Active Learning Defined
Active learning engages students directly in the learning process through instructional activities with differing degrees of interaction that is student-centered, whereas passive learning occurs indirectly and without interaction. The latter is often, but not always, teacher-centered. Student-centered learning emphasizes learner control and manipulation of information, so students can actively use what is learned. Students respond well when they have a participatory voice in their learning. Additionally, active learning is preferred because it triggers cognitive functioning. This is based on the cognitivist (with constructivism as a subset) educational learning paradigm.
Examples of active learning include the following:
- Studio model with a teacher or student observations and feedback (e.g., writer’s workshop, art production, portfolios)
- Group work (e.g., business proposals, case studies, mixed media presentations)
- Gaming and simulations,
- Metacognitive strategies to monitor self-learning,
- Transference of knowledge to new problems and situations, and
- Assessments that require analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
These can be configured to the hybrid and online environments via videoconferencing tool for synchronous conversations, forum tool for asynchronous discussions, shared drive and collaborative documents, media hosting platform, and portfolio or other platforms to share student work. Besides the general activity description and assessment piece, these digital activities require clear guidelines for interacting with each other, the content, the teacher, and the tools (e.g., group roles, peer review criteria, schedule, samples, tool guides).
What does active learning look like online?
Active learning can take on different formats, levels of engagement, and levels of complexity in setup. For example, active learning can be individually or collaboratively assigned. Online educators use the community of inquiry (COI) framework to ensure students are engaged with the content, each other, and the instructor to maximize learning. Social presence (SP), cognitive presence (CP), and teaching presence (TP) are the essential elements to the communication loop for an online COI (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). This means that online learners are involved in cognitively challenging activities for CP (i.e., analysis, synthesis, evaluation), are able to interact with classmates for SP (e.g., discussions and projects), and that the teacher or student moderator is present in some way through communication, guidance, and feedback for TP. This document covers various instructional strategies and the digital tools to engage students online through active learning as structured through the course’s primary interactions (e.g., lecture, discussions, assignments, assessments, feedback, and guidance).
Set the Stage for Active Learning
Tell your students what you expect of them in the online course. A best practice is to provide a ‘Getting Started’ folder with your syllabus, schedule, pertinent documents, and protocol for interactions (Quality Matters, 2014). For example, share course requirements for the online environment and address learning values such as the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset.
Dweck (2009) described those who underestimate their ability to learn as possibly having a fixed mindset, while those who believe that they can learn by establishing attainable goals and applying effort to learn as having a growth mindset. Students with a growth mindset want to be corrected; their ego is not tied to learning. Conversely, those with a fixed mindset do not pay attention to corrective feedback. They believe that learning should not take any effort because it is tied to their intelligence; their ego influences how they learn. Students with a fixed mindset may be resistant to active learning. See the blog post to Focus on the Process to Support the Growth Mindset of Students.
Make sure students know how to use the learning management system (LMS) prior to high-stakes assignments to reduce anxiety and to reduce the cognitive load for the overall task. Here are some useful tasks to help familiarize students with the LMS:
- Student acknowledgment form submission/assignment (i.e.,, course expectations),
- ‘Getting Acquainted’ discussion,
- Syllabus quiz to ensure students have read it, and
- Poll practical experience on the course topic to better understand students’ prior knowledge on the subject and drive instruction to meet students’ needs.
The lecture, demonstration, or direct instruction of a skill is a passive learning event unless students are provided ways to interact with the content. Consider using EdPuzzle, PlayPosit, or Camtasia Studio to engage learners while watching a video lecture or demonstration with questions to answer before preceding to the next segment; these third-party premium tools provide instructors with learner analytics.
Instructional strategies. Strategy election depends on various affordances and constraints such as time and resources. For example, an activity-centered lesson is based on an interactive task and requires collaborative tools and student groupings. Content-centered lessons are passive tasks where the student generally only interacts with the content, the exception being discussions of content. Experience-centered activities require a hands-on approach to developing something or serving/working with others. The learner-centered activity provides the learner with more autonomy over their pursuit of knowledge and includes metacognitive actions for self-regulation of learning; the affordances and constraints for this type of activity are highly dependent on the task. Overall, the best practice is to utilize a variety of instructional strategies to address learner preferences. Here is a list of online instructional strategies for each type.
|· Analysis of case studies
· Critically review an article
· HyperInquiry* team project
· Academic controversy** assignment
· Develop a book trailer on topic
· Write a literature review
· Complete modules on topic in computer-adapted lab/program
· Write essay
· Make a presentation
· Discuss content with peers and instructor
|· Develop questionnaires
· Develop a personal model of topic
· Participate in a simulation
· Develop a workshop
· Develop a wiki on topic
· Produce a podcast on topic
· Develop a how-to guide on a procedure
· Write a blog post on topic
· Serve others as a mentor, tutor, or volunteer on topic
· Curate an art exhibit
|· Peer-review of papers or projects
· Students create m/c questions for review
· Design a project
· Evaluate a program
· Write an autobiography of your interaction with topic
· Complete self-evaluation
· Develop a personal learning network
· Capture reflections in journal, audio, or video
· Curate digital books and articles on topic for lifelong learning
Notes. *HyperInquiry is like a Webquest but at a deeper level of inquiry (Dempsey & Litchfield, 2001). **Academic controversy is a debate where students eventually take on both sides of an argument.
Learning strategies. Learning strategies are ways students can engage with the course readings and other content to monitor their learning. Cognitive learning strategies include concept mapping, mnemonics, overlearning, metaphors, and similes. Embed these learning strategies into your instructional activities to build students’ brain schema on the topic and its relation to other subjects for long-term memory. Share this list of cognitive strategies with students. The difference between cognitive and metacognitive being concreteness versus meta-awareness respectively. Most students are likely familiar with the structurally cognitive ones such as concept maps but may not be familiar with the others. Share this Student Learning Organizer of Metacognitive Strategies. Tying learner strategies to your instruction will make it more inclusive.
Discussions can have well thought out open-ended questions provided by the instructor, student-generated questions, or no questions at all. For example, one instructor has had great success without providing questions in his online discussions. Instead, he tells students the purpose of discussions and that they will find suggestions for these by listening to his podcast or video lecture for that unit.
Roles. Provide structure and student agency to discussions by assigning roles (e.g., starter, responder, wrapper) and rotating those roles during the course. Additionally, this will prevent the same students posting first and everyone else waiting to reply. Student-moderated discussions provide social presence to the online community of inquiry (COI). See blog post on how to plan for an online COI.
Media. Use the audio or video recording features to share responses besides the text-based option to provide novelty and multiple means of representation. Ask students to provide a visual created by the student that illustrates their learning along with their reflection. See Google Drawing illustrating a students’ understanding of reading regarding semiotic domains. This provides both teaching presence and social presence for the online COI. The exchange of media will close the psychological distance between you and your students.
Monitor. For equity, a best practice is to create a matrix of teacher-student interactions to track your response efforts over the course of the semester. Monitoring your discussion posts will curtail various biases and ensure consistency. Set up a spreadsheet to do this and include personal information shared in the ‘Getting Acquainted’ discussion to provide a more personalized context to interactions with each student.
Highly effective tasks are those which are situated within the actual task (authentic or simulated) or end goal for your course for near transfer of information to long-term memory. This is in contrast to far transfer tasks that are related but not exact. Situated learning occurs through different modes of co-participation based on situational factors (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Learning in one situational context may not transfer to another unless it closely mirrors it and the learner is properly prepared; therefore, authenticity is crucial to the learning situation (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989).
Groupwork. Student-led projects provide student agency in the design of their own learning. Provide the parameters, team roles (e.g., team leader/organizer, researcher, writer, & presenter), and peer evaluation forms to ensure everyone participates fully. Include expectations for group grade such as everyone provides proofreading of assignment prior to submission. Encourage student groups to set up their own ground rules for group meetings and task sharing. Monitor group work by asking to be added to the document workspace such as a shared Google folder.
