Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

Kresge Library, Room 430
100 Library Drive
Rochester, Michigan 48309-4479
(location map)
(248) 370-2751
[email protected]

speech bubbles around laptops

Active Learning for High Enrollment Online Courses

Mon Oct 5, 2020 at 07:30 AM

Staying Active While Sitting Online

Establishing connections between students and the course material can be challenging in online courses. Even with the addition of popular video conferencing sessions, students may opt to turn off their cameras and microphones, effectively disengaging them from the class experience. Active learning pedagogies are known to increase student learning and to decrease the learning gaps between under-represented groups (URG) and non-URG students. Some active learning strategies commonly used in the in-person classroom include team-based learning, polling, and think-pair-share activities. As more students and instructors are choosing online courses, we need simple, effective methods to translate active learning from the physical classroom to the online environment.

Synchronous Engagement Activities

Through the help of a few simple tools, an ordinary video conference class session can be transformed into an active learning environment. With a little more effort, synchronous group activities can be used to promote team-building, engagement with course content, and create a sense of community. Several suggestions for accomplishing these goals are listed below.

  1. Engage students via the “Chat” window. The “Chat” window available in a video conference can easily be used to engage students. Try starting class with a simple greeting (“How are you doing today?”) or asking for feedback (“What topic are you struggling with?”). To spark enthusiasm and make learning fun, you can also ask an off-topic question such as “What is your favorite junk food?”. Showing you are interested and care about your students also helps build your instructor presence in the course.
  2. Include polling questions to promote attendance and gain feedback.  In many video conferencing platforms, polling is available. The answer to any simple yes/no question can be rapidly assessed. In the alternative, there are many web-based polling software options available, including several which are free (see a comparison of student response programs). Most include more sophisticated question types (e.g., Word Cloud) and even gaming styles.  Consider having students register with one of these and offering “extra credit” points for participation. Even a small incentive can significantly boost attendance!  
  3. Interactive problem-solving.  For STEM classes, students greatly benefit from working on practice problems and interactively going over the solutions. For online courses, consider posting problems for students to do on their own or with their peers ahead of class. Using a digital tablet and a whiteboard or blank PowerPoint presentation, the instructor can write out how to obtain the answers step by step, just like you would in person. Pausing between problems to allow questions from students helps promote engagement and address learning obstacles. The annotated file can be saved and posted in Moodle as an answer key after class. An advantage of this method is the ability to use multiple colors!
  4. Synchronous group assignments for high enrollment classes. The prospect of grading discussion forum posts for high enrollment classes can be overwhelming.  As an alternative, consider offering graded synchronous group assignments where students meet virtually to discuss and collaborate. While groups can be randomly created in Moodle, surveying your students with a Google Form can help identify students with common interests or career plans.  Each group can be assigned their own reusable Google Meet link and a shared Google Drive folder to use for video conferencing and collaboration. The “Group Assignment” feature allows one submission per group, helping to streamline the grading process in Moodle. To further reduce grading time, consider randomly grading each group’s assignments for either “completion only” or “content.” Not knowing which assignments will be graded for the higher point scale will promote continued effort. Finally, incorporating team-building questions as part of the assignment helps students create a sense of community and build a support network with their peers.

Asynchronous Discussion Forums for High Enrollment Classes

In asynchronous courses, students must be able to engage with their material on their own time. Building new H5P or other modules can be time-consuming, and it may be difficult to meet the same learning outcomes as active learning activities already employed in in-person classes. Forums can be a simple and effective way to encourage team-based learning and to support problem-solving and active learning. A standard discussion forum is sometimes overlooked due to challenges in providing appropriate feedback, or it is used as a “filler” and learning outcomes are not assessed. With some small changes in delivery, forums can be challenging, engaging activities for students to actively participate in their learning. They can also be easily and quickly assessed using team-based learning, quality rubrics, and use of the “activity completion” setting in Moodle.

  1. Define teams of between 5-7 students. Too few students becomes an issue when a student drops the course or contributes later than other members. Encourage students to first introduce themselves and to establish study groups. 
  2. Design discussion forum questions based on a challenging learning outcome or topic of current interest to students. Be sure to target problem-solving and higher analytical thinking. Emphasize that the forums are not “busy work” and provide learning outcomes for each assignment. Assign discussion forum questions in a general forum style with separate groups. Encourage team-based learning by requiring students to both contribute their own material, and comment on others. 
  3. Provide a grading rubric to students. For simple grading, use a 4-point scale and grade on completion, accuracy and critical thinking. Clearly indicate your expectations in terms of length of posts and numbers of replies expected. This can align with your “activity completion” setting; for example, the assignment will not be checked “complete” until the student has posted a discussion and at least two replies on new threads. This will greatly streamline your grading process and will allow you to provide fast, simple feedback to students.
  4. Provide feedback on content and communication. When providing feedback, ask for input from other team members and exemplify supportive teamwork. Correct any misconceptions. Avoid giving the students the correct answer. Instead, consider reviewing all the forums, and then provide generalized feedback to the entire team or class. Grading can be simplified by using the activity completion setting. You can quickly access each student's forum posts by selecting their name from the participants list, if you chose to individually inspect their contributions. I opt to provide feedback using a simple code associated with my rubric, so students immediately can see where they are missing points, and how to improve.

While it may seem that active learning by definition won’t occur in an online classroom, simple strategies can be used to promote communication, team building, problem solving, and engagement in the material in both synchronous and asynchronous online courses.

Related Resources

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.

About the Authors

Charlene Hayden is a Special Instructor in the Department of Chemistry at OU. Charlene teaches general chemistry, as well as her area of expertise, analytical chemistry. She has 24 years of experience working as an industrial research chemist at the GM Research & Development Center. In her spare time, she loves cooking, bird-watching, and gardening. 

Sarah Hosch is a Special Instructor in the Department of Biological Sciences at OU. Sarah teaches biology, biochemistry and scientific inquiry courses, and is involved in research on student success in biology education. While away from the office this summer, Sarah picked up mountain biking and paddle boarding as new hobbies.

Edited and designed by by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NCView all CETL Weekly Teaching Tips. Follow these and more on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.