Active Learning Techniques Companion

“Learning Reconsidered defines learning as a comprehensive, holistic, transformative activity that integrates academic learning and student development, processes that have often been considered separate, and even independent of one another.” 

Keeling, R.P. (Ed.).  Learning reconsidered: A Campus-wide focus on the student experience. Washington, DC: ACPA and NASPA, (2004): 2.  


This Active Learning Techniques Companion supports instructors in their purposeful selection of active learning techniques by matching basic situational factors (Fink, 2003; Gagné, 2005) of the learning environment and an option to select individual or group activities with active learning techniques. In addition, it provides information about student development that may help instructors adjust activities appropriately.

Before using this Companion to select an active learning technique, instructors should determine specific learning outcomes for the class session. With clear learning outcomes in mind, the selection of the active learning technique will be more purposeful, and the additional information about student development can guide necessary adjustments to the selected active learning technique.

Active Learning Techniques Companion: Critical Context and Information

Once you have selected criteria that represent your classroom environment (class size, furniture) and decided if the activity should be completed individually or in a group, you will see a list of active learning techniques in a drop-down menu. After selecting an activity, you will see a brief description of the activity as well as a short summary of the requisite developmental stage and a possible trajectory toward a later developmental stage. This information may inform necessary modifications to the activity or may help the instructor in selection of a more appropriate activity for the developmental stage (see Four Ways of Knowing Chart) of their students.

What are the developmental stages? 

The Active Learning Techniques Companion lists the requisite developmental stage for each active learning technique as well as a possible trajectory toward the next stage. The descriptions of these developmental stages are broad and may not reflect the development of individual students. Rather, they can serve as a general overview of cognitive development in traditional-age college students. The cognitive development of students may also be affected by other dimensions of their development, such as their interpersonal and intrapersonal development.

The developmental stages in the companion are based on Marcia B. Baxter Magolda’s Epistemological Reflection Model (1992), which focuses on cognitive development (and lays the foundation for the comprehensive Learning Partnership Model that considers the role of cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal development to promote self-authorship). Baxter Magolda’s Epistemological Reflection Model is based on a longitudinal research study in which she interviewed her participants from college to middle-age. Her research found four stages of development that also show gendered patterns.  

  1. Absolute Knowing (2/3 of first-year students; ½ of sophomores)
    Learners are certain about knowledge and want to acquire knowledge. Instructors are seen as authoritative content experts responsible for imparting knowledge. 
  2. Transitional Knowing (80% of juniors and seniors)
    Learners begin to see uncertainty in knowledge and develop a desire to understand rather than just acquire. Instructors are still viewed as experts, but they are now expected to offer explanation.   
  3. Independent Knowing 
    Learners see uncertainty in knowledge and form their own beliefs. They begin to explore and develop knowledge independently and also see the value of their peers in this process. Instructors take on the role of facilitators.
  4. Contextual Knowledge
    Learners consider knowledge in its context and value evidence to inform their own construction of knowledge. Instructors become co-creators of knowledge. 

Why should I consider cognitive development theory when planning my course and instructional design? 

As instructors, considering the cognitive developmental stages of students informs our role in the classroom, interactions among students in the learning process, and realistic expectations about students’ engagement in active learning techniques that focus on reviewing, deepening or constructing knowledge. For example, in the Absolute Knowing stage of cognitive development, students rely much more on knowledge imparted by the instructor than that of their peers. Without this understanding, instructors may find themselves frustrated by lack of student engagement and learning if they select an active learning technique that relies heavily on peer knowledge construction.

What adjustments could I make to meet students where they are? 

Example: In your course for first-year students, you are planning to use a think-pair-share activity in which students hypothesize possible causes of a posed problem.

The majority of your students are likely to be in the cognitive developmental stage of “absolute knowing” which means that they believe in the certainty of knowledge and existence of correct answers. In addition, they may value the knowledge of the instructor and will want to acquire knowledge rather than construct knowledge and may not be able to navigate a multiplicity of answers to the same question.

An adjustment to this activity might be to focus more on retrieval of knowledge than construction of knowledge. Students could focus on describing the problem in more detail or retrieve knowledge of causes for a similar problem.

What adjustments promote development toward the next stage? 

In some cases, the companion lists a trajectory for development, which means that an activity could promote cognitive development towards a more sophisticated stage.

With a look towards active learning or learning in a classroom setting, research (Barber et al., 2013) suggests that a developmental shift can be facilitated if students are confronted with perspectives that conflict with their own views, are challenged to evaluate knowledge, or are asked to defend their beliefs. Reflection and meta-cognition also play a critical role as students begin to understand their own meaning-making process. Carney Strange’s (1994) research presents a number of propositions for development. These posit that learning occurs when learners are confronted with novel tasks and situations that challenge them appropriately (depending on their current level of development). The tasks are challenging but are taken on in a low-stakes, supportive environment, in a dynamic process with other people and the environment (physical setting, human interaction, classroom climate/culture).


Barber, J. P., King, P.M,  & Baxter Magolda, M.B. (2013). Long Strides on the Journey toward Self-Authorship: Substantial Developmental Shifts in College Students’ Meaning Making. The Journal of Higher Education, 84:6, 866-896, DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2013.11777313
Baxter Magolda, M.B. (1992). Knowing and Reasoning in College. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 
Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 
Gagné, R. M., Wager, W. W., Golas, K. E., & Keller, J. M. (2005). Principles of instructional design (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth. 
Strange, C. (1994/2005). Student development: The evolution and status of an essential idea. In M.E. Wilson and L.E. Wolf-Wendel (Eds.). ASHE Reader on College Student Development Theory (pp. 25-42). Boston, MA: Pearson.