9 concrete strategies for active learning in online instruction

8 min read


Recently, at short notice, I had to convert a face-to-face lesson into a Zoom lesson. I tried to use the same group discussion techniques for active learning that I use to deliver the same material face-to-face, with very mixed results. The whole experience got me thinking about synchronous discussion online. When I ask my screen a question during an online session and get silence, I am discouraged. Where is everybody? Am I that boring? As an online instructor and course designer, I have seen firsthand how online learning can be transformative learning. But I also see how synchronous lecturing online — or worse, pre-recorded PowerPoints — have the potential to take inactive learning to new depths.

As OpusVi cares deeply about designing transformative online learning experiences, I want to help instructors who recently had to move their teaching online.

Active learning matters, online and offline

Passive transfer of information does little for learning. Even if you remember something you hear passively — which is unlikely — just because you remember or memorize facts does not mean you understand them or can apply them in the real world. Learners need to engage with material in order to remember it. More importantly, they need to engage with material to truly understand it. They need to think about it, make connections, and respond to it. On top of all of that, learning is largely a social phenomenon that rarely happens in isolation. I feel that COVID-19 has given us an even deeper appreciation of the importance of social interaction.

In response, I’ve put together a list of concrete suggestions to turn engage those zoned out students in front of their computers into active learners.

First things first…

Some of the same strategies that set the tone for active discussion in face to face environments work online too. The key here is to get learners used to the idea ASAP that they’ll be participating, not listening passively. Here are some ideas about how to achieve this.

Preparing learners for active participation in online instruction

  • Practice the tools: Don’t assume your TicToc-savvy students know the specifics of Zoom, Skype, or Microsoft Teams. Ask learners at the very outset of a session to mute and unmute their microphones to say “hi”. Ask them to announce their presence in the chat with an obligatory answer to your check-in question, such as, “In three words, express what you think about today’s (or last week’s) topic.” Also make sure they know how to send you a private comment or question. You might ask them to choose an emoji to express how they are feeling today. This will also give you a way to identify any struggling learners and connect with them later. And, if your software allows it, ask learners to put their hand up when they have a question. BONUS: All this practice at the very beginning of an online session signals to learners that their participation is going to be mandatory and that they’d better pay attention…
  • Virtual prizes: It’s weird, but I’ve seen many grown adults work their butts off in the hope of a happy face sticker on an assignment, or to earn a piece of candy. It works in virtual environments too. Let your learners know you’ll be giving virtual rewards for participation, and have a few images ready that you can ‘give’ to students publicly in the chat room as recognition: Elaborate cakes are often appreciated, dream holidays such as camping in Iceland, a yacht, a puppy, whatever suits your personality, and theirs. One strategy I use regularly is to reward learners that question my words. It encourages dialogue and risk-taking, creates psychological safety, and reinforces the notion that knowledge is not ‘owned’ by the teacher, which, as an academic and creativity specialist, I believe is particularly important.
  • Assign roles: In class, assigning roles can help ensure that discussion activities involve everybody. The same is true online. Having a role gives learners responsibility and a reason to stay engaged with the material. Some ideas for discussion roles include: questioner, devil’s advocate, reference specialist, or summarizer. You might ask learners to come up with tweets or test questions for you. Depending on the circumstances, you might get creative and add pop culture specialist, graphic artist, comedian, or politician.

Building synchronous engagements into learning activities

Making participation mandatory through learning activities and assignments increases the level of discussion, whether or not you assign grades. Do this as early as possible and you’ll get learners familiar with talking and chatting, hopefully even enjoying it, so that it continues with or without grades attached in future sessions. Here are some ideas.

