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What Is Active Learning?

Answered simply, active learning is active rather than passive. The learner explores the problem to discover the answer (rather than a teacher giving the answer and subsequently showing how it was derived). Educational websites provide a more technical answer; Wikipedia offers a jumping-off point for further research if interested. My own answer is experience-based, having been blessed with parents who chose to use active learning in our home. By doing so, they didn't just teach us topics—they taught us how to teach ourselves. This provided a foundation to strive for learning and growth throughout life. They also provided a strong spiritual foundation, teaching us to build our lives on the rock: on Christ and his everlasting word.

Thanks for that, Mom and Dad. 

Interactive. Active learning is interactive, whatever form that activity takes: reading, questioning, dialoguing, experimenting, performing, drawing, writing, singing… whatever is suited to the topic, the situation, and the learner.

Example: If studying the Ten Commandments with children, they might process the lesson well from role-playing some scenarios. Adults would likely feel self-conscious acting, yet do well if asked to recall experiences and discuss them.


Individualized. Active learning is individualized, centering on the learner, not the teacher. Tailor the lesson to the learner: what area does she need to grow in? What methods of learning have worked well for him? Crucially, this also means that active learning is not inherently the best method for every learner. Active learning is an engaging and powerful teaching method, but there are also other excellent methods that might better fit an individual learner.

Does individualizing lessons mean more work for the teacher? No… it means targeting your work differently. Instead of crafting a fixed presentation, teachers invest work in observing the learners and adapting as-needed during the lesson. Learners continually provide feedback for these in-lesson adjustments (being focused vs. tuning out, making progress vs. becoming frustrated, etc.) If teachers need more feedback than observations provide, questions can encourage students to vocalize their thought processes when tackling problems ("Talk through this step-by-step. What are your thoughts?"). Teachers do plan active learning lessons ahead of time: they create a sound "skeleton" that students and teacher together will flesh out during the class itself.

Example: If studying "Jesus Calms the Storm" as a Sunday School substitute teacher, you can prepare an active learning lesson by gathering information about the students beforehand. Their age/grade will give you an idea of their developmental level (attention spans, reading skills, etc.), and a few minutes talking with their regular teacher will help you understand the students' expectations ("What do you usually do during class?"). Choose learning activities for the lesson that fit with their development and with the regular teacher's structure; just engage the students in discovering the lesson's main concepts (Jesus is God, God can protect us from anything, Jesus saved us by perfectly trusting God for us). Your lesson skeleton might be a simple outline of main points and a well-formed question ready for each:


"Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey him!" (Mk 4:41)


read Ps 56:3–4 - Jesus was confident even in danger! Who was he trusting in?

read Ro 5:19b - The last time I was scared, I didn't trust God. I acted like the disciples. But Romans promises that Jesus gave me something important: what is it?

if time: Jesus had power over the storm; he could have prevented it. Why did he let his disciples go through this danger?

Notice the flexibility built into a lesson skeleton! It guides the learning, yet allows students to participate in shaping the class according to their needs.

If doing the session with adults at a church retreat, your lesson skeleton might be the same—but the actual class will likely develop differently. Adults tend to be more reticent about sharing deeply personal feelings and events. Their storms may also be different: divorce, chronic illness, the exhaustion of caregiving, years suffering systemic injustice, etc. Structure the lesson so people feel comfortable sharing intimately (perhaps leave time to break out into small groups). As with all ages, observe the learners: continue an activity while it is working well, but if people seem stuck, be ready to give them some starters. Once an activity has reached its natural end, regroup and move to the next portion of your presentation.

One of the strengths of active learning is that it allows learners of different knowledge levels and backgrounds to study the same lesson together, benefiting from each other as well as the teacher.

Example: Suppose you teach Isaiah 11 in a congregational study. Some new Christians there don't yet know how to tell law apart from gospel, but there are also clergy attending who could quote you the original Hebrew. Can you really individualize teaching a heterogeneous group like this? Yes: you can structure the study so that everyone engages with the text, which allows each member to grow where he/she is at. It's okay if one person grows in recognizing Messianic prophecies while another grows in better understanding the fullness of Jesus' anointing. In fact, students will absorb others' insights and methods, in this way participating together in learning. As they see others taking correction in stride as part of the routine learning process, they will learn to not let fear of a wrong answer be an obstacle. They will also see how to independently check ideas (their own and others') against the Bible's ultimate authority, learning to let God's word be our rule and guide.

