Student Engagement & Active Learning

This module discusses the importance of student engagement and active learning, and provides tips and resources for incorporating active learning into your online courses.

What is Active Learning?

“Active learning is an approach to instruction that involves actively engaging students with the course material through discussions, problem solving, case studies, role plays and other methods. Active learning approaches place a greater degree of responsibility on the learner than passive approaches such as lectures, but instructor guidance is still crucial. Active learning activities may range in length from a couple of minutes to whole class sessions or may take place over multiple class sessions.” (Queens University, Ontario)



Active Learning Strategies

Active learning can be organized into three (often intersecting) categories: 

Venn diagram with circles for experience, information, and reflective dialogue

Ideally, an online course should include opportunities for students to engage with new information and ideas, apply or practice new concepts and skills, and reflect on their learning experience. 

  • Natural Science Example
  • Social Science Example
  • Humanities Example

Additionally, an effective online course provides learners with several points of entry and methods of engaging and interacting with its various components, whether it be instructional material, the instructor, or other learners. To maximize students’ learning, design different types of online activities and assignments that draw on interactions between students and content, students and faculty, and students and their peers.

Student ↔ ContentStudent ↔ FacultyStudent ↔ Student
– reflection about a reading or other resource (could be written, recorded, or presented visually)
– discussion of a reading or other resource
– quiz (if the feedback is useful for students)
– tutorials (using a variety of mediums: text, images, audio, video, etc.)
– scavenger hunts or simulations
– sending regular announcements to summarize the previous week or describe the upcoming week
– hosting virtual office hours
– participating in discussion forums or chats
– providing feedback on assignments
– mentoring individuals or groups of students assigned to lead discussions or teach part of class

– group projects
– group case studies
– peer review
– peer teaching
– collaborative brainstorming
– synchronous or asynchronous discussions or debates
(sources: Indiana University and Teaching with Technology)

Sample Active Learning Activities

Active Learning Examples

Individual Activities (Student ↔ Content)

Partner and Small Group Activities (Student ↔ Content, Student ↔ Student)

Whole Class Activities (Student ↔ Content, Student ↔ Student, Student ↔ Faculty)

(Source: Queens University)

Tools for Active Learning

Myth: You have to use a lot of complicated online tools to provide opportunities for meaningful active learning.  

Reality: You can provide meaningful interaction with basic tools, as long as they are well-structured and clearly support students in reaching learning outcomes.

Step 1 – Before you settle on a tool, it’s important to establish a clear set of learning outcomes for your activity. 

  • Ask yourself what students should know and be able to do by the end of this activity;
  • Determine an appropriate and logical way for students to learn this content; and
  • Consider how you could add dynamic elements to the experience.

Step 2 – Select the most appropriate tools for your activity. 

List of Tools:

  1. Moodle (discussion boards, peer review)
  2. Zoom (videoconferencing, video capture, and screen capture)
  3. Microsoft OneDrive (synchronous document editing and sharing)
  4. Microsoft Teams (synchronous chats, video calls, and file sharing)
  5. VoiceThread (visual presentations and discussions)
  6. Quizlet (flashcards)

References & Additional Resources

The Theory and Practice of Online Learning

In this open access collection of essays by practitioners and scholars that has been downloaded nearly half a million times is an overview of some of the most pressing issues in online education.

Active Learning in Blended & Online Classes
This chapter explores specific practical ideas for active learning in a blended or wholly online learning environment.

Ten Ways to Overcome Barriers to Student Engagement Online
Online learning presents new challenges when compared to a traditional classroom because students are separated from their instructor by a computer screen. How can we engage our students in the content, learning activities, and assessments? How can we prevent feelings of frustration or isolation and keep them motivated? 

Student Engagement Online: What Works and Why: ASHE Higher Education Report
This report explores the learning theories, pedagogies, and active learning options that encourage student engagement, push them to think more deeply, and teach them how to learn. It guides instructors on how to evaluate the effectiveness of technological and software tools, and to evaluate and assess the activities, learning, and retention occurring in their online classes.