Skip to main content

Evidence shows that active learning (in which students spend at least some time in class practicing the type of work they will be expected to do in exams and papers) increases student learning. However, many students aren't quite sure what they should do in active classes or even why they are being asked to learn in this way. Active classes—called SAIL classes in some cases—can be most effective if instructors explain in advance what will happen and why.

Sample Language

Zahra Fakraai, Chem 222: "Physical Chemistry II"

This class will be different from some other lecture-based courses you may have taken in the past. The majority of class time, will be devoted to in-class worksheets, discussions and Q and A with short lectures towards the end of the class. Students will work on worksheet problems in groups of 4-5 that are assigned by the professor and the TA. These groups can be shuffled before the first exam, but will remain the same for the rest of the class. Class time will be focused on learning the concepts, deriving important relationships and putting these concepts together as a group with the help of the instructor and TAs. Short lecture and short quizzes will follow towards the end of the class. This type of course organization is sometimes known as the "Active Classroom".


  • Research shows discussions enhances learning, in particular for math heavy classes such as chem 222.
  • Students will learn the skill of independent learning by reading books, using online recourses and literature and scientific discussions with peers. Learning is different for different individuals. Instead of being lectured, this method allows the students to utilize various resources in learning. You are encouraged to use the best method that works for you.
  • Hypothesis driven learning is how we do research, and how we function in the workplace. Learning how to function well in a group, and be the driving force for the success of the entire group can help your research career at Penn and beyond.

Phil Gressman, Math 104: "Calculus"

Motivating Principles Behind SAIL: The major principles guiding instruction in this course are built around the National Research Council report "How People Learn." The report draws on cognitive and behavioral science research to identify markers of effective learning environments:

  • Focus on Learners. The center of activity in this SAIL classroom will usually be at your table with other members of your assigned group. The purpose of group activity is to wrestle with new ideas, balanced on the edge of "just manageable difficulty," together with the help of your peers. At all times, you have the right to expect clear and organized information about course content and expectations. This includes direct and transparent identification of the skills you will gain, how those skills will be used, and the standards by which your skills will be assessed. The professor and the TA(s) will always be there to provide guidance and support, but are far from the center of attention. It is critical that students in this course adopt a growth mindset towards the course.
  • Focus on Knowledge with Understanding. SAIL activities are designed to balance routine practice with deeper exploration to illuminate the fundamental principles that underlie the body of facts of Math 104. Research shows that developing your own personal perspective to organize facts around these underlying principles is a key part of growing along the spectrum of expertise. You must always expect to spend more time thinking deeply about the "why" and the "how" of the material than you might otherwise do in a lecture-based format. You must also expect to engage in explicit "metacognitive" thinking about your own intuition, instincts, and thought processes.
  • Focus on Feedback and Formative Assessment. Students in a SAIL classroom can expect frequent feedback. In the classroom, this feedback is often instantaneous and informal and comes from your peers and from the professor and TA(s). It is always allowed and encouraged to share your questions with others and to adapt and update your own ideas and answers (on worksheets and elsewhere) in response. On class work, homework, and midterm exams, you have the right to expect multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency and advancing skill over time.
  • Focus on Community Formation. It is important for students in a SAIL classroom to value not just their own success but the success of others as well. Success in SAIL format classes requires developing comfort with the uncertainty and struggle that come with learning in a very public environment. You must always be supportive and encouraging of others and have the right to expect others to support and encourage you.

SAIL is not a "one size fits all" format

SAIL might be the right format for you if these statements accurately reflect your views:

  • I agree with the proverb: "I hear, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, I understand."
  • I look forward not only to learning new material, but to helping my peers learn as well.
  • I am a detail-oriented person who can generally stay focused and on-task.
  • Even if it didn't improve my grade much, I would be willing to put in extra effort to develop deeper understanding.

If these statements apply to you, you may be unhappy in SAIL:

  • I believe it is better to learn from directly from lectures rather than to learn by doing problems.
  • I would find it frustrating to spend lots of time in class being less than confident about how to approach a problem.
  • I believe courses should be "self-contained" and that I should not need to find and use outside resources to learn.
  • It would be difficult to ask for help from my peers, TA(s), or professor if I seemed to be having more trouble than others.

You should reflect candidly on your own habits and preferences to choose the format which is right for you.