Active Learning

photograph of a group of biologists surveying shallow freshwater for mussels

A group of biologists surveying shallow freshwater for mussels. Photo credit: USFWS Pacific Southwest. Image in the public domain

“As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.”

~bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

Active learning, or “learning by doing,” involves learners in action-oriented experiences to help them deeply engage course content. The goal of this style of learning is to get students to engage, rather than passively take-in. In an active learning environment students interact with the course material through: reading, writing, talking, problem-solving, synthetical thinking, web camming, constructing, deconstructing, and reflecting. Ideally, rather than completing these activities in isolation, learners are given opportunities to work collaboratively and receive feedback from one another as well as the instructor. The dynamic that occurs through shared, constructive feedback and collaboration helps to form a learning environment rooted in connection and community, the importance of which is discussed specifically in the module on “Social Presence.” We introduce the principles of connection and community here to emphasize that learning is, fundamentally, a social process and that active learning can be a powerful (but not exclusive) vehicle to facilitate it.

Some may worry that active learning means a complete abandonment of content driven lectures, however this is far from the truth. Rather, it presents instructors with opportunities to imagine activities that will help learners develop a deeper and more authentic understanding of the lecture content that is shared and shaped with feedback.

Incorporating an active learning strategy into the design of course assignments can lead to several benefits:

  1. Students are afforded the opportunity to engage higher-order thinking skills when they actively engage the course content and not just passively take it in. Designing learning assignments in this way – as hands-on as well as minds-on, allows students to more intentionally:
    • Check their understanding
    • Better organize their own knowledge
    • Connect new learning with what they already know
  2. Active learning assignments create a vehicle for connecting students to the instructor and to one another for extended collaboration and feedback. Enhancing these social connections throughout the course is a critical component to the success of online learning as described in the "community of inquiry" model we discussed in previous modules.
  3. Active learning assignments create the opportunity to engage all students and not just those who might raise their hands and get called on during a class time lecture.
  4. Active learning allows students to question what they are learning, thus setting the stage for development of critical thinking skills and not just surface learning.

Shifting the Instructor's Role

Moving to an active learning strategy also requires us to re-think our roles as faculty. When using more traditional or passive learning strategies such as straight lecturing, the direction of discourse is one way -- from instructor to students. In this context, the instructor's role can be defined as knowledge owner, or "the sage on the stage." Active learning, on the other hand, changes the direction of discourse from instructor to students (only), to include students to instructor and students to students. The faculty member’s role in active learning experiences can be defined as knowledge facilitator, or "the guide on the side." This approach enables students to socially construct meaning, or make sense of the learning content, in collaboration with peers and the instructor. During this process they are offered, simultaneously, the opportunity to develop capabilities in critical thinking and self-directed learning which are important life-long skills.

Active Learning in the Online Space

Active learning is not confined to the classroom. In fact, the online space creates opportunities to reimagine active engagement of learners in more abundant ways.

Whether you are experienced or new to using electronic tools for learning, it is best to keep the perspective that developing sound learning objectives comes first and selecting the proper electronic tool comes second. The tool or tools you select should complement your learning objectives but not be the basis for them. Remember that the "bells and whistles" of a high-tech learning experience in the absence of a pedagogically sound course design will not lend much integrity to your course. Most current faculty at Muhlenberg teaching with online tools have found value in using the following for collaboration and annotation:

Active Learning Planning Takes Time

In most cases, planning traditional learning strategies that are more passive in nature takes less time than planning and assessing active learning assignments for an entire semester or summer session. While some passive learning strategies in a course may be indicated (we are not suggesting that all passive learning is ineffective or unnecessary), it is also important that planned activities align with passive learning experiences.

Considerations for Online Lectures

Video conferencing, as a medium for student engagement, is a much different environment than that of the traditional classroom. If you’ve ever participated in an hour-long virtual meeting yourself, then you know how taxing it can be to stare at a screen for such a length of time. Now imagine you are a student taking multiple courses online. Imagine how it would feel to endure several virtual lectures, spanning one to four hours in duration, each day. The potential for video conferencing fatigue from sitting silently in front of a screen for extended lengths of time could make for a rather unpleasant learning experience. With this in mind, breaking up large chunks of lecture with interactive elements such as polls, discussion, annotation, etc. -- is best.

The same recommendations are indicated when it comes to creating pre-recorded lecture videos for your classes. According to our course textbook authors Darby and Lang (2019), recent research findings on the engagement patterns of online students suggests that video lectures be no more than 6 minutes in duration (p. 53).

Darby, F., & Lang, J. (2019) Small Teaching Online, Applying Learning Science in Online Classes.

A Note on Hybrid Courses

In the case of hybrid courses, careful planning must go into the "blend" of face-to-face and online components. These should work together. For example:

Venn Diagram of active learning principles

Your Trail Guide

For guidance and support on the path to developing your online course, we encourage you to use Open SUNY Course Quality Review (OSCQR) every step of the way. OSCQR helps ensure quality in online course design through its standards and robust repository of helpful resources and examples. More about OSCQR can be found at

Specific quality standards related to your course shell, or course content design and layout, can be found here:

OSCQR items 29-37

Continue on to learn about Social Presence.