Active Learning in Blended & Online Classes

 Observe & Consider

In part one of this week's two-part podcast, Steel Wagstaff from L&S Learning Support Services facilitates a conversation with Greg Downey, a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and School of Library and Information Studies, and Brad Hughes, the longtime director of UW-Madison's outstanding Writing Center. In this segment of their conversation, they talk about how their experiences with blended and online courses have impacted their views of student engagement, the importance of active learning, and the power of connection.

Download the .mp3 (right-click and 'save link as')

The Challenge Posed by Blended and Online Classes

Strong Bad
Strong Bad is probably all over MOOCs

If you thought that large lecture classes were impersonal and rife with passivity, what does that mean about online-only courses, courses in which you can't even see the bored, sleep-deprived students, classes in which you have far fewer non-verbal or visual cues to increase your awareness of where students are flagging or confused, and whose asynchronous nature makes it difficult to get an accurate reading of the overall class' pulse and progress at a given moment? Are students struggling to understand the content you posted two weeks ago, or have they not yet got around to reading it? It can sometimes be difficult to know.

Assessing and diagnosing barriers to student learning is only one part of the challenge posed by online instruction. Some online courses are criticized by instructional designers for their occasional tendency to maximize some of the worst elements of higher education (like large class sizes and impersonal instructor-student and student-student interactions). They're popular among administrators who want to decrease student time to graduation, offer consumers greater convenience and flexibility, and grow tuition revenue while decreasing labor costs, but there are several instructors and students who have complained that without proper care and planning, online instruction can resemble the banking or transmission model on steroids, relying too-frequently on less-engaging models of content delivery, skill development, and evaluation.

Making Online Courses Interactive and Engaging

Ally Sheedy and Matthew Broderick in the film War Games
Ally Sheedy and Matthew Broderick demonstrate the power of collaborative learning in a very early online learning environment. Game of chess, anyone?

Before we begin exploring specific practical ideas for active learning in a blended or wholly online learning environment, we want to stress that we believe that online learning can be profoundly active. As we noted in our previous module on blended learning, online resources offer several advantages to both instructors and learners when they're used intelligently. For these advantages to be maximized, however, we believe that the following considerations should be in place:

  1. Alignment: Most effective courses, whether blended, online, or entirely face to face, are intentionally and carefully aligned, meaning that each of the course's most important components (like instructional materials, learning activities, student assignments, assessment, course tools or media) work together to ensure that students achieve desired learning outcomes. Consider regularly sharing your daily and weekly objectives upfront with all class participants, and ask students to help you identify areas or parts of the course that feel disconnected or poorly aligned.
  2. Clear instructions & explicit expectations: In many blended or online environments, students don't have all of the opportunities for informal interaction, direct modeling, or question asking that can help establish norms and practices in face to face classes. When teaching a blended or online course, it's especially important that instructors clearly explain their expectations for students, and provide simple, direct models for them to follow as they begin to develop the habits and practices they'll need to master to succeed in the course. In the podcast, Greg and Brad both note the importance of helping students understand the course's unique communication situations early on, which may require instructors to be more explicit about their instructions and expectations than they might otherwise be. It's also helpful to establish working routines and regular deadlines in courses without much face to face time so that can begin establishing patterns or schedules of engagement with course materials, interacting with their peers, and completing required work.
  3. Offer multiple invitations/opportunities for engagement: The most effective blended and online courses offer 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). Consider developing several different types of activities and assignments, and look for ways to encourage (or require) students to make meaningful connections between their lives and interests and course material. When developing a class activity for a blended or online course, take special care to build in opportunities for reflection on the activity's purpose and the learning objectives it supported.

In addition to these key features, there are a number of suggestions in the literature for improving the quality of active learning in blended and online courses. While we obviously can't share all of them with you, here are two helpful sources we do recommend:

Active Learning Ideas for Blended & Online Courses

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.

Download the .mp3 (right-click and 'save link as')

Introducing Active Learning Into a Blended or Online Course

Many of the suggestions we made in previous weeks 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:

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.


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.


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.

Active Learning Case Study

Observe & Consider

Sample Active Learning Assignment

Here at Learning Support Services, we consult with a lot of outstanding teachers, many of whom are developing their own innovative active learning ideas. One of these instructors, Takako Nakakubo, a faculty associate in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literature, teaches EA 104, a second-semester introductory Japanese language course. Takako's course employs a blended learning model, making frequent use of a course website built in Moodle and supported by Karen Tusack, one of our LSS coworkers. Despite not being able to understand one bit of Japanese ourselves, we recently saw some conversational videos created by students in one of Takako's classes and were blown away by their quality, inventiveness, and complexity. Below, you can see the initial assignment that led up to the student videos (which Takako was kind enough to translate into English from the original Japanese for us):

Skit Presentation


4.17  (Tue)

Form a group of three or four and think about the topic for your skit. The skit should be approximately 5-minutes long. You may create a video to present it or perform it live.

4.23  (Mon)

Submit the first draft of your skit. Your skit should include the following:

4.30  (Mon)

Submit the final draft of your skit. This draft must reflect the revisions you've made based on the comments you received on the first draft.

4.25 (Wed) - 5.6 (Sun)

Practice, rehearse, and/or record your skit in preparation for your in-class presentation.

5.7  (Mon) - 5.8 (Tue)

Present your skit in the discussion class. Each class will vote to select what they feel was the discussion section's best skit.

5.9 (Wed)

The students whose skit was selected as the best skit in each discussion section will perform it (or show it if it’s a video) during the lecture class.

Grading criteria

  1. Clarity: Was the skit easy for the audience to understand?
  2. Variety of grammar and vocabulary
  3. Memorization
  4. Accuracy and fluency
  5. Contribution: To be assessed through a peer evaluation conducted by each group member assessing questions like: 'Did each member contribute to the skit equally?' or 'Did all group members practice together?'

Please note that in case of video-recorded presentations, our expectations for 3) and 4) will be higher, because you can record scenes repeatedly and edit them later to create your final product.

 Observe & Consider

Reflecting on this Assignment:

Now that you've read Takako's assignment, you probably noted how well this assignment does several of the things that we've highlighted in this module:

In the following podcast, you can hear Takako speak briefly with us this assignment, why it was designed in the way that it was, what she learned from the experience, and the insights that these student films gave her into the benefits of using active learning in her teaching. She also offers some useful context for what's going on in the two films we feature later on this page (which we found really helpful in the absence of subtitles!)

Download the .mp3 (right-click and 'save link as')

Examples of Student Films

Obviously, a discussion of this active learning assignment wouldn't be complete if we didn't include a couple of examples of these student projects as evidence of the fruits of active learning. While there were more than a dozen student films, we've selected two of our favorites to share as examples of the kinds of work that motivated, empowered, active students at UW-Madison are capable of producing (even in entry-level courses) and without any special technology or film-making training!


We hope that you agree that these are outstanding, creative examples that clearly demonstrate meaningful student learning. It's hard to believe that these are just first-year Japanese language learners. Our belief is that our courses are full of learners like these students (and like Bill Costello, the student we profiled in a video from earlier in this module), students who are curious, capable, eager to be stretched, and willing to fill an active role in their own learning. Like Takako, we've been continually surprised and impressed by what learners make and build when they've been properly prepared, sufficiently primed, and challenged to create products which showcase their knowledge or demonstrate their learning.

Share & Connect

Active Learning Assignment Remix


In our discussion with Takako, she expressed a strong interest in hearing what our course participants thought of the assignment and welcomed any of your active learning-inspired suggestions, improvements, or modifications to this assignment. Hopefully, you've already gained experience as an active learning consultant through the improvements you've made or planned to your own teaching and learning and are feeling excited about the opportunity to put your skills and ideas to good use in the service of improved undergraduate education. Now that we're nearing the conclusion of this active learning module, we have one final challenge for each of you:

  1. Imagine that you've been invited to serve as an educational consultant for Takako's EA 104 course and have been asked specifically to examine the course's capstone assignment, the Skit Presentation included above.
  2. In our conversation with Takako, she indicated that because this is an introductory language course the next time she gives this assignment she wants to ensure that students share the speaking work more equally among group members, even if they choose the film option over the live performance. What specific changes would you advise that she make to the assignment to help ensure this outcome? Share your ideas and comment on your peer's suggestion in the discussion forum we've set up for this challenge.
  3. Reflect back on the various active learning strategies, approaches, and techniques we've considered over the past 4 weeks. What else would you modify, change, or alter to improve or adapt this assignment for the next instance of this course? Along with your suggestion(s) for improvement, please indicate briefly why you think your idea would be a helpful change and what its intended impact on student learning would be. Share these ideas along with your ideas for step 2 above.

Active Learning Closing

Session Conclusion & Goodbye

children running from a school door
School's out! Well, this session at least. Phew!

This active learning session is over. You did it! Congratulations. We hope that this session provided you with several enticing invitations to explore various approaches to active learning and reimagine your own teaching and learning practices, in ways both large and small.

One of our major goals in delivering this session was to demonstrate that increasing your use of active learning in your teaching need not be either intimidating or so time-consuming that it feels prohibitive. We hope that you've identified and begun to use several low-risk, high-impact practices, and have renewed your commitment to increasing student engagement, building a dynamic learning environment, and facilitating meaningful learning directed toward significant learning outcomes.

As you've no doubt gathered, there are thousands of things that you could do to encourage active learning in your classes. It wouldn't surprise us if you're reading this and wondering "Where do I go from here?" If you didn't take the opportunity to engage with all of our resources and activities, we'd suggest that as a good place to begin. If you've already formed tentative plans to implement active learning activities in a lecture redesign, or even to introduce large-scale changes to an entire module, course, or program, and would like to talk through your ideas, we'd love to invite you to schedule a consultation with support staff.

First, if you are employed within UW-Madison's College of Letters & Science, we (L&S Learning Support Services) would love to consult with you. Please contact us with any active learning questions, activity or course design plans, or for other general instructional technology & support questions.

If you don't work within the College of Letters and Science, please refer to this list of instructional technology support staff across campus to find your support unit.