Teaching for active learning

Bild på människor som arbetar tillsammans
Hur gör vi detta flytande café online?


Learning processes where students’ cognitive processes are stimulated have been shown to be particularly important for students’ results. Social and interactive processes need to stimulate and frame these cognitive thought processes. Rienties & Toetenel (2016) show a significant correlation between the time students spend on course resources and successful study results. Student activity is not simply about breaking up lectures with simple interaction or stepping back as a teacher but is instead knowing what processes the students are struggling with in order to get a deeper understanding of the content. Here we need to use our subject’s didactics together with what we know about adult learning in higher education in order to increase the likelihood of real learning occurring.

There is a significant difference between students’ consumption of knowledge through reading , watching and listening and learning processes that offer more “resistance”, going beyond simply confirming knowledge to building, questioning and reformulating ideas (compare learning by acquisition with learning by discussion, collaboration, practice and investigation). Being active in certain course modules does not necessarily produce the learning results that active learning leads to. This places demands on the teacher’s ability, within their teaching role, to steer the students towards processes that require engagement and activity with the course material (see article D below).

When investigating the potential of digital technology we need to move from simply accessing information and ideas to more production, testing and representational processes that are designed by specialists in the field.

The aim of active teaching is partly to activate deeper learning processes in the student and partly to avoid the curse of knowledge, i.e. the problem of the teacher, for whom the content is crystal clear, having greater difficulty in explaining and conveying understanding to the students. Results from amongst other Harvard University show that students who have a similar level of understanding offer better support for each other (see the video with Professor Mazur below). Learning is an active, social and cognitive process and not the result of an information transfer. (see article A below).

Passive teaching forms reduce the student to the level of consumer of content and this does not trigger the cognitive processes that are required for learning (see article B below). However, this is a form that many students appreciate if the advantages of more active forms are not explained to them.

  1. Watch this video with Professor Eric Mazur, Harvard University who discusses the difficulties of lecturing for understanding.
  2. Read about differences in results between passive and active forms of teaching:
    Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. (2011). Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science, 6031(332 ), 862-864. doi:10.1126/science.1201783
    Deslauriers, L., McCartya, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroomPNAS, 116(39),19251-19257.
    Rienties, B., & Toetenel, L. (2016). The impact of learning design on student behaviour, satisfaction and performance: A cross-institutional comparison across 151 modules. Computers in Human Behavior (60), 333-341.
  3. Read about differences between the students’ own idea of what leads to learning and what examination results actually show.
    Deslauriers, L., McCartya, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroomPNAS, 116(39),19251-19257.
  4. Read about criticism of instrumental interpretations of activity-based learning.
    O’Connor, K. (2020). Constructivism, curriculum and the knowledge question: tensions and challenges for higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 1-11
  5. Read more about how you can develop your passive lecture so that it fulfills the objective of creating a context for the student in a knowledge field or theory.

Active learning classroom (ALC) is both a physical learning environment and a method for promoting collaboration and problem-solving that can take place in both physical and digital learning environments. 

ALC has its origins in the University of Minnesota in the USA where they rebuilt some classrooms to focus on collaborative learning. The students sit in groups around tables that have access to screens, whiteboards, power outlets, etc. The teacher presents a problem that the students have to solve, but they do not always get all the facts from the start. They should search for more information, review sources and find their way during the class time. The teacher can give mini-lectures when needed to give them clues, but should mostly walk around the groups and act as a facilitator. 

As a method, you can also apply ALC remotely or in a hybrid solution via breakout groups in Zoom and collaborative documents or workspaces. Today, many Swedish higher education institutions have premises equipped for activity-based learning. 

There is, however, a challenge in transferring the concept to online teaching and perhaps letting it blend with other ideas from the Harvard model. This means that: 

  • Students prepare the day individually, reading, forming questions 
  • The class meets synchronously online and get their task for the day 
  • They work in groups and communicate issues or questions with the teacher 
  • The teacher can go in and discuss questions with the students  
  • They continue working in groups 
  • Some form of delivery ends the day – in a real-time meeting or via a learning platform. 

This model ensures that students work actively to develop a central understanding and the teacher’s main task is to design the task based on assessment criteria and goals and be available in various forms. We know that students learn key concepts best with each other and that the time they spend with the content of a course is crucial to success, so let it be the guiding light in your planning. 

The activity is what contributes to learning and meaning-making here and can result in a representation that does not need to be assessed but can be seen as a new impact on students’ understanding. 

Read more about ALC: Teaching in an active learning classroom (University of Minnesota). 

