Emily M. Slonecker, M.A, Department of Psychological Science

What is your first thought when you hear the word “icebreaker”? If your first thought is the sound of 200 students groaning in unison, you just might be an educator. There is growing body of evidence to suggest that active learning techniques, like the ever-dreaded icebreaker, are highly beneficial when incorporated into higher education classrooms (Wieman, 2014). Yet, many students remain resistant to active learning (Walker et al., 2008). Thus, as educators, the question becomes less about our ability to implement active learning techniques in the classroom, and more about our ability to implement these techniques in a way that students will appreciate and trust.

Student Buy-In

Research suggests we may be able to bridge this gap by increasing students’ “buy-in” of active learning (Brazeal et al., 2016; Cavanagh et al., 2016). Put simply, students’ buy-in relates to whether they believe active learning is a genuinely useful tool. If students do not believe active learning is useful, they will be less likely to truly engage in the process. While a completely unengaged audience might work for a standard lecture classroom setup, this type of environment is toxic for active learning. Without engaged activity, there is no active learning.

Given the crucial role buy-in plays in the active learning process, the next question becomes one of how we can encourage, or even begin to understand, buy-in. One approach that has found moderate success is the EPIC model.

The EPIC Model

The EPIC model views the adoption of a thought process as a four-step process that involves exposure, persuasion, identification, and commitment (Aragon et al., 2016). When applied to active learning specifically, the model becomes both a step-by-step guide for encouraging buy-in and a means of measuring different levels of the buy-in process.

  • Exposure: The first step of the buy-in process is the simplest—expose your students to active learning techniques. While you may experience some resistance and, yes, even groans, this exposure is a necessary first step towards developing student buy-in. As active learning becomes more commonplace within your classroom, students will become more familiar and open to the technique.
  • Persuasion: Once students are exposed to active learning, the real hard work begins. At this stage, students must be persuaded that active learning is a meaningful and efficient way of learning material. Instructors can help students move through this stage by adopting a level of transparency when it comes to their lesson planning. By explaining to students why you are choosing to do what you do, you will help persuade them that there is a method to the madness.
  • Identification: Now students must be able to identify why this approach, which they believe is generally good, is good for them. Students will not stay persuaded for long if they do not see how active learning techniques positively translate to academic outcomes. Therefore, students must be given means of assessing how active learning has contributed positively to their individual growth.
  • Commitment: Finally, students must commit to their positive beliefs about active learning. In order for students to truly buy in to the process, they must be given the opportunity to truly “choose” that active learning is right for them.

Making Learning EPIC

So far, the EPIC model has been successfully used to measure and understanding engagement in different teaching practices. For example, researchers have found student engagement and commitment in active learning to be related to desired academic outcomes (Cavanagh et al., 2016). Similarly, research on faculty’s adoption of inclusive teaching practices has also found that they reliably move along these four steps of adoption (Aragon et al., 2016).


Aragon, O. R., Dovidio, J. F., & Graham, M. J. (2016). Colorblind and multicultural ideologies are associated with faculty adoption of inclusive teaching practices. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 431-441.

Brazeal, K. R., Brown, T. L., & Bouch, B. A. (2016). Characterizing student perceptions and buy-in toward common formative assessment techniques. CBE – Life Science Education, 15, ar73.

Cavanagh, A. J., Aragon, O. R., Chen, X., Couch, B. A., Durham, M. F., Bobrownicki, A., Hanauer, D. I., & Graham, M. J. (2016). Student buy-in to active learning in a college science course. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 15, 1-9.

Walker, J. D., Cotner, S. H., Baepler, P. M., & Decker, M. D. (2008). A delicate balance: Integrating active learning into a large lecture course. CBE – Life Science Education, 7(4), 361-367.

Wieman, C. E. (2014). Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 111(23), 8319-8320.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on March 6th, 2020.