At a moment’s notice, faculty worldwide were forced to pack up their traditional classrooms in spring 2020. Instructors had to adopt online solutions in order to get through the remaining few weeks of their courses. Clickers were quickly abandoned and video conferencing software became a staple of the higher education experience. With the move to remote instruction, active learning was put in jeopardy. How would instructors replicate these practices online? How can active learning be effective when it comes to online group work?

In what follows, we provide an overview of what active learning is and its history. We also offer eight active learning approaches that can be replicated in any modality—in person, hybrid or online.


  1. What is active learning?
  2. The history of active learning
  3. Think-pair-share
  4. One-minute papers
  5. Quick quizzes
  6. Muddiest point
  7. Debates
  8. Case studies or problem solving
  9. Peer instruction
  10. Flipped classrooms
  11. Active learning, anywhere

What is active learning?

Originally coined by Charles Bonwell and James Eison, active learning works by “involving students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.”1 Rather than think about what they are watching, hearing, or reading, students are first encouraged to be “doing” something in class, and then apply critical thought and reflection to their own classroom work and activity.

The traditional lecture model is no longer the most efficient way for instructors to impart knowledge to students. Wi-Fi, smartphones and laptops provide endless distractions—especially in the online classroom. Educators must now rely on teaching methods like active learning for classroom engagement and to keep students attentive and alert. In their book Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson wrote that “students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”

“Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”

Active learning strategies can result in higher student engagement, increased higher-order thinking skills, improved grades and a lower dropout rate. A 2019 study from Harvard University found that students who engaged in active learning techniques scored higher on tests versus students who passively learned material.2 Strategic use of the tools normally associated with distraction can be used to benefit instructors and students regardless of teaching modality.

The history of active learning

Didactic instruction once made up much of the postsecondary experience. Traced back to the 14th century medieval times, this was a lecture-heavy approach and positioned students as idle recipients in the learning process. Large lecture halls were seen as the ideal place for sharing and spreading knowledge. Here, students were expected to take extensive notes and memorize as much information as they could.

Passivity characterized the learning experience for many, but centuries later, it’s now a heavily criticized pedagogical model. Here is a comparison of what a passive versus active learning classroom looks like.

Passive learning Active learning
Viewing a lecture on deadly diseases Discussing which diseases students have heard about and in what context
Providing an image of a cell that is already annotated Providing an unlabelled image of a cell for students to explore and annotate themselves
Watching a video without prompts or class discussions after Engaging in a simulation that reacts to student interaction and includes formative questions throughout

With active learning, students have opportunities to apply their understanding of the material periodically. Instructors can also gauge student performance and adjust subsequent lesson plans according to what students do and don’t know. Especially in the hybrid or fully online classroom, active learning activities are a crucial strategy to keep students engaged and alert. In higher education’s ‘new normal,’ learning and teaching don’t necessarily occur at the same time. Thus, active learning strategies help students engage in self-instruction at a pace that suits their needs.

Here are eight practical examples of active learning activities for students in an online, hybrid of face-to-face classroom.

1. Think-pair-share

Perfect for collaborative and cooperative learning, faculty briefly pause their lecture and ask students to pair up and discuss the material that was just presented. Students are then asked to prepare questions or share observations with the entire class.

The University of Queensland’s Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation suggests splitting this learning activity into three constituent parts.3 First, ask a question that you feel will challenge your students. Next, have students think for two to three minutes by themselves. Then, pair students in small groups of two or three to discuss their conclusions for no more than five minutes. Finally, ask for volunteers to share their conclusions with the larger group.

An active learning technique like think-pair-share is effective after the first few lectures, especially if your class’s attention span for your course material is beginning to dip. This technique can also help to recapture enthusiasm, and remind students that their learning is not taking place in isolation.