Presentations. As for hybrid courses, maximize the face-to-face meeting by asking students to present their work to each other during seminar sessions in their level one courses. This is referred to as flipped learning when you use class time for student activities instead of teacher-centered activities. For fully online courses, students can share their media presentations (e.g., narrated PowerPoints saved as MP4 files, podcasts, video projects) with other students in a media hosting site that allows students and teachers to provide feedback, as well as tags, titles, and captions.
How can students demonstrate mastery besides multiple-choice tests? These are still useful for testing recall. However, to engage the learner in higher-order thinking skills, we should provide alternative assessments such as project-based learning, essays, portfolios, performance, products, and presentations. These do not need to be end-of-term projects. Formative assessments can be formal or informal (practice tests, digital exit tickets, polls), which serve as comprehension checks and subsequent student feedback during the course. This is in contrast to summative assessments that test your cumulative knowledge on a topic at the end of the term. Formative assessments promote fairness by gathering evidence of students’ understanding throughout the course, which can be used to better inform/modify your instructional practices to meet students’ needs.
Testing is a learning event. Consider setting tests for multiple attempts to help students achieve mastery. This triggers new learning and/or review of content, as student revisit content for answers. Tolerance for error in course assignments also makes it more inclusionary. To prepare for a test, ask students to use the free tool PeerWise to create questions on the topic of study for each other to answer. Some instructors ask their students to submit questions for actual tests. In this scenario, students develop questions from the content according to its structure and importance.
Feedback & Guidance
Learning requires differing feedback loops offered at intervals throughout the course, hopefully, with just-in-time guidance. Feedback can come from intelligent tutors through computer adaptive programs, instructors, teaching assistants, peers, and subject matter experts from the professional field. Formats for feedback loops vary from discussions, recommended edits on a paper, rubrics, and assessments.
Rubrics. Rubrics establish the criteria and scale for various tasks such as discussions and assignments and make the expectations explicit. Rubrics provide consistency and speed with grading. Some electronic rubric features allow you to provide feedback at the criterion level and for overall performance. Additionally, you can tag your departmental student learning outcomes to these rubrics to help students understand why the task is important.
Scaffolded instructional feedback. Scaffolding instruction provides content in meaningful and manageable chunks of information. This entails providing visuals for structure, context, direction, and just-in-time definitions. For example, segment a lecture at viable points and ask reflective questions. For writing, break large tasks such as research papers into point-based phases of the writing process (e.g., outline, literature review with five citations, rough draft, final paper). Consider the universal design for learning and design for tolerance for error by providing space to practice (e.g., mock interviews/comps/presentations, tutorials, simulations).
Peer feedback. It is critical to provide guidelines and criteria for peer feedback tasks. This involves establishing roles, a clear project description, rubric, and instructions for tools used. For writing, assign a peer review of draft papers utilizing MS Word tracked changes or Google Docs suggested edits. Instructors can request access to the documents for review.
In summary, for active learning, students need the following:
- Preparation for learning events,
- Situated learning environments for near transfer,
- Planned multimodal interactions that are cognitively challenging,
- Cognitive strategies,
- Feedback loops, and
- Metacognitive strategies to monitor their learning.
Brown, J., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.
Dempsey, J. V., & Litchfield, B. C. (2001). Surfing below the surface of the Web: HyperInquiry. In B. H. Kahn (Ed.), Web-Based Training (pp. 229-234). Englewood Cliffs, NY: Educational Technology Publications.
Dweck, C. (2009). Developing Growth Mindsets: How Praise Can Harm, and How To Use it Well. [Presentation]. Paper presented at the Scottish Learning Festival, Glasgow. Retrieved from http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/video/c/video_tcm4565678.asp
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education 2(2-3), 87-105.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Quality Matters™ Rubric Standards. (2014). Higher education rubric, fifth edition. Quality Matters Program (QM). MarylandOnline, Inc. Retrieved from https://www.qualitymatters.org/rubric
How do you engage your students online?
Sandra Annette Rogers, Ph.D.