  • Live polls: Live polling can engage everyone in a large audience. I have used Kountu for live polls with undergraduate classes at the beginning, middle, and end of lessons. It has functioned for me to create a point of curiosity, to highlight key points in the content, to demonstrate prior knowledge or lack thereof, and to celebrate positive, collective attitudes and beliefs. As a small example, I ask learners to guess at a statistic related to a lesson, such as the proportion of the population who are diabetic, and then display the results of the poll before discussing the actualities of disease prevalence.
  • Role-playing: While planning, consider stakeholders involved in some issue you’re discussing, or characters in the material (molecules, historical figures, characters, etc.). Divide your class alphabetically or randomly then task learners with listening to the material and commenting on it from their assigned stakeholders’ perspective. Be sure to let learners know ahead of time so that they can prepare mentally to get into this role. You don’t need learners to all speak and take up air time if you have a big class or are tight for time; you can ask them to take up these roles via chat. You could even record the chat and review it later to provide feedback or grades.
  • Voltmeter debate: I encountered this strategy as an online student in a program with the amazing Usha James who heads up the Canadian not-for-profit organization The Critical Thinking Consortium. Its beauty stems from the flexibility for large numbers of people to participate, without taking up a lot of time. Usha put an image of a voltmeter up on the whiteboard of our Blackboard Collaborate session with two opposing quotes on either side related to the topic at hand. She invited us all to put our initials wherever we wanted along the voltmeter to indicate which opposing view we most agreed with, or to indicate our position by marking the space on the whiteboard anywhere along the voltmeter. Then, she called out the initials of several individuals to explain their position to the whole group. She picked individuals with a point of view at opposing ends, and in the middle. This provided a range of viewpoints for the audience, and generated further discussion too.
  • U-shaped debate: A U-shaped debate is another social learning strategy used by The Critical Thinking Consortium. I have altered it for online use as an extension to the Voltmeter debate technique described above. First, I invite students to put their initials on a large “U” I’ve drawn on a virtual whiteboard, with two, opposing viewpoints written at either end. I then invite students with both opposing and moderate views to express their point of view. However, in this debate, all participants are invited to change their position as they hear and are persuaded by their classmates’ arguments. There’s no sitting back and passively listening with this strategy.
  • Use student responses to build teaching content: At times, a group of students have collective knowledge of what I’m teaching, or by highlighting their knowledge I can express a point I’d like to make. For example, in teaching the common responses to trauma, I ask students to describe how they themselves react under intense stress, and use this to build empathy as well as to explain how the reactions to trauma are normal responses to not-so-ordinary circumstances. In online synchronous sessions, I’ve displayed a PowerPoint slide with an empty table, and asked students to respond to my question, such as, “How do you respond under intense stress?” I then type in their responses as the students are speaking, just as I might write them on the blackboard in a traditional classroom. Finally, I use the collection of responses as a launching pad for the content I have to deliver.
  • Invite annotation: You can invite students to annotate a whiteboard collaboratively in response to a compelling question you pose to them. Mysterious questions that provoke curiosity are a favorite approach I take in planning. This works well because students can often (depending on software) do this relatively anonymously, which adds a layer of psychological safety. But don’t let students send their words into the emptiness to be ignored. Respond in some way to their comments, with an observation, insight, summary, or by correcting misconceptions. You might also generate discussion by posting an image and asking students to annotate that. In healthcare, this might be an image of an emergency room with safety hazards, a sonography image to be interpreted, or whatever your imagination and topic allow.

Teachers, and their teaching strategies, matter

If taking teaching online meant simply delivering the content from a standard lecture in a Zoom PowerPoint, we could close all schools and places of learning and let everyone look up all the information they want on Google and GoogleScholar. Pedagogy and design are more important than ever to make learning online awesome.

Delivering active, high-quality learning experiences that truly engage learners requires thought, imagination, and willpower.

The strategies I’ve outlined are just the beginning. I think we’re barely off the launching pad. But the virtual space of teaching and learning offers endless possibilities — for those brave enough to explore it.

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Judy Wearing, PhD


Judy Wearing, PhD

Lead Learning Architect at OpusVi™


Judy Wearing, PhD

Lead Learning Architect at OpusVi™

Judy has worked as an educator and curriculum developer for over twenty years, designing programs, courses, and learning activities for a broad range of learners both online and in person. She holds two PhDs, one in biology from the University of Oxford and the other in education from Queen’s University. She specializes in supporting teachers and learners in the competencies particularly creativity, critical thinking, and communication. She is the author of more than twenty books for adults and children.