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Active Learning

The term active learning (AL) may acquire different, contextual meanings. However, it is generally understood as pedagogy in which students are encouraged to develop their learning autonomously. AL requires students to ask questions of themselves and their peers in solving problems, in contrast to passively receiving information. Process-oriented, guided inquiry learning (POGIL), peer-led team learning (PLTL), problem-based learning (PBL), and Investigative Case Based Learning (ICBL) are often components of an AL environment (e.g., Eberlein, et al., 2008).

There is a broad empirical fundament that supports the use of AL in undergraduate science classrooms [e.g.,reviewed by Handelsman, et al. (2004); Prince (2004); Knight (2004); Allen and Tanner (2005)]. For example:

  • Haak, et al. (2011) observed that substituting daily and weekly practice in problem-solving, data analysis, and other higher-order cognitive skills for lecture-intensive course design improved the performance of all students in a college-level introductory Biology class and reduced the achievement gap between disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged students;
  • Ruiz-Primo, et al. (2011) conducted a meta-analysis of the effects of a wide variety of active learning techniques on learning in various science disciplines and reported a number of positive outcomes;
  • Derting and Ebert-May (2010) found that an intense, inquiry-based, learner-centered learning experience early in the Biology curriculum was associated with long-term improvements in academic performance;
  • Knight and Wood (2005) decreased lecturing and substituted student participation and cooperative problem solving during class time, resulting in significantly higher learning gains and better conceptual understanding by their Biology students;
  • Burrowes (2003) provided evidence that teaching Biology in an AL environment is more effective than traditional instruction in promoting academic achievement, increasing conceptual understanding, developing higher level thinking skills, and enhancing students’ interest in Biology.
  • Udovic, et al. (2000) observed pronounced differences between students taught biology traditionally and those taught with a series of active, inquiry-based learning modules (“Workshop Biology”).


MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) is a free and open online community of resources designed primarily for faculty, staff and students of higher education from around the world to share their learning materials and pedagogy. MERLOT is a leading edge, user-centered, collection of peer reviewed higher education, online learning materials, catalogued by registered members and a set of faculty development support services. 

Jung Choi (a PULSE community member) collects and updates some very valuable resources for learning various topics in different fields of biology.
CourseSource (when available)
< National Science Digital Library >
NSDL is the nation's online portal for education and research on learning in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
< Biointeractive (HHMI) >
Biointeractive is The Howard Hughes Medical Institute's collection of free resources for professors and students. Included are videos, virtual laboratories, click-and-learn interactive mini-lessons, and lectures.
< The Biology Project >
The Biology Project of the University of Arizona is an online interactive resource for learning biology. It contains activities, problem sets, and tutorials for a wide variety of biological disciplines.

