The key to successful online teaching and learning—or any learning for that matter—is recognizing that durable, long-lasting knowledge is acquired when there is increased mental effort. In the world of the virtual classroom, that’s often easier said than done. Beyond contending with many distractions that come with teaching and learning remotely, perhaps the most daunting challenge of all is human nature itself: Given the chance, most students will happily choose the path of least resistance.

Active learning techniques are designed to turn passive students into active stakeholders in the learning process.

This is an issue that Andrea Hendricks, an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Georgia State University, Perimeter College, knows all too well. Looking back at over 19 years spent teaching online courses full-time, Hendricks has come to recognize that if students see resources and course materials as unnecessary, they will simply bypass them. “They’ll skip readings or skim them in order to complete the homework questions,” Hendricks observes from her own teaching experience. “And while this might be enough to achieve a passable grade on an assignment, I found that a good portion of these same students would end up failing a high-stakes assessment.”

This is just one of the reasons why active learning has become the gold standard in higher education. Active learning techniques are designed to turn passive students into active stakeholders in online learning. In practice, this includes employing a broad array of activities, from short, simple exercises like ‘minute papers,’ to much more ambitious interventions such as implementing a ‘flipped classroom’ to challenge and engage students.

Granted, flipping your classroom to teach online may not be part of your immediate plans, but just as drops of water fill a pail, even small changes can make a big difference to student learning. Here are some simple yet effective practices steeped in learning science that not only help engagement but support student mastery in the online classroom as well.

The big five learning science tactics

    1. Generation: Have you considered starting each online education module with a real-world problem for students to solve, even if they don’t yet have the tools to do so? There’s good evidence to suggest that the process of generation—or struggling with a concept before being formally introduced to it—helps prime students for learning in the online environment.

      Pushing students to use prior knowledge to solve new or different types of problems can help strengthen knowledge pathways. It also carries the added benefit of creating a “curiosity gap” by giving students a preview of what they don’t know, instilling the motivation to learn more in order to fill in the gaps.

    2. Elaboration: As James M. Lang, author of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, explains, making connections between what you study and the world outside the classroom is what separates experts in a field from novice learners. “If we want students to develop expertise in our fields, then, we have to help them thicken up those connections,” says Lang. “The more connections they can create, the more they can begin to formulate their own ideas and gain a wider view of our fields.” Elaboration is one way to do exactly this. The process is simple. It focuses on having students summarize concepts in their own words or connect new material to past experience and knowledge.

      Typically this involves using ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions that challenge learners to explain what they have learned and create linkages between ideas by illustrating how they might work together. Having students take five to 10 minutes to write down their responses is a great way to wrap up each section of your syllabus. The responses can also be shared on a discussion board to stimulate further discussion.

    3. Retrieval: Asking students to recall facts from memory forces them to step back and examine what they already know. Retrieval is an effortful process. It requires struggle, which helps strengthen memory while surfacing potential gaps in understanding. A common approach is using frequent low-stakes quizzes or asking students to write down everything they remember about a given topic.

      Online instructors can also intersperse retrieval-based questions throughout homework and reading assignments to shift students away from passively consuming information to actively thinking about what they do and do not know.

    4. Spaced Practice: There is good evidence to suggest that the more opportunities students get to learn something, the greater the chances they’ll have of mastering the topic. As the authors of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, explain, “embedding new learning in long-term memory requires a process of consolidation.” The most important ingredients in this process are time and repetition. Spaced practice can be as simple as revisiting the most important or challenging topics of a course across multiple classes.

      To make the process more demanding as an online teacher, Andrea Hendricks makes a point of adding questions on homework assignments students may have missed from prior tests or returning periodically to topics that are essential to the course. Spreading learning opportunities over time is one of the reasons why many educators ensure that at least a portion of any high-stakes exam is cumulative.

    5. Interleaving: Working on the same problems using the same approaches over and over can create the illusion of mastery, missing opportunities to help students create deeper, more sustainable learning. Research suggests that students learn more effectively when they regularly switch between different but related topics. The process of interleaving challenges learners to practice solving different types of problems by forcing them to retrieve different approaches and types of information.

      Admittedly, interleaving can be challenging for students, leading to mistakes and some degree of frustration, at least initially. Nevertheless, in the long run of online instruction, the effort required on the part of students has been shown to result in significantly better knowledge retention than in face-to-face learning environments. For this reason, it’s important to remind students that the struggle itself is an indication that they are on the road to mastery, even if it doesn’t feel that way in the moment.

Putting learning science into practice

      • Space out tests and deadlines: Leverage the power of spaced learning by creating more frequent, moderately sized tests and assignments. As James M. Lang suggests, “multiple short papers will beat that one long one, and will better prepare your students for that one long one. Weekly quizzes, writing exercises, or small group problem-solving sessions will help even more.”
      • Spaced syllabus: Integrate your syllabus into the ongoing learning process. Consider giving students low-stakes or no-stakes quizzes to practice retrieving knowledge and concepts from prior modules on a learning management system (LMS). Or have them practice elaboration by comparing what they learned that day to concepts from earlier in the course.
      • The minute thesis: What was the most important thing you learned today? What is the muddiest point? Allotting a few minutes at the end of class to respond to these questions helps solidify concepts and clarify areas of weakness in students’ minds. Using a discussion board to capture responses will also help you zero-in on concepts that may require revisiting.
      • Connection 10: James M. Lang suggests that to grow those neural networks, have students dedicate 10 minutes at the end of class to reflect and write about what they’ve learned. Why does the concept matter in the world outside the classroom? How does it manifest in the day-to-day lives of students? How does it connect to what they learned the previous week?
      • Student-generated exam questions: Having students submit ideas for exam questions is a creative and effective review activity that also helps solidify connections between different concepts. It also has the added benefit of giving students a say in the testing process, which can be a powerful motivator. The key is to include at least a portion of these questions on the actual assessment.

The ultimate goal of these tactics in online teaching is to lead students to deeper, longer-term learning while overcoming the illusion of mastery that comes with more passive approaches to learning. The good news is that wholesale changes to course content aren’t essential. Introducing small changes to your teaching and being consistent can lead to significant gains—not only in comprehension but student engagement as well. Click here to learn more.

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