectiveness of an active learning technique could include utilizing student feedback response techniques and tools. For example, using student feedback surveys, online communication and feedback tools (i.e. TopHat, Canvas discussion boards, clickers, Piazza, breakout rooms), or recording observations and questions during class are ways of collecting data when implementing a variety of active learning techniques, such as Muddiest Point, peer instruction, think/pair/share, current events, etc.

Student surveys, both formal and informal, are great tools for measuring student belonging in the classroom. A simple question to ask is, “Do you feel like you belong in this classroom/program?” Instructors can ask this question multiple times throughout the semester to gauge individual belonging. Instructors may want to ask open-ended questions such as,” What is one word to describe how you feel when you enter this classroom?” to gain a deeper understanding. It is also beneficial to ask your students get-to-know-you questions to create an environment for sharing and increase your awareness of who is in your classroom, which can increase belonging.

Formative assignments (i.e. pre-class questions, quick ungraded quizzes or assignments, polling, multi-feedback assignments) can be active learning activities, as well as, inclusive if multiple modes of submission (i.e. audio, visual, written) are allowed. Data from formative assignments can be collected directly from the learning management environment (LMS), such as Canvas. Recording how well a student scored, how many times an assignment or quiz was attempted, how much time was spent on a question, what content are your students engaging with the most/least, or who in the course is not engaging with peers/instructor can provide valuable feedback on student content understanding and engagement. Atomic Assessments, Kaltura Analytics, Learner Engagement Analytics Dashboard (LEAD), Canvas Analytics, or TopHat are available tools that may be used to collect this data.

Your reflections as an instructor can also be a source of measuring effectiveness. One practice to consider would be to keep a log of your reflection on the success of course activities. You can make quick notes after class on topics such as the level and quality of student preparation or engagement, and the amount of time and effort for you and the students to develop, participate, and offer feedback on the activity. With regular use of keeping notes, you may have a resource to look back on at the end of the semester for a deeper reflection on results and potential patterns.

You collected the data, now what?

Repeat the practice and data collection. Don’t fall in love or hate with a technique based on one implementation. Reiterating the process may allow for continuous improvement in teaching and learning. Continuous improvement may allow for more students to engage with the classroom content and environment, which can improve a student’s sense of belonging. After data collection has been completed, there are many small steps that you can take to understand that data, steps that do not require difficult analysis work. Initial steps may include:

  • Organize your data in ways that make sense for you. Arrange your data by assignments or activities, grade scores, content complexity, timeline within the semester, or even student characteristics (i.e. determining racial or gender gaps in your classroom). Ensure this organization is done in accurate and ethical ways.
  • Finding areas of divergence in your data. For example, student feedback surveys show high ratings across several areas but one or two areas are low, the low areas should be investigated further. What are students saying about that area? What can be improved?
  • Code your data for better interpretation. Develop and assign codes that are important to you. For example, you may want to determine if students found your course to be positive or negative overall. Using responses from student feedback, label “positive” and “negative” next to the responses that appropriately align with each. Code each response and determine if positive responses outweigh the negatives or vice versa. Look for trends. Always collect data at multiple intervals or in multiple ways over time during a single semester or through multiple semesters. It is not a good practice to make significant changes after only one data collection period. Instead, look at your data over time to determine areas for improvement.
  • Reflect on your work. What went well? What did not? Keep track of your experience to promote a greater understanding of students and the learning within your classroom, as well as, further develop your teaching.
  • Consider the connections between the active learning activity and the supported course learning outcome/DEIB outcome. What value did the activity seem to have produced? Did the activity produce the results that you wanted? Was the activity worth the time and effort for you and the students?

Once you have understood this data, the next step is to do something. Use this data to make continuous improvements. If you are unsure how to move forward, connect with instructional designers within your school or college or reach out to the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Mentoring.

See also


Example 1

Professor Badger wishes to track student content comprehension throughout the semester. Once a week, Professor Badger uses the Muddiest Point technique to survey students during the class. Professor Badger uses both formal and informal methods for surveying students. For example, for some class periods, the professor asks students informally through open class discussions, and for other class periods, the professor uses discussion boards via Piazza. Some sample questions Professor Badger included:

  • What was the most important thing you learned today?
  • What are one or two concepts or topics from today that you are most confused about?
  • What is still confusing or unclear from today’s content?

In preparation for class periods with particularly difficult concepts, Professor Badger prepared questions ahead of time in a Google document with permissions set to open edit access. Professor Badger used this method to leverage anonymity. To encourage students who were uncomfortable asking questions in front of the class. 

Professor Badger recorded all observations and stored all responses from students in a teaching journal to improve the learning experience for students in future courses.

Example 2

Professor Badger wants to engage students on a difficult or controversial topic without letting just a few voices dominate the conversation. Professor Badger can use Top Hat polling to ask opinion questions about the topic. Top Hat polling will aggregate the answers and the professor can share them with the class in aggregate so students can see where their opinion falls within the spectrum of the class. 

Professor Badger can then carry on a class discussion around the topic allowing students to share both verbally and through Top Hat discussion (which can be set to anonymous if desired). Professor Badger can then wrap up the discussion by returning to the opinion question, asking it again (or asking a similar one), and seeing if students' opinions have changed throughout the discussion. This way every voice is “heard” without any particular student being “called out” for their opinion.


  • Ballen, Cissy J., et al. "Enhancing diversity in undergraduate science: Self-efficacy drives performance gains with active learning." CBE—Life Sciences Education 16.4 (2017): ar56.
  • Chiu, Pit Ho Patrio, and Shuk Han Cheng. "Effects of active learning classrooms on student learning: a two-year empirical investigation on student perceptions and academic performance."Higher Education Research & Development 36.2 (2017): 269-279.
  • Deslauriers, Louis, Ellen Schelew, and Carl Wieman. "Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class." Science 332.6031 (2011): 862-864.
  • Harris, R. B., et al. "Reducing achievement gaps in undergraduate general chemistry could lift underrepresented students into a “hyperpersistent zone”." Science advances6.24 (2020): eaaz5687.
  • Theobald, Elli J., et al. "Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117.12 (2020): 6476-6483.
  • Wieman, Carl. "STEM education: active learning or traditional lecturing." Learning 4 (2018): 10-15.
  • Theobald, Elli J., et al. "Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117.12 (2020): 6476-6483.

Keywordsactive learning, informed design, DEEPDoc ID128623
OwnerCID F.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2023-05-26 15:11 CSTUpdated2023-11-07 11:43 CST
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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