The BEN Collaborative was established in 1999 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) with 11 other professional societies and coalitions. Since its inception, the BEN Collaborative has grown from its original 11 and continues to add new collaborators. The BEN Collaborative mission is not only to provide seamless access to e-resources but to also serve as a catalyst for strengthening teaching and learning in the biological sciences. The BEN Collaborative is the National Science Digital Library (NSDL) Pathway for biological sciences education.
< Case It! >
Case It! provides a framework for collaborative case-based learning via free, open-ended molecular biology simulations and cases based primarily on genetic and infectious disease. It is based at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and has been funded by the National Science Foundation.
< DNA Learning Center >
The DNA Learning Center is Cold Spring Harbor's portal to resources, websites, activities, software, and educational programs for all things genetic.
< BeSocratic >
BeSocratic is an online assessment system focused on addressing two goals: 1) providing students with proper feedback and; 2)providing teachers with meaningful analysis. On the student side, BeSocratic is able to recognize student drawings and respond with meaningful feedback based on the drawings. On the analysis side, BeSocratic contains sophisticated clustering techniques which group students based on the similarly of their submissions. This allows teachers to only look at a small subset of student submissions and quickly get an overview of an entire class’s understanding level. The free Silverlight plugin is required.
< Tree of Life >
The Tree of Life Web Project (ToL) is a collaborative effort of biologists and nature enthusiasts from around the world. On more than 10,000 World Wide Web pages, the project provides information about biodiversity, the characteristics of different groups of organisms, and their phylogeny.
< National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science >
The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science at the University at Buffalo promotes the development and dissemination of materials and practices for case teaching in the sciences. Their website provides access to an award-winning collection of peer-reviewed case studies.
< BioQuest >
The BioQUEST Library Online is an ongoing peer-reviewed community publication of software simulations, tools, datasets, and other supporting materials from educators and developers engaged in education and research in science. The modules are now downloadable and freely accessible for educational use per our agreement with individual authors. Teachers, curriculum developers, and students are welcome to download these materials for classroom use.
< ScienceCaseNet >
ScienceCaseNet is an interactive network on problem based learning (PBL) and case-based learning in science education for educators wanting to use cases in their classes, for curriculum and faculty developers, for researchers exploring these methods, and for individuals interested in sharing their experience.
< The Online
Macromolecular Museum
The Online Macromolecular Museum (OMM) is a site for the display and study of macromolecules. Macromolecular structures, as discovered by crystallographic or NMR methods, are scientific objects in much the same sense as fossil bones or dried specimens: they can be archived, studied, and displayed in aesthetically pleasing, educational exhibits. The OMM's exhibits are interactive tutorials on individual molecules in which hypertextual explanations of important biochemical features are linked to illustrative renderings of the molecule at hand.

GCAT facilitates faculty bringing genomics into their curricula. For 12 years, GCAT allowed undergraduates to perform DNA microarray experiments. Now GCAT is supporting synthetic biology with free faculty workshops and DNA parts libraries (GCAT SynBio) and next generation sequencing technologies (GCAT SEEK). All activities are supported by NSF and HHMI to make teacher training free.
< Proteopedia >
Proteopedia is a wiki site containing entries for all Protein Data Bank files that describe the atomic coordinates for proteins, nucleic acids, and other biomolecules. The site employs Jmol molecular visualization software and unique scene editing tools so that users can create their own renderings of biomolecules on pages that can be shared via the Proteopedia wiki. Professors can create pages for display in various pedagogical venues, or students can create pages for class projects.
< Environmental Science Case Study Library >
(McGraw Hill)

McGraw Hill's collection of case studies have been submitted by professors from all over the world. The case studies deal with environmental issues pertaining to certain geographical areas in North America, as well as international and universal applications.

In addition to the use of Diagnostic Question Clusters (DQCs) in assessing students' ability to approach biology questions and issues like a biologist, Thinking Like a Biologist provides active learning resources related to energy flow in biological systems.

iBiology features redesigned iBioSeminars and iBioMagazine sites as well as a new feature, iBioEducation. iBioEducation will provide educational resources for both introductory and advanced biology learning, including talks, assessments, short videos, and a full-length microscopy course.

This American Society for Cell Biology site comprises a variety of resources for undergraduate life sciences education. For examples, there are links to tools, materials, galleries, textbooks and lab manuals, and microscopy educational resources.

Understanding Science provides some basic resources that allow students at all levels to explore the nature of the scientific process. There is a section for undergraduate courses.

Understanding Evolution is a site with a variety of resources for educators seeking to improve student understanding of evolutionary concepts. There is a "lounge" for undergraduate professors.

Investigative Case-Based Learning (ICBL) is a variant of Problem Based Learning that encourages students to develop questions that can be explored further by reasonable investigative approaches. Students then gather data and information for testing their hypotheses. They produce materials which can be used to persuade others of their findings. Students employ a variety of methods and resources, including traditional laboratory and field techniques, software simulations and models, data sets, internet-based tools and information retrieval methods.

PBL Clearinghouse is a collection of problems and articles to assist educators in using problem-based learning. The problems and articles are peer reviewed by PBL experts in the disciplinary content areas. Teaching notes and supplemental materials accompany each problem, providing insights and strategies that are innovative and classroom-tested. Access to the Clearinghouse collection is limited to educators who register via an online application, but is free and carries no obligation.

