Active Learning

40 Practical Active Learning Ideas for Blended & Online Courses

3-modesA Observe & Consider

In the second part of this week’s podcast, Steel Wagstaff from L&S Learning Support Services continues his conversation with Greg Downey, the director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and Brad Hughes, the director of UW-Madison’s Writing Center. In the segment below, they discuss several practical ideas for incorporating active learning into blended and online courses, with a special emphasis on writing and reflection activities.

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Introducing Active Learning Into a Blended or Online Course

Many of the suggestions we made in previous chapters for introducing active learning into other types of courses are obviously directly relevant to blended and online courses. Rather than rehashing those suggestions, we’ll take a look at three broad categories of active learning activities that we think are especially useful in online courses.

Active Listening & Reading

One the most crucial and longstanding teaching and learning challenges is figuring out a way of unlocking student creativity while developing and encouraging learners to become more than just passive consumers of information. As teachers, we want learners in our courses to actively assess, evaluate, and respond to the ideas and concepts they encounter, to make connections with other ideas that they have, and ultimately to demonstrate their understanding by using their new knowledge outside of our class. We want to cultivate what’s often called critical thinking, and we want learners to develop their active listening and reading skills. Here are some specific tips to help accomplish this aim:

  • Allow students to download advance lecture or reading notes that include significant blanks, and encourage them read or listen carefully, fleshing out and completing these advance notes.
  • Ask students to keep a regular reading journal in which they respond to a set of basic reading questions, with additional preparatory questions as needed. These questions can be used to guide student learning or develop strong reading/researching habits, and can be paired with writing/reflection activities. Some sample questions might be similar to those mentioned by Greg in this week’s podcast: “Who is the author? What are their credentials? Why is the instructor asking me to read this material at this time?” or can focus on summary and understanding, like these questions: “What for you was the most interesting/significant sentence in this week’s reading?” or “What is this author’s main argument and what are the three most important pieces of evidence they offer in support of their claim?”
  • Pose regular discussion questions that require students to respond to course ideas and each other in a meaningful ways. The most engaging questions are often focused on the intersection of the course’s core content with current events and elicit higher order thinking about concepts (why, how, should questions, or discussion prompts which include the following action words: compare/contrast, plan, design, develop). See Greg Downey’s LIS 201 course website or discussion section blogs for examples of what these kind of engaged discussions might look like (or view the list of assignments for this course).
  • Develop or use interactive content built within Case Study Critical Reader tool that Brad Hughes described in the podcast. The CSCR is a desktop tool that help users built interactive, media-rich learning materials, including active or close reading activities.

If you’re interested in more ideas for helping you foster critical thinking in your courses, we recommend Joanne Kurfiss’ excellent ASHE-ERIC Higher Education report, Critical Thinking: Theory, Research, Practice, and Possibilities (1988).


Writing & Reflection Activities

As you heard in this week’s podcast discussion, one of the most important things that any course can do to stimulate active learning is to introduce meaningful writing and reflection activities. In his influential book Making the Most of College, Harvard education professor Richard Light reported that “the relationship between the amount of writing for a course and students’ level of engagement … is stronger than the relation between student’s engagement and any other course characteristic.” In addition to its impact on student engagement, there is a well-established and thoroughly documented body of literature that comprehensively demonstrates numerous positive benefits for students and instructors alike, several of which Brad Hughes describes in his brief article “Why Should I Use Writing Assignments in My Teaching?” It’s important to note, however, that these benefits do not happen magically just because you ask students to write a lot, but require explicit instruction and structured guidance: a number of large-scale studies have shown that writing skills improve most when students are provided with specific rhetorical patterns as models, given several low-stakes opportunities for practice, and provided with timely feedback. The research also shows that no matter what subject you teach, regular, sequenced writing activities can help increase the effectiveness of student learning in your course.

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Providing Meaningful Feedback

In blended and online courses, it’s especially important that instructors think intentionally about their plans to provide both formative and summative assessments to learners as they begin to practice and extend their knowledge. There are few things that can be more discouraging to learners than repeatedly trying and failing to implement or apply a new idea or skill, especially when they lack understanding as to why they’re struggling or how to correct their errors. We’d also stress that providing regular feedback does not always correlate with more work for already overburdened teachers. Meaningful feedback need not only come from a course instructor or TA; in fact, many effective courses implement collaborative learning structures which harness the power of peer response and feedback from other learners. Peer tutoring is something that Brad Hughes and the UW-Madison Writing Center have long been utilizing to great effect for all participants in the tutoring relationship, as documented in “What They Take With Them: Findings from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project” an award-winning article that Brad and two co-authors published in 2010.

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3-modesC Practice & Apply

Applying Active Learning Ideas:

In addition to the numerous ideas we’ve already presented or discussed, Kevin Yee, the Director of the University of South Florida’s Academy for Teaching and Learning Excellence, has curated a tremendous list of nearly 200 interactive techniques that can be used in all kinds of inventive ways in all kinds of university courses. Here’s what we’d like you to do:

  1. Scan or read Dr. Yee’s list of active learning ideas.
  2. Identify one of these ideas (or a variation) that you’ve already successfully used in a class, and at least one new idea that you’d like to try.
  3. Write out a plan for integrating or scaffolding these activities together in a course that you teach.
  4. Share your plans, ideas, questions, and feedback with other participants in the discussion forum.

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