Active Learning Strategies for the Online Classroom

By Christine Scherer

Dr. Ray Schroeder recently gave a presentation on active learning strategies for NUIT’s Teachxpert Speaker Series. He describes active learning not as a theory, but as “a teaching method that supports learning. The method uses techniques…that promote analysis, synthesis and evaluation that guide students towards achieving learning objectives” (Active Blending for Engagement).

Think about the last time you learned something. What was it? How did you learn it? The last time I learned something, I received direct instruction from a peer where I watched a process being done while it was explained, and then I went off on my own to try it. I was given resources and tutorials to help me along the way if I got stuck. I was able to ask clarifying questions and received feedback on how I performed. I learned by participating in doing the thing being taught to me. How people learn has been studied and researched for centuries (literally!).

For example, in the 1980s Mortimer J. Adler stated:

“All genuine learning is active, not passive. It is a process of discovery in which the student is the main agent, not the teacher.” (Adler, 1982)

And Sophocles, in the 5th Century said:  

“One must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it—you have no certainty until you try.” (Sophocles, 5th C)

These education and learning theory pioneers all agree that learning is not a spectator sport (Chickering and Gamson, 1987). Learning is purposeful, participatory, and authentic. Active learning encourages the learner to deliberately engage with course materials, concepts, and activities. Instead of learners taking on the all-too-common role of passive observer, active learning demands that students meaningfully participate in their learning by responding to what they read, watch, or listen to (Oliver, Herrington, Reeves).

By implementing active learning strategies in a student-centered learning environment, students get the chance to engage with course materials and their peers on a deeper level. They can construct, interpret, and share their own understanding of the course material through multiple interactions and apply it in relevant and authentic ways. The role of instructor moderation and feedback is essential when carrying out active learning in any classroom, but especially in the online classroom.

Let’s look at a few traditional learning activities and some suggestions for making them more active and authentic.

Lectures and Presentations

Assigning students to watch or listen to a 30-, 40-, or even 50-minute lecture can be one of the most passive kinds of learning experiences. Instead of this traditional approach to lecture, you can create one or more 8- 10-minute mini-lectures and include opportunities for knowledge checks, such as reflective questions, pause procedure, or asking students to summarize or identify one to two concepts they still do not understand from the lecture. The 1-5-1-3 Model is a great instructional framework you can use to chunk complex or lengthy lecture material into bite-sized video segments.

Guest lectures can be beneficial to students, getting them excited about the industry or field they are studying by providing real-world knowledge and insight. Keep in mind that this too can easily become a passive experience for students. To make it more active, provide students with a teaser of the presentation, such as an abstract or summary, and ask students to submit questions beforehand. Provide guiding questions or key topics for students to use to formulate their own relevant follow-up questions. Use live polling to gauge engagement and comprehension. For example, Poll Everywhere is easy to use and integrates with Google Slides or PowerPoint presentations.

Readings and Resources

Existing readings and resources from professionals and scholars working in the field are an essential component to any course of study. A journal article, textbook chapter, or case study can easily be assigned, but it can also appear to students that they are simply being given a reading list. Why not assign students a case study that reflects a real-world situation and ask students to write a short analysis or reflection to share in a discussion forum? This helps students direct their focus when reading, and they get to share insights with their peers.    

Another example is to have students curate their own readings or section of the readings for the week. Based on the week’s topic, ask students to locate a current events article from a news source. Provide examples of trusted news sources and assignment details, such as “find reporting from a trusted news source on X topic and analyze how the local population has been impacted.” After locating the article, students can submit a mock news report, video presentation, or written analysis. Giving students different format options helps them practice new skills and gives them the chance to be self-directed learners. Current events activities are a great way to get students thinking about what’s going on in the field right now. It can help bridge abstract theoretical concepts with application in the real world.   

Writing Assignments

Let’s say students are asked to write a 12-15-page research paper. To make this activity more active, create and assign multiple deliverables, such as an abstract, outline, draft, and then final, and incorporate a peer review component. Peer review gives students the chance to actively engage with the course content and classmates on a deeper level. Instructional Technologist Jackie Wickham recently wrote a blog post on Student-Student Interaction in Online Courses that identifies some interesting findings about peer learning. As an instructor, you can provide feedback on one or more of the deliverables and ask students to incorporate the feedback or reflect on the process of drafting and working with their peers.

These are just a few of several approaches to incorporating active learning. You are encouraged to reach out to the Distance Learning team to learn more about how to design and apply active learning strategies in your own online classrooms!

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