CASES Online is a collection of inquiry-based lessons to engage K-12 and undergraduate students in exploring the science behind real-world problems. Through CASES, you can transform your students into motivated investigators, self-directed and life-long learners, critical thinkers and keen problem solvers. Our cases are grounded in Problem-Based Learning (PBL), Investigative Case-Based Learning (ICBL), and related student-centered pedagogies.

The mission of the Enduring Legacies Native Cases Initiative is to develop culturally relevant curriculum and teaching resources in the form of case studies on key issues in Indian Country.

This is a large, valuable collection of links to Biology education resources.

Pedagy in Action provides an online Library of links to teaching methods, activities, and learning research as well as a pedagogic service where one can create, contribute, and customize Library activities.

U of Colorado archives of course materials including learning goals, activities, clicker questions, short answers, and handouts.

Teaching a class using active learning strategies? Wondering how to introduce your students to this type of learning, and "frame" the classroom structure to them? This page contains a set of instructor-written materials from a variety of disciplines for generating student buy-in to innovative classroom techniques. Note that these are not research-tested, but represent practitioner pedagogical ideas. Compiled by Stephanie Chasteen of the University of Colorado Boulder in collaboration with Andrew Boudreaux of Western Washington University.

This blog, Turn to Your Neighbor, contains a wealth of information on flipped classes and peer-to-peer instruction.

SENCER improves science education by focusing on real world problems and, by so doing, extends the impact of this learning across the curriculum to the broader community and society.

Quaardvark is a tool for creating complex queries that allows you to dig through the underlying database of the Animal Diversity Web and other databases that are automatically harvested. Students can use this tool to test hypotheses and discover patterns in the natural world on their own. The site has a library of activities that have been tested in classrooms and are useful in a wide variety of organismal biology courses.


Allen, D., and Tanner, K. (2005). Infusing active learning into the large-enrollment biology class: seven strategies, from the simple to complex. Cell Biol. Educ. 4, 262–268.

Burrowes, P.A. (2003). A Student-Centered Approach to Teaching General Biology That Really Works: Lord's Constructivist Model Put to a Test. The American Biology Teacher, 65: 491– 502.

Derting, T.L., Ebert-May, D. (2010). Learner-Centered Inquiry in Undergraduate Biology: Positive Relationships with Long-Term Student Achievement. CBE Life Sciences Education, 9: 462–472.

Eberlein, T., Kampmeier, J., Minderhout, V., Moog, R.S., Platt, T., Varma-Nelson, P., and White, H.B. (2008). Pedagogies of Engagement in Science. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 36: 262–273.

Haak, D.C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E., and Freeman, S. (2011). Increased Structure and Active Learning Reduce the Achievement Gap in Introductory Biology. Science, 332: 1213-1216.

Handelsman, J., D., Ebert-May, R., Beichner, P., Bruns, A., Chang, R., DeHaan, J., Gentile, S., Lauffer, J., Stewart, J., Tilghman, S.M., and Wood, W.B. (2004). Scientific Teaching. Science, 304: 521–522.

Knight J.K., Wood W.B. (2005).  Teaching more by lecturing less. Cell Biology Education, 4(4):298-310.

Knight, R.D., (2004). Five Easy Lessons – Strategies for Successful Physics Teaching. Pearson Education, Addison Wesley.

Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93: 223-231.

Ruiz-Primo, M.A., Briggs, D., Iverson, H., Talbot, R., Shepard, L.A. (2011). Impact of undergraduate science course innovations on learning. Science, 331: 1269–1270.

Udovic, D., Morris, D., Dickman, A., Postlethwait, J., and Wetherwax, P. (2002). Workshop Biology: Demonstrating the Effectiveness of Active Learning in an Introductory Biology Course. Bioscience, 52: 272- 281.

PULSE was established and funded from 10/1/2012 - 9/1/2013 by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIH), and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Currently, the PULSE V&C Toolkit is funded by NSF.