Here you can watch a video about how ALC is used at the University of Minnesota. 

Completion rates (the number of students who complete a course and receive their higher education credits) is often used as a quality indicator for a course. A course with a high proportion of dropouts is considered to be of low quality, although the reasons behind the dropout should be analyzed to nuance the picture. 

There are many and varied reasons behind student dropouts and most often it is about illness, changed family situation and mental illness rather than teaching quality. 

Dropouts among distance students tend to be higher than among traditional campus students, which may be due to students combining studies with gainful employment and family and thus forcing a down-prioritization of the studies. These factors are outside the university’s responsibility, but there are other factors behind dropouts that the university can influence. Like the relationship between structure, autonomy and communication in a course – transactional distance (Moore 1997) and how the teacher can create a sense of trust and community despite physical distance. 

Course information
Already in the course description, you can create expectations and presence through, for example, a welcome film where the teacher presents the course in an engaging way, interviews with former students, FAQ page etc. The course description should explain the course’s pedagogy and clarify what is expected of both the student and the teacher / university. How do the course’s activities contribute to the learning objectives? Academic technical terms should be explained to avoid misunderstandings. The keys are clarity and structure in all communication before the start of the course.

Creating a sense of trust and community is the key to active learning. Creating a community of trust (Wenger) requires time for socialization and team building. Create a space where students can present themselves (preferably via video). Salmon’s (2013) five-step model for collaborative distance education (access & motivation – online socialization – information exchange – knowledge construction – development) provides a good basis for how to create a safe group feeling even at a distance. The Community of Inquiry model (Vaughan, Cleveland-Innes & Garrison, 2013) defines three types of presence that are necessary to create community: teacher presence, cognitive presence, social presence. Cleveland-Innes has also proposed a fourth form of presence: emotional presence.

Describe how the student will receive support, both technically and academically, during the course. What times apply to synchronous support, how quickly can the student expect an answer from the teacher? The teacher should not be expected to provide all the support and the students should be encouraged to help each other through forums, chat groups, social media. Can former students contribute as mentors / study buddies? 

Course design
Clear and consistent structure in the learning platform and the same clarity is found in other courses within the program. Create conditions for open communication and collaboration through forums and other tools as well as guidelines for respectful communication together with the group. Varied course material in different media (image, video, audio, text) with regard to accessibility requirements (eg subtitling of films, text-to-speech, text script for films and audio files). 

Assessment and examination
Feel free to avoid investing everything in a final high-risk exam and instead use regular test sessions and formative assessment. Step-by-step examination can motivate students to continue until the next step and thus the throughput can benefit. 

In both classroom and distance education, there are students who do not actively contribute to the discussion. Sometimes these silent participants are considered uninterested or even lazy (lurkers) but several studies (eg Smith & Smith 2017) show that learning takes place despite the silence and that many introverted students prefer to study on their own terms. 

There are several reasons behind a student’s silence: 

  • They prefer uninterrupted self-study (introverts). 
  • They prefer to reflect on an issue before expressing themselves in words. 
  • They feel insecure and inferior in the group. Lack of experience of higher education and lack of study habits. 
  • They belong to a culture where you do not admit that you do not understand. 
  • They do not understand the content or structure of the course but do not dare to admit it. 
  • They’re not feeling well. 

Appropriate strategies for activating the silent participants: 

  • Discuss within the group about the division of roles in group work, that everyone should have a say, how to ask good questions, active listening, etc. 
  • Give students opportunities to express themselves in text, film, image or sound, both synchronously and asynchronously. In a video meeting, you can, for example, offer the opportunity to answer questions anonymously through various quiz tools. 
  • Make sure that the discussion continues asynchronously after the lesson in e.g. a forum, so that those who need time to reflect can respond the day after the lesson. 
  • Silent participants who do not like to contribute to oral discussions can be given the role of meeting secretary or write a blog post that summarizes the lesson discussion. 
  • Try to rotate the students’ roles in the group work so that everyone can try to be chairman, secretary, speaker, etc. 
  • Blogs give all students the opportunity to reflect on their learning and make visible many who otherwise stay in the background. 
  • Involve one of the quieter students in the discussion about course development and design. 

There is a practical guide on how to work on these issues, Silent Learners – a Guide. See also under references below. 

What methods and tools are available? 

Here are some suggestions that may be helpful. 

