How Does Active Learning Translate to eLearning?

Active Learning is a hot topic in the educational realm right now, especially among faculty and administrators in traditional P-20 learning environments. Everywhere you look, classrooms are being designed specifically to facilitate Active Learning, and curriculum is being developed that focuses on Active Learning, Constructivism, and Connectivism.

But can Active Learning play a role in improving outcomes in eLearning? Let’s take a look at some ways this learning strategy can be incorporated into eLearning environments.


What is Active Learning?

First, we have to understand what Active Learning is (and what it isn’t). At its foundation, Active Learning is a strategy that encourages learners to take control of their own learning. It attempts to transform a teaching environment that has traditionally encouraged passive learning (think lecture halls) to one that encourages learners to be engaged in the experience (think group problem solving).

Active Learning is not, as some have posited, a way to cut instructors out of the learning process. In fact, instructors play an even more important role in these innovative classrooms because they have to be an active observer and evaluator of student progress. When students inevitably hit a barrier, it is the instructor who becomes the mentor who helps them overcome whatever stopped their progress.

For simplicity sake, let’s think of Active Learning as a way to encourage learners to be active participants in the learning process.


What Does Active Learning Look Like in the Classroom?

In many classrooms, instructors are dipping their toes into the Active Learning pool by incorporating learning activities into their curriculum. For example, in higher education instructors are breaking up their lectures to provide time for students to interact with each other to answer questions and solve problems.

Here’s a list of common activities:

Discussion – Have students discuss a particular topic or question in small groups. Have the students share their ideas with the class, generating further class-wide discussion.

Think-Pair-Share – During instruction, pause to ask a probing question. First, have each student think about the question independently. Then have them discuss their thoughts with a partner, allowing them to debate the merits of each of their answers. Finally, have them share their responses with other groups or class-wide. This is a great strategy to use with clickers in large classrooms! 

Learning Cells – This is a variation on Think-Pair-Share, but instead of asking a probing question, have learners write down questions they have about the material at hand. Then they will pair up and ask their partners their questions, with a goal of the partners clearing up any muddy ideas for each other.

Brain Dump – One of my personal favorites. Ask a question or give out a general topic. Each learner should write as fast as they can about everything they know about that question or topic. They are essentially “brain dumping” on paper. By doing this quickly, learners start to see where the gaps in their own knowledge occur.

Learning by Teaching – One of the best ways to learn is to teach the content yourself. Teaching a topic requires thinking about a topic in different ways, which helps learners make connections between topics and solidify their knowledge acquisition.


Great! So How Do Those Activities Translate to eLearning?

Do you see any patterns among the activities listed above? There may be many, but the most important to me is that they each require engagement on the part of the learner. They can no longer participate in passive learning.

Although some of these activities may not translate to eLearning (especially for Just-in-Time environments), increasing Time on Task can elevate your online modules to new heights.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Formative Assessment – Many instructors use assessment to measure each student’s competence as the course goes on. Try focusing on using Formative Assessments to help the student understand where their own deficiencies are, and use that information to help scaffold each student’s learning process. Formative assessments are any kind of assessment that happens within the learning process, not at the end of it. Even better, use them as learning markers, not as “grades” that carry a negative stigma in academia.

Scenario-based exercises – These are great for Just-in-Time modules. When you are designing your formative assessments, build your questions around a scenario. Using scenarios, you are requiring learners to think outside the box, and good scenarios will allow them to make connections between topics.

Professional Learning Communities – Have your learners join a PLC, and analyze what popular trends are occurring, or what professionals are saying about particular topics.

Writing Exercises & Brain Dumps – Again, one of my personal favorites, for both on-ground and online instruction. Get your learner’s “knowledge cogs” cranking by having them write, in their own words, about the topics the are reading about. Do it in quick spurts so they can assess where their own gaps in knowledge lie.

Case Studies & Directed Research – One potential drawback of online education (if not designed effectively) is in the difficulty of knowing if the student’s are able to apply their newly-gained knowledge. Not only can providing assessments based on case studies and directed research help learners apply knowledge to real world scenarios, it forces them to think outside the box and look at scenarios in critical ways.

Experiential Learning – Extend the learning activities into real world application. Traditionally, this is done through Internships, but if you are in a corporate training environment, think about how you could apply the outcomes from the training directly to the worker’s daily routine. For example, training about a workflow related to a corporate process could require learners to implement the workflow in a real time environment, and then return to the training to reflect on their experience.


Active Learning is often overlooked as a viable learning strategy in eLearning, but with some focused instructional design, it could potentially change the way your learners interact with online content. Increased time on task leads to gains across the learning spectrum, and typically improves the translation of knowledge to real world environments.

Have you implemented any Active Learning strategies into your eLearning environment? Let us know in the comments below!

Kegan Remington, an Instructional Designer from NAU, specializes in Active Learning Pedagogy and the development of dynamic, collaborative, technology-enhanced learning environments. With a decade of experience in education, Kegan’s career is focused on developing high-fidelity learning materials, integrative learning environments, and promoting effective instructional techniques for the 21st century learner.

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