Active Learning in Online Education


Active Learning is defined as “Anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison, 1991, p. 2). Research on how people learn has been widely studied, literally for centuries. One of the most common findings includes that people learn by doing something. The definition of active learning varies, but the most common features include (1) hands-on tasks, (2) collaborative learning activities, (3) technology-enabled activities, (4) inquiry-based projects.

What is the topic?  What is the overall idea?

Education and learning theory pioneers agree that learning is not a spectator sport (Chickering and Gamson, 1987). Learning should be purposeful, engaging, and authentic. Active learning promotes the learners to deliberately engage with course materials, concepts, and activities. Instead of learners taking on the all-too-common role of passive observer, active learning requires that students actively participate in their learning process by doing to what they read, watch, or listen to (Oliver, Herrington, Reeves, 2006). The “Learning by Doing” approach was popular for centuries. For a recent example, in the 1980s Mortimer, J. Adler stated:

  • “All genuine learning is active, not passive. It is a process of discovery in which the student is the main agent, not the teacher.” (Adler, 1982)
  • Back in the old time, Sophocles, in the 5th Century said: “One must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it—you have no certainty until you try.” (Sophocles, 5th C)

Summary of Research

Some general effects of using active learning in both traditional and online classes includes the following (McConnell, 1996):

  • Reinforce important material, concepts, and skills.
  • Provide more frequent and immediate feedback to students.
  • Address different student learning styles.
  • Provide students with an opportunity to think about, talk about, and process course material.
  • Create personal connections to the material for students, which increases their motivation to learn.
  • Allows students to practice important skills, such as collaboration, through pair and group work.
  • Build self-esteem through conversations with other students.
  • Create a sense of community in the classroom through increased student-student and instructor-student interaction.

In addition, empirical research champion the positive effects of active learning as follows:

  • Attention span of students in lectures starts to fade away every 10-20 minutes. Utilizing active learning activities once or twice during a 50-minute class can lead to the improvement of student engagement (Wilson & James, 2007).
  • Prince and Felder (2006) stated that traditional engineering education involved deductive learning (e.g., instructor-guided instruction) but empirical findings indicate that inductive learning methods such as inquiry-based, project-based, or case-based learning generates equal or greater learning outcomes.
  • Freeman and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 225 studies comparing “constructivist versus exposition-centered course designs” in STEM disciplines (Freeman et al., 2014). They compared failure rates and student scores on examinations, concept inventories, or other assessments. Findings indicate that traditional lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in courses with active learning (odds ratio of 1.95, Z = 10.4, P<0.001).
  • In another meta-analysis, Ruiz-Primo and colleagues examined published studies examining the effects of active learning approaches in undergraduate biology, chemistry, engineering and physics courses (Ruiz-Primo et al., 2011). Overall, they found that inclusion of the active learning approaches improved student outcomes (mean effect size = 0.47). The researchers then coded active learning as (1) conceptually oriented tasks, (2) collaborative learning activities, (3) technology-enabled activities, (4) inquiry-based projects, or (5) some combination of those four categories
  • Hake (1998) examined pre- and post-test data for over 6,000 students in introductory physics courses and found significantly improved performance for students in classes with substantial use of interactive-engagement methods.
  • Springer et al. (1999) conducted a meta analysis and found that active learning (small group learning) appears to improve academic achievement, student attitude, and retention in academic programs.

Suggestion for Implementations

Researchers propose several active learning strategies online. Some of the representative examples include:

  • 10-minute mini lectures including opportunities for knowledge checks, pause procedure, summarizing key takeaways from the lecture.
  • Guest lectures can be effective as they connect theory to applications.
  • Using live polling to measure student engagement and comprehension. One can use Poll Everywhere because it is easy to integrate with Google Slides or PowerPoint Presentations. If you wish to facilitate a voting activity asynchronously, Doodle Poll is a good option to consider.
  • In terms of readings, using real-world examples has shown to be effective. One might want to use an article related to current events from a news source.

For writing homework, try to utilize peer-review procedures in the promotion of peer engagements. The effects of student-student interaction in an online active learning classroom are proven to promote a deeper level of engagement. To see a more detailed list of active learning techniques, please click this slide.


  • Adler, M. (1982). The Paideia Proposal: Rediscovering the Essence of Education. American School Board Journal, 169(7), 17-20.
  • Active learning. (n.d.). Retrieved September 1, 2005, from University of California at Davis, Teaching Resources Center Web site:
  • Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE–ERIC Higher Education Rep. No. 1). Washington, DC: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.
  • Bonwell, C.C. (1996). Enhancing the lecture: Revitalizing a traditional format. In T.E. Sutherland, C.C. & Bonwell (Eds.), Using active learning in college classes: A range of options for faulty. (pp.31-44). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Felder, R.M., & Brent, R. (1994). Cooperative learning in technical courses: Procedures, pitfalls, and payoffs. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service, No. ED 377038).
  • Lemke, E. (2017). Active Learning Strategies for the Online Classroom, Retrieved from
  • McConnell, J. J. (1996). Active learning and its use in computer science. ACM SIGCSE Bulletin, 28(SI), 52-54.
  • McKeachie, W.J. (2005). How to make lectures more effective. In Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (11th ed.) (pp. 52-68). New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • Paulson, D.R., & Faust, J.L. (n.d.). Active learning for the college classroom. Retrieved September 1, 2005, from California State University, L.A. Web site:
  • Prince, M. J., & Felder, R. M. (2006). Inductive teaching and learning methods: Definitions, comparisons, and research bases. Journal of engineering education, 95(2), 123-138.
  • Ruiz-Primo, M.A., Briggs, D., Iverson, H., Talbot, R., Shepard, L.A. (2011). Impact of undergraduate science course innovations on learning. Science 331, 1269–1270
  • Hake, R., “Interactive-Engagement vs. Traditional Methods: A Six-Thousand-Student Survey of Mechanics Test Data for Introductory Physics Courses,” American Journal of Physics, Vol. 66, No. 1, 1998, p. 64.
  • Springer, L., M. Stanne, and S. Donovan, Effects of Small Group Learning on Undergraduates in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology: A Meta-Analysis, Review of Educational Research, 69(1), 21–52.

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