Using a quiz (short test with few questions) is a great way to capture current level of knowledge, misconceptions or experience. Put one at the beginning of the course (what the student thinks / expects) and one at the end (how did it happen?) Or ask knowledge questions and revisit the same quiz at the end and ask the students to reflect on the difference (may be grade-based). 

In the Study Handbook, we have tried to show how the students’ own actions and activities are important for successful studies and independence. The handbook has been developed for students at Linnaeus University, but the concept can of course be used at other higher education institutions. 

Here is an excellent example of how some colleagues use a video blog (podcast) to regularly communicate with students about what is going on in the course. In this way, we give students the conditions to be pro-active and independent (in Swedish).

  • Give students a list of topics to discuss in advance so they can prepare.

  • Record a short video with input and one or two questions to think about before the meeting. 

  • Communicate your expectations about how they should participate in the discussion.

  • Ask students to prepare their own questions on the subject. 

  • Start each meeting with a warm-up exercise that everyone can participate in. Many students lack social contacts when they study at a distance and need time to just talk to colleagues.

  • Use the chat or external tools (eg Mentimeter) to brainstorm ideas before asking them to contribute orally. 

  • Try a chatfall (cf. waterfall, sv fors): ask a question and ask everyone to write an answer in the chat but do not press the return button until you say so. Then all answers come at the same time and that way everyone is able to contribute.

  • Divide the class into shorter meetings with fewer participants (3 x 20 minutes) rather than a long meeting with the whole class. 

  • Use breakout groups in Zoom to discuss issues. Notes from the group discussions can be collected on a common page in e.g. Box, MyMoodle, Padlet, etc.

  • Ask students to reflect on the meeting and how they have contributed to the discussion in a blog post or in a discussion forum. 

Synchronous meetings are good for listening in and building on each other’s reflections and knowledge, as well as asking questions and sorting out relationships. If you record your lecture, you can spend more time with the students clarifying, processing and developing the topic being studied. 

Here, Dan Wirdefalk and Åsa Kronkvist from Kristianstad University share their best advice for planning an online lecture. (English text available, click on the CC button on the video screen.)

Recording a lesson is convenient for both teachers and students, but an alternative is to let the students create joint notes from the session. Students can take turns taking notes in pairs during the lesson and then let both the teacher and colleagues comment on the notes before they are established. This method shows, among other things, how the students have perceived the content of the lesson and gives the teacher an insight into the students’ learning process that would not emerge through a recording. 

Read more about the method in an article by Nikole D. Patson, Ohio State University, Collaborative Note-taking as an Alternative to Recording Online Sessions. 

Creelman, A. (Ed.). (2017). Silent learners – a guide. Nordic Network for Adult Learning (NVL) 

Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. (2011). Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science, 6031(332 ), 862-864. doi:10.1126/science.1201783

Deslauriers, L., McCartya, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. PNAS, 116(39), 19251-19257. doi:https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1821936116

Fiock, H. (2020). Designing a Community of Inquiry in Online Courses. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 21(1), 135-153.

Gourlay, L. (2015)Student engagement’ and the tyranny of participation, Teaching in Higher Education, 20:4, 402-411, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2015.1020784

JISC. 2021. Live online learning. Create an engaging live online learning experience. Module 1 in JISC guide, Digital pedagogy toolkit

Laurillard, D. (2012). Teaching as a Design Science: Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology. New York: Routledge.

Moore, M (1997). Theory of transactional distance. In Keegan (ed) Theoretical Principles of distance education. Routledge. pp. 22-38

O’Connor, K. (2020). Constructivism, curriculum and the knowledge question: tensions and challenges for higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 1-11.

Reneland-Forsman, L. (2017). Student learning cultures as responses to a learning environment. Utbildning & Lärande, 11(1), 48-63.

Rienties, B., & Toetenel, L. (2016). The impact of learning design on student behaviour, satisfaction and performance: A cross-institutional comparison across 151 modules. Computers in Human Behavior (60), 333-341.

Rienties, B., Toetenel, L., & Bryan, A. (2015). Scaling up” learning design: impact of learning design activities on LMS behavior and performance Paper presented at the 5th Learning Analytics Knowledge conference, New York.

Salmon, G (2013) The Five Stage Model. [Homepage] http://www.gillysalmon.com/five-stage-model.html

Smith,D. & Smith,K.(2015). Case for ‘Passive’ Learning – the ‘Silent’ Community of Online Learners. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning,17(2), 86-99. https://doi.org/10.2478/eurodl-2014-0021

Vaughan, N. D., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Edmonton: AU Press. Chapter 1 “The Community of Inquiry Conceptual framework”.