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In this blog post, read about active learning. Learn why it’s important and how to make your online synchronous classrooms more engaging and productive.

Jump to:

  1. What is active learning?
  2. Why is it important?
  3. Benefits of active learning
  4. Four active learning strategies for higher education virtual classrooms
  5. Conclusion

What is active learning?

Active learning asks students to engage deeply to increase learