This is a WordCloud based on my blog post on active learning.
Active Learning Defined
Active learning engages students directly in the learning process through instructional activities with differing degrees of interaction that’s 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’s learned. Students respond well when they have a participatory voice in their learning.
Active learning is preferred because it triggers cognitive functioning. 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);
- Problem-based learning;
- 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.
See the University of Michigan’s instructor worksheet to reflect on active learning opportunities you already use or would like to try.
Universal Design refers to the consideration of the needs of persons with disabilities in regard to physical spaces, objects, and tasks. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) recognizes those needs for course design. Its main premise is equal access to education and extends this to all types of learners. Active learning aligns with the UDL framework when lessons provide multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement (CAST, 2018). See my blog post on UDL to learn more and test your knowledge.
What does active learning look like online?
Active learning can take on different formats, levels of engagement, and levels of complexity in setup. It can be for individual or group work. 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 aligns with the UDL goals to foster collaboration and community and to provide options for comprehension, communication, and executive functions (CAST, 2018).
Collaborative computer-mediated instructional strategies require interactive technologies such as videoconferencing tools for office hours and feedback, forum tools for asynchronous discussions, shared drive for collaborative documents, and portfolio or other platforms (e.g., blog, Google Sites, wiki) to share student work. These digital activities require clear guidelines for interacting with each other, the content, the teacher, and the tools in order to be effective (e.g., group roles, peer review criteria, schedule, samples, tool guides). Designing these opportunities for all students to access, build, and internalize information requires forethought.
Set the Stage for Active Learning
Tell your students what you expect of them in the online course. A best practice is to provide an introductory course overview with your syllabus, schedule, and protocol for interactions (Quality Matters, 2018). For some examples, see my blog on Student and Teacher Expectations for Online Courses. Share course requirements for the online environment and address learning values such as the growth mindset. This aligns with the UDL’s Checkpoint 9.1: “Promote expectations and beliefs that optimize motivation” (Cast, 2018).
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 isn’t tied to learning. Conversely, those with a fixed mindset don’t pay attention to corrective feedback. They believe that learning shouldn’t take any effort because it’s tied to their intelligence; their ego influences how they learn. Students with a fixed mindset may be resistant to active learning. See my blog post to Focus on the Process to Support the Growth Mindset of Students. This process aligns with mastery-oriented feedback promoted by the UDL to sustain effort and persistence (CAST, 2018).
Second, 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 to try out the assignment tool (i.e., course expectations),
- ‘Getting Acquainted’ discussion,
- Syllabus quiz to ensure students have read it (also practice test proctoring software if utilized in course), and
- Poll practical experience on the course topic to better understand students’ prior knowledge on the subject and drive instruction to meet students’ needs.
This aligns with UDL’s Checkpoint 7.3 to provide a welcoming course climate and predictability of tasks (CAST, 2018).
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. The former two premium tools provide instructors with learner analytics such as level of engagement, successful attempts, and grades.
Instructional strategies. Strategy selection 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 through multiple means of engagement and expression for the UDL. Here’s 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 program
Make a presentation
Discuss content with peers and instructor
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
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 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 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’ll find suggestions for these by listening to his podcast or video lecture for that unit. To increase engagement in larger online courses, the University of California recommends short targeted discussions, role assignments, and subdivision of course material to get the students talking and keep them on task.
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 from posting first and everyone else waiting to reply. Student-moderated discussions provide SP to the online 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 TP and SP 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. Use a spreadsheet to do this and include personal information shared in the ‘Getting Acquainted’ discussion to provide a more personalized context for meaningful 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 don’t 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 students 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 UDL and design for tolerance for error by providing space to practice (e.g., mock interviews/comps/presentations, tutorials, simulations).
Peer feedback. It’s 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.
Review your understanding of active learning with this interactive reader developed by the UCLA Librarian, Douglas Worsham (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).
Brown, J., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org
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™ Higher Education Rubric, sixth edition. (2018). Maryland Online, Inc. Retrieved from https://www.qualitymatters.org/sites/default/files/PDFs/StandardsfromtheQMHigherEducationRubric.pdf
Sandra Annette Rogers, Ph.D.