Put it into practice online

For your real-time online classroom:

  1. Have students reflect on their own and capture notes in a word processing document
  2. Ask students to video conference and engage in a small group discussion in Top Hat Community, Top Hat’s new messaging app
  3. Students then report back to the class and share their findings with the larger group in Top Hat’s virtual classroom—where you can ‘share the stage’ with various students

For your self-paced online classroom:

    1. Students reflect individually
    2. Students share their findings with a partner in a private channel in Top Hat Community
    3. Set up a specific channel in Top Hat Community for that given week for students to share their results with the class

2. One-minute papers

Towards the end of the lecture, students answer a question about the course material either individually or in small groups—give them about a minute. The submitted responses from this active learning activity can be used to gauge student learning and comprehension of the material covered in the class period.

Educator James Lang, author of Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, is a proponent of active learning—particularly the one-minute paper. Lang says that this learning activity is perfect for students to connect their ideas with the wider aim of the lecture. It will also allow students to reflect on what was taught before class is dismissed—in person or online.4 Pose one of the following two questions to students at the end of class:

      • What was the most important thing you learned today?
      • What question still remains in your mind?

The first question requires students to remember something from class and articulate it in their own words. It also encourages students to think on the spot.5 The second question encourages students to consider what they haven’t understood. To answer the second question, students have to decide where confusion or weaknesses remain in their own comprehension.

Put it into practice online

For your real-time online classroom:

      1. Create a discussion question prior to the start of class
      2. Embed the question in your Top Hat lecture
      3. In Top Hat’s virtual classroom, set five to 10 minutes aside at the end of class for students to respond to the question you pose

For your self-paced online classroom:

      1. Create a discussion question in Top Hat
      2. Set a deadline for when you want students to answer the question
      3. When students answer your question, consider responding under their discussion thread to give input on where they excelled or struggled

3. Quick quizzes

This active learning activity can be administered at the start of class or part way through a lecture. It should count as formative assessment—not for a grade, but to assess comprehension. These no-stakes quizzes provide an opportunity for students to reflect and recall information that was just covered before the instructor moves on to the next topic.

Students can complete these quizzes at the start of class to challenge pre-existing assumptions. You may want to ask the same question at the end of class in order for students to compare their understanding to the start of class. It will also allow you to engage in a meta-analysis of students’ performance. Frank Spors, Associate Professor of Optometry at Western University of Health Sciences, leveraged these informal assessments to guide his lecture. “The assessment identified content areas that required more clarification during class, and I adjusted my planned lecture accordingly to focus on areas where students needed the most help,” he says.

“The assessment identified content areas that required more clarification during class, and I adjusted my planned lecture accordingly to focus on areas where students needed the most help.”

By facilitating pre-tests and post-tests, you can compare and pair the results of the two quizzes and get instant feedback about the effectiveness of your lesson. Did students understand, or do they need more clarification on a topic? Quick quizzes are a beneficial teaching strategy for helping you understand and collect student insights in the moment.

Put it into practice online

For your real-time online classroom:

      1. Create two tests in Top Hat prior to the start of your live class
      2. Upon arrival to your online classroom, students can take the primary test during the first five to 10 minutes
      3. Consider showing answers as graph responses or as word cloud responses to indicate student comprehension
      4. Administer the second quiz as a form of exit ticket before students leave your classroom

For your self-paced online classroom:

      1. Create two tests in Top Hat
      2. Provide a testing window for students to complete both tests
      3. Consider addressing students’ responses and misconceptions in future lecture recordings

4. Muddiest point

This active learning activity pinpoints the area(s) that students are least confident about in the course material that was just covered. Students note the most confusing part of a lecture or course content and instructors can use these insights to determine how and where to focus future teaching efforts. Consider anonymizing student responses in order to make students feel comfortable. While the goal is to encourage participation, it’s equally important to respond to student feedback during the next class or as soon as possible after. Responding to students shortly after—when their curiosity is already primed—will help them link ideas together and encourage them to critically reflect on what they do and don’t understand.

Put it into practice online

For your real-time online classroom:

      1. Pause halfway or at the end of class to let students submit their most confusing point
      2. Students can use Top Hat’s live chat to submit their responses—and even upvote their peers’ threads, making it simple for you to see what topics proved difficult

For your self-paced online classroom:

      1. Create a video assignment in Top Hat or a discussion question
      2. For video assignments, students can record and submit their response directly in Top Hat; for the discussion response, students can type out their responses
      3. Provide personalized feedback as responses start trickling in via both mediums

5. Debates

Having students defend different viewpoints is an effective way to engage the entire class. With remote learning, debates help instructors check student comprehension and help students learn from one another—despite not seeing each other face to face. This activity works well in small groups versus large classes.

Role-playing provides a safe and fun way to explore new concepts and ideas, as Tony Crider, Professor of Astrophysics at Elon University, North Carolina, argues.6 In his classes—which are infused with active learning techniques—students are assigned roles of historical characters. One of his classes is called the “Pluto Debates,” where leading figures of the astronomy world argue over whether or not Pluto should be considered a planet.

Every student has a character sheet, with their victory conditions. For instance, the conditions outline: “You’ll win if the vote turns out this way, or that way.” For Crider, the aim of this active learning approach is getting his students invested in how astronomers make sense of objects and how they make decisions together. The simulation aspect of this approach drew students in to the point where they’ll often prepare more for Crider’s class than others.

Put it into practice online

For your real-time online classroom:

      1. Consider running debates in small groups or in tutorials
      2. Using Top Hat’s virtual classroom, set the assigned students for that week as moderators
      3. Pose the topic of debate either moments before or well in advance (such as one-to-two days before)
      4. Students can take turns speaking in the virtual classroom

For your self-paced online classroom:

      1. Split students into groups of eight to 10 and create a private channel for each group in Top Hat Community
      2. Give students a set period of time to prepare for the debate
      3. Over the course of a day, encourage students to answer the question or topic posed and ensure they respond to at least two to three other students’ responses with their opinions

6. Case studies and problem solving

In this active learning strategy, students work in small groups or individually and apply knowledge gained from lectures or reading materials to a given scenario. This is more spontaneous than setting multi-week, large group projects. Provide students with a real-world contemporary case related to your curriculum and learning outcomes. It’s best to pick a case study or event that is a) relevant and timely and b) well-known to ensure all students are comfortable participating. Students respond to a set of questions prepared by you, which ask how the case study intersects with course material and the relevance of the case in comparison to another timely topic.

Large group discussions aren’t always possible—or easy to facilitate—with remote learning. Joshua Eyler, Director of Faculty Development at the University of Mississippi, suggests an alternative for small group discussions: breakout rooms. Instructors should consider breaking students into small groups with the understanding that they will need to report back and share their responses either live or via a discussion board or learning management system (LMS).

Put it into practice online

For your real-time online classroom:

      1. Provide students with a case study at the start of class—this can vary from group to group
      2. Split students into small groups
      3. Suggest students create a channel in Top Hat Community for their group
      4. Ask students to video conference in their respective groups in Top Hat Community
      5. Provide 10–15 minutes for students to discuss the assigned questions
      6. Students write up their notes and discussions and submit for participation points for that class

For your self-paced online classroom:

      1. Provide students with one case study at the start of the week
      2. Students work individually to respond to the question posed
      3. Provide students with a due date to submit their answers to the question either via LMS or Top Hat’s file submission tool

7. Peer instruction

In this active learning activity, students prepare and present course material to the class or in small groups. This approach encourages interaction and trust-building between students—especially important at a time where learning heavily takes place online.

Facilitate this active learning activity early in the semester to help students get to know each other. Thomas Hayden, Founding Director of the Master of Arts in Earth Systems, Environmental Communication Graduate Program at Stanford University, teaches environmental journalism—an experiential class that mixes humanities and science students. The difference in academic backgrounds provides an opportunity for mutual learning powered by students’ own knowledge.7

Hayden explains: “As an introductory assignment, I have the students teach each other about the things they know best. This class is half science students and half journalism students, so the science students teach Science 101 to the journalism students, and the journalists teach their craft to the scientists.”

“As an introductory assignment, I have the students teach each other about the things they know best. The science students teach Science 101 to the journalism students, and the journalists teach their craft to the scientists.”

Hayden adds a twist: he bans students from using PowerPoint slides. This strengthens their creative and critical thinking skills on how they can communicate what they know to an unfamiliar audience. The result is a class primed to learn outside of their field and, equally as important, helps form peer-to-peer relationships that are so important to the higher education learning experience.

Put it into practice online

For your real-time online classroom:

      1. Run this learning activity in tutorials, which are typically smaller than lectures
      2. Provide students with a list of narrow topics and have them sign up for the topic that they are comfortable with
      3. Have each student present their topic to the rest of the group in Top Hat’s virtual classroom as moderators—give each student five minutes to present
      4. Repeat step three across multiple tutorials until all students have presented their work

For your self-paced online classroom:

      1. Provide students with a list of narrow topics at the start of the week
      2. Ask students to individually select the topic that they would like to teach the class
      3. Have students prepare a presentation or video recording—on their own time—of themselves explaining the topic
      4. Share their presentations or videos on your LMS or Top Hat

8. Flipped classrooms

Students’ attention fatigues over time—and this concern is even more pertinent when there’s no instructor present. James Lang finds that change renews attention and can help students focus more on the task at hand. However, in a flipped classroom, students watch pre-recorded lectures aligned with learning goals as homework and spend class time engaging in active learning activities. This alternative approach to the traditional classroom ensures students are actively involved in the learning process.

Flipped classrooms not only position students as more active recipients of the learning journey, this model additionally saves faculty time when planning instruction. Rather than delivering an hour long lecture, the flipped classroom favors short, concise lecture recordings that students can view on their own time. Flipped classrooms are dedicated to exploration, collaboration and interaction—three pillars critical to a largely remote active learning environment.

During class, students can actively apply concepts from lectures, readings or simulations through peer learning, minute-quizzes, case studies or other active learning strategies mentioned above.

Put it into practice online

Use the following steps to create a flipped classroom online, as Sarah Sletten, Associate Professor of Biomedical Sciences at the University of North Dakota, does.

For your real-time online classroom:

      1. Record your lectures in Top Hat
      2. Ensure students view lectures on their own before class
      3. Administer a pre-test before the lecture begins in order to collect insights on comprehension
      4. During lectures, provide students with case studies or other active learning activities to allow them to explore concepts under your supervision and compare their understanding to before class
      5. Encourage students to brainstorm or problem-solve case studies using Top Hat Community

Active learning, anywhere

Many believed that the face-to-face learning experience was the only one conducive to active learning. The eight active learning techniques above indicate that this is a pedagogy that transcends the traditional classroom. Technology has helped bring all of these ideas to life, which in turn, has replicated an online learning environment similar to that in person.

Place active learning at the forefront of your next course. Learn how to transform your face-to-face, hybrid or online class with Top Hat’s comprehensive active learning materials here.


    1. Bonwell, C. & Eison, J. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
    2. Reuell, P. (2019). Lessons in learning. Retrieved from
    3. Think-Pair-Share (2016, October 27). Retrieved from
    4. Parker, Q. (2018, September 12). Easy Way to Use Exit Tickets in Class. Retrieved from
    5. Lang, J. (2016). Small Changes: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
    6. Preville, P. (2017, November 13). Innovative and Unexpected Ways to Teach Your College Class [PDF]. Retrieved from
    7. Preville, P. (2018, March 26). Textbook Heroes: How Digital Textbooks Make Learning More Impactful [PDF]. Retrieved from

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