When a college course is designed using principles of active learning, students seize control of their own educational experience. Active learning requires students to not just absorb knowledge through lectures and readings, but also analyze and interact critically with new information. They take knowledge a step deeper by making connections between concepts, often integrating what they have learned with their own life experiences.
At the end of such a course, students prove mastery of the subject material or a skill by successfully completing active learning exercises. They’re able to demonstrate true understanding and application of the material, rather than recite just enough facts on a test for a passing grade.
For instructors working with online or blended classes, it’s important to recognize that these principles of active learning are as applicable to elearning as they are to traditional classrooms.
Online instructional design featuring active learning concepts doesn’t replace classroom time; it enhances it. It frees up instructors to concentrate on aiding students along the learning path. The approach is often more meaningful than delivering lectures and whiteboard notes in packed lecture halls.
Of course, some activities, as the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) points out in Five Principles of Successful Course Redesign, are best suited to in-person instruction. According to NCAT, a nonprofit organization promoting the use of technology to redesign learning environments, instructors should take into consideration which aspects of a particular course require face-to-face time, and which can be effectively conducted online.
Instructors assimilating active learning principles in their online instructional design can more fully enjoy the benefits that elearning formats offer. These include increased interactivity, peer collaboration, learning data analysis, and individualized learning opportunities.
Online active and interactive learning exercises support course objectives
Online learning doesn’t equate to passive learning. Students learn best by doing, and an active online task can compel students to engage in subject material by requiring problem-solving exercises or participation in group activities.
Obviously, the assignment must link to the objective of the course, which may be a technical skill (computer programming, solving math equations) or relating ideas to historic events. For example, an instructor can have students design a computer code, then demonstrate to the class how they formulated the coding. If the class deals with history, students may pick a historical event and research its causes and impact on subsequent events. Through an online discussion group or in class, students can can share their conclusions.
Whatever the exercise or digital format, online instruction promoting active learning features important characteristics, as detailed by San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico:
- Activities encourage critical thinking by presenting students with tasks that require analysis, synthesis, problem recognition, problem-solving, inference, and evaluation.
- Activities incorporate questions, charts, and/or diagrams into text to help students better regulate their own comprehension or to visualize a concept.
Since elearning enables asynchronous instruction — learning that can take place outside the confines of the classroom during a finite period of time — instructors can ask students to engage with the subject matter before they enter the classroom. After assigning a reading from a textbook, for example, instructors can ask students to conceive questions based on the text and post them on an online discussion board. Or, the instructor can pose questions on the discussion board and have the students respond there.
During class, those questions serve as a springboard to more discussion and debate. This method also ensures students come to the classroom equipped with knowledge and are critically thinking about the material beforehand.
Online active learning assesses student comprehension
Assessment can begin even before students enter the classroom. Online quizzes (also known as “readiness assessment tests” or RATs) allow instructors to gauge students’ prior subject-matter knowledge. Students prepare for the RATs by completing readings, doing assignments, and researching web resources. Knowing they will be tested on the material motivates them to delve into the course on a deeper level. In that way, RATs promote active, self-directed learning.
After reviewing the quiz results, instructors concentrate on those areas in which students need extra instruction. Further, they evaluate progress toward instructional goals by reviewing completed quizzes and active learning exercises. Those scores enable them to develop instructional content based on accurate student information. Acrobatiq’s learning dashboard, for example, provides instructors with real-time learning data that can be used to shape the instructional design based on actual learning outcomes.
Online courseware facilitates timely and targeted feedback
Real-time data arms instructors with the actionable insights needed to provide students with frequent feedback. This automated feedback built into the courseware provides two benefits:
- Students receive immediate and specific information about their performance instead of waiting until a high-stakes midterm exam. Knowing this, they have two choices: They can pursue more advanced active learning exercises on their own through online tutorials, videos, or exercises; or they can return to the instructional materials for better mastery of the subject. This feedback pushes students to take a more active and continual role in their learning.
- Instructors, meanwhile, use this data to identify where the class or individual students may be falling behind. Through prompt adjustments to the courseware, instructors adapt the material — whether in-class or online — to remediate knowledge gaps and redirect students on the path to the instructional goal. Conversely, if students show mastery of the concepts, instructors rework the courseware to offer students more challenging active learning activities.
Active elearning programs adapt to individual learners
Each student brings to the classroom diverse experiences and perceptions that influence how they absorb the material. With an adaptive elearning program underpinned by data analytics, instructors have the information needed to design relevant courseware that relates to the student’s background. Activities reflective of student knowledge and experiences stimulate students to actively participate in their own learning.
In Active Learning In Online Training: What eLearning Professionals Should Know, Christopher Pappas, founder of The eLearning Industry’s Network, suggests that instructors integrate a variety of active learning formats in their elearning programs. In addition to discussions prompted by thought-provoking questions, he recommends role-playing exercises enlivened by interesting images and graphics. “This way,” he writes, “you will meet different learning needs and easily engage all of your learners, whether they are auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and so on.”
Though active learning elevates the student to the center of the learning process, instructors play a participatory role as well. It’s the instructor’s responsibility to monitor student progress through data analytics, which ultimately shape the course content for each student. Rather than dispensing lectures and summaries of facts, instructors continually develop and revise course content so students actively engage with the material. They become the expert guides on the student’s learning journey.
Learn how to design instruction that incorporates active learning activities by visiting our resources library.
Maria Wood is a freelance writer and journalist who specializes in business reporting, finance, education and technology.