When preparing a study for such a varied group, select one or two main textual concepts for people to take away with them (perhaps "Isaiah foretold that the Spirit would anoint the Messiah"). Work through the text with the group, asking questions which help them explore the text to learn more. (Rather than stating, "This is a prophecy about Jesus," ask, "Does someone know whom this prophecy is talking about?" following up with, "How do we know that?") Ensure that the main point is discovered and clearly communicated. It's also essential to build in time to notice and discuss learners' own questions. Communicate early to encourage people's contributions: "Please raise questions as you think of them." Direct people toward ownership of learning with prompts such as, "Does anything puzzle you about this section?" or, "Can you think of other pertinent verses about the Spirit's anointing?" Delve further into subpoints of the lesson as time permits (perhaps, "What was the purpose of our Christ being anointed?" or, "During Jesus' life, were people able to notice his anointing? Who has an example?").

Passive learning methods involve guessing what learners know and presenting what you have learned about a topic (aiming for the middle of a multi-level group). But active learning, by inviting learners to dig into the topic with you, provides immediate, ongoing feedback on which areas people need to grow in and which burdens they need to bring to God today.


Inner responsibility. Active learning by its nature communicates the truth "I am responsible for my own learning." Eager participation in education is a skill that students develop over time. Gradually, they will learn how to ask good questions about a topic: that is, learning how to learn. As they grow, also guide them in developing the skill of helping fellow participants learn. "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Mk 12:31) applies to every aspect of life, even education. Active learning teaches, "I am responsible for facilitating others' learning." ("Great question, Laila, but we'll come back to that in a minute. Before we change topic, let's finish exploring the issue Julia raised. Who has an idea where in Scripture we can find the answer to Julia's question?")

Example: Your Bible study group decides to tackle Revelation, a difficult book. Most important is a correct understanding of God's word… but the learning doesn't need to be limited to just the content. Active learning is an ideal method to teach a difficult topic, for it simultaneously teaches both the subject and how to approach learning it. ("Let's consider this next section. Does it relate to what we just finished reading, or does it begin a separate topic? Which textual clues indicate the answer?" or, "When studying this vision, what are the most important questions to answer about it?" and, "This verse might at first seem confusing. Which other Bible passages address the same topic, clarifying what God says here?").


Try It!

Looking to Grow

LEARNING Isaiah 11

Read Isaiah 11, thinking of questions about it that you don't know the answers to.

  • Once you have a question or two, search Scripture for answers.

  • If you can't think of any questions, find a topic Isaiah 11 discusses about which you are curious… explore it in Scripture.


  • Who is the "he" in Isaiah 11?

  • How do you know?

  • Why is "fearing" God good (v 3) when he loves us and asks us to trust him? (see Proverbs 22:4 and Luke 18:9–14)

  • How are the sections in Isaiah 11 connected (the Branch who judges justly, the peaceful animals, the war banner of victory)? 


  • Messianic prophecy

  • The Spirit's anointing

  • God's use of death—a curse!—as part of his perfect justice

  • Scripture's use of the physical Old Testament nation Israel to depict the spiritual true Israel of all believers

(best limited to 1 or 2)

  • This is a Messianic prophecy

  • Ways Jesus fulfilled/s Isaiah 11's prophecy

  • The Father's unlimited anointing of his Messiah* with the Spirit

  • Jesus Christ, eternal king over creation: God's perfect merciful justice

  • How the different parts of Isaiah 11 connect

*"Messiah" (from Hebrew) and "Christ" (from Greek) both mean "The Anointed One."

Form questions in such a way that students explore to discover an important (or interesting) idea.

Try it! If using Luke 4:14–30 to teach that Jesus' anointing by the Holy Spirit as Christ empowered him to fulfill all the prophecies in Isaiah 11

 …what is the particularly meaningful aspect of this truth?

Being anointed as Christ shows that:

  • Jesus was sent by God the Father;

  • Jesus is ordained above all prophets (Dt 18:15), priests, and kings (Zc 6:11–13*);

  • Jesus rules over all things;

  • Jesus' role as prophet, priest, and king is an eternal role…

  • which all means that Jesus fully saves us!

Phrase questions carefully, directing students to discover the meaningful focus of the lesson.

"Whom did the Spirit anoint to save us?"

No… the answer "Jesus" is too predictable; students will guess it without understanding.

"The Bible books Isaiah and _______ teach that the Spirit anointed Jesus to save us."

No… this distracts from the meat of the lesson, focusing on a less important factoid.

"God sent his Spirit to empower Jesus to carry out his mission. How did the Spirit do this?"

Yes! Good phrasing, purposefully directing students to take the first step in discovering the lesson's focus.

Try It!


Asking Questions with Purpose

TEACHING Isaiah 11

Read Isaiah 11, choosing a few main points to teach.

Remember that your active learning students will also be asking you their own questions during discussion.

You guide the lesson, but engaged students' questions often take the majority of lesson time. That's okay.

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