As the fall semester approaches, many instructors are concerned about whether they can apply the principles of active learning to virtual classroom environments. Clearly, there are significant differences between teaching in a face-to-face environment as opposed to online. However, there are a number of good practices that can be applied to deepen learning and engage students, regardless of where learning takes place.

For online learning to be effective, it must be interesting to students. Active learning activities help disconnected students see the value in course materials. Experiential learning strategies make students more likely to engage more with course content. When students are engaged in active learning, they interact with course content on a deeper level, experience higher levels of satisfaction and knowledge retention and more successful exam performance.

Here we identify a number of strategies to ensure that students are participating in their online courses before, during and after class.

Pre-class assessments

Technology is a core element of remote teaching. The ability to connect with students instantly provides an opportunity to get up-to-the-minute updates on where they are struggling and might need further review. Up-to-the-minute insights are generated through short assessments and “temperature checks” to gauge how students are progressing through course material. Instructors can then adjust their areas of focus for upcoming lectures and homework assignments.

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Frank Spors, an optometry professor at Western University of Health Sciences, provides his students with a 10-minute assessment before each class. Each assessment discusses that week’s learning objectives, interspersed with multimedia, motion graphics and short real-world case studies to enhance student learning. Spors follows this with a series of comprehension-gauging questions, which asks students for their “muddiest point,” a classic active learning exercise that reveals where students are struggling most. He uses the feedback to adjust his lecture and respond directly to student questions. “I look at students’ responses literally minutes before the lecture to gauge their level of understanding,” Spors says. “Depending on how well concepts are understood, I either slow down, continue as planned, or accelerate my lecture materials.”

Using feedback to fuel learning

Insight—and the feedback it generates—is essential in online learning environments for instructors to customize the learning experience, whether to tackle areas where students are struggling or to connect learning to real-world case studies.

Feedback, in combination with frequent testing, is also important for students, in order to know where they are excelling and where to direct more effort. Frequent “temperature check” assessments give students opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of course material as the semester progresses. Gauging individual student progress early and often has a significant impact on student retention, which is especially important in a time when nearly a third of students are questioning their return to campus in the fall.

A recent Harvard study demonstrated that by interspersing online lectures with frequent testing, students were more focused on course material. Note-taking also significantly increased and students retained course content for longer periods. Learners are also more likely to stick with a class with the knowledge that poor performance on one assessment will not make or break their final grade for the course. This is especially true when assessment results are accompanied by thoughtful, constructive feedback.

Driving student accountability with online textbooks

Online course materials are an easy way for professors to implement active learning techniques and allow for greater flexibility to keep students engaged. When distributed to students through comprehensive online learning platforms, professors are able to give their students an in-class experience even after the lecture ends. This includes the use of multimedia and interactive elements that keep students engaged and focused on the task at hand. These can also be used to create a flipped classroom environment.

In their Gates Foundation 2019 Annual Letter, Bill and Melinda Gates stated that “the standalone textbook is becoming a thing of the past,” and that digital courseware should act as “a complement to what teachers do, not a replacement.” Research has shown that when motivated by supportive instructors, learners achieve increased success levels when interactive digital course solutions are implemented.

Digital courseware not only makes learning more engaging, but it also helps professors understand whether or not students are completing readings and homework assignments. Interspersing questions aimed at gauging comprehension throughout readings allows instructors to understand how students are progressing and which concepts are proving difficult and may require more attention. When distributed to students through a comprehensive online learning platform, professors are able to give their students an in-class experience even after the lecture ends with digital textbooks.

Some exercises to implement active learning in online classes

Here are some more active learning exercises that can be easily implemented in your online class to foster a sense of community and collaboration. To keep students engaged, it’s important to ensure that learning continues before, during and after class.

Reflection exercises

Active self-reflection is when we make a concerted effort to cultivate self-reflection as a skill through regular application and practice. Students are prompted to reflect on the course content they have just learned either through a short writing assignment or a small group discussion. This practice encourages critical thinking and cultivates a strong sense of awareness about oneself and what they have learned.

Through these small changes purpose-built into class time, participants gain insight into their strengths, challenges and interests. Studies show that practices like this also increase knowledge retention. Active self-reflection stimulates creativity–a new way of looking at things—and that leads to growth. It builds stronger problem-solving skills which in turn, leads to a greater sense of confidence. When a student reflects on their accomplishments and the opportunities for improvement, they are seeing a path to take on future challenges. Each learning experience becomes more meaningful and more productive.

Think-pair-share exercises

If you’re teaching synchronous lectures through video conferencing software, you can start by asking your students a question you feel will be challenging. Give them a few minutes to think about it by themselves. Instructors can then create small groups where students can be paired up to discuss the question at hand. After that, they can share their conclusions in the discussion board of the platform you’re using.

If you’re providing asynchronous pre-recorded lectures to your students that they can tackle at their own pace, you can include discussion questions that require peer collaboration and ask students to respond through email or discussion threads. They can also individually answer through your learning management system (LMS) or an online teaching platform.

While active learning looks different in online learning environments than traditional face-to-face classrooms, most can be translated to fit this new reality for teaching and learning. Giving students a more active role in their own learning will give them a sense of ownership. This can lead to students taking more pride in their work and responsibility for their grades. While distance learning can increase feelings of student loneliness and isolation, active learning techniques help them maintain important connections in online learning environments. Learn how to increase engagement in your online classroom in our Ultimate Guide to Online Teaching.