Over the past decade, active learning has gained favor as the pedagogy de rigueur. Introduced in 1991 by academics Charles Bonwell and James Eison as a framework that emphasized students “doing” something in class related to critical thought and reflection—rather than just watching, hearing or reading—active learning is an essential component of keeping students engaged. With the mass move to remote academic environments, that need is now greater than ever.

In the physical classroom, active learning involves less time spent lecturing and more time on minute papers, think-pair-share activities, case studies and problem solving. Professors who’ve been forced to embrace synchronous (real-time) or asynchronous (after the fact or self-paced) methods of teaching in a remote environment may be more concerned now with just keeping the semester going than really challenging learners. And while this is understandable given the current, unprecedented academic (and global) climate, maintaining—and even improving—engagement is possible in an online lecture.

Here, we’ll walk you through five tried-and-true active learning techniques and offer tips on how you can employ these strategies while teaching remotely.

1. Pre-class assessments

The reality of teaching an online lecture means technology is intertwined with every part of your interaction with students. Why not take the opportunity to assess them before class begins and find out what they’re unclear on, so you can adjust your teaching accordingly? This worked for Frank Spors when he was forced to transition to remote teaching due to COVID-19.

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A professor of optometry at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, CA, Spors gets students to complete a 10-minute assessment before each class. The evaluation lays out that day’s learning objectives and is embedded with YouTube videos of Spors reviewing course material. It ends with a series of questions and then asks students for their “muddiest point”—a classic active learning exercise that reveals the topic or content area students are having the biggest trouble understanding.

Spors then answers questions via video conferencing solution Zoom in the upcoming lecture, or uses the discussion board feature on active learning platform Top Hat. “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.”

2. Minute papers

The minute paper active learning technique comes in many variations, but the simplest involves wrapping up the formal class period a few minutes early and posing two questions your students should be able to answer in about a minute: What was the most important thing you learned today? What question still remains in your mind?

In a remote teaching environment, it’s easy to incorporate this technique, especially if you have a learning platform that offers a discussion board. For example, using Top Hat, you can spend the last five-to-10 minutes of your live, remote lecture, asking students these (or similar) questions over Zoom. This can be done verbally, or you can incorporate questions in your slides, which live on the Top Hat platform and can be updated and edited at any time. You can then open a discussion board and have students answer the questions on the spot—responses can even appear anonymously to promote genuine participation.

In a self-paced environment, the same functionality is available. Students will technically have more than a few minutes to answer, but this way you may be more impressed with the quality of the responses. You can then respond as necessary or change up the material in your next lecture to reflect any gaps in knowledge that you’re noticing.

3. Think-pair-share

To utilize think-pair-share in a traditional classroom, you would briefly pause your lecture and ask students to pair up and discuss the material that was just presented. You’d then ask them to share their observations with the entire class. In an online lecture—that you’re teaching synchronously or asynchronously—this is still easy to do.

If you’re teaching in real-time with Zoom, 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 (you can even introduce it at the start of class, or before class begins). Using Zoom, you can then create breakout rooms where students can be paired up to discuss the question at hand. After that, they can share their conclusions, either live by video or in the discussion board of the platform you’re using.

If you’re providing 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 jointly by email or individually through your learning management system or a teaching platform like Top Hat.

4. Collaborative classrooms

With the right technology, you can create team building exercises that help students connect with one another in an online learning environment. The likes of Google Docs and Slides can be leveraged so that multiple students can work on the same file simultaneously. Assessments can also be utilized before and after collaboration to reveal a students’ preliminary understanding of a concept or highlight how comprehension has changed after the group work.

Stanford University professor Thomas Hayden readily employs group work to teach his unique environmental journalism course. “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,” he says. Like think-pair-share activities, a breakout room in Zoom can be used to divide up the class in a remote teaching environment. To get creative about communications coming out of the group activity, students can use a discussion board or upload a video of them ‘presenting’ the material that can then be reviewed by the professor or by their peers.

5. Interactive textbooks

If you’ve transitioned your course to remote learning but are handcuffed by the print textbook you previously used, you may be forced to come up with a series of patchwork solutions to help your students complete the semester. In future, consider adopting a digital, interactive textbook. Digital textbooks offer many possibilities to employ active learning tactics—plus students can take them anywhere on their devices.

Embedded audio and video clips encourage students to make connections between different representations of concepts and ideas. Quizzes can be administered through digital textbooks and results tabulated in real time, allowing faculty to quickly gauge student comprehension, identify gaps in learning and adjust class activities accordingly. Minute papers can be posted online (anonymously or named) for use in classroom discussions.

Thomas Morgan, an Assistant Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, knows first hand the importance of utilizing an interactive textbook. “Every video lecture in the course also has a corresponding chapter, so students can progress through the textbook chapters and the video lectures in parallel and it all fits with the course schedule,” he says.

Digital textbooks are also more easily customized to suit individual teachers’ needs. In the recent switch to a remote teaching environment, this makes it easy to adjust course material to accommodate for any disruptions to learning, while still ensuring no student falls behind.

Active Learning in the New Reality

In these unprecedented times, it can be hard for educators to know the right path forward to best support student learning. Take solace in the knowledge that giving students a more active role will impart upon them a sense of ownership. This can lead to students taking more pride in their work and responsibility for their grades. Plus, in a time where students are more likely to feel isolated from the friends, peers and family, active learning techniques in an online lecture help them maintain important connections, and a sense of normalcy while much of the world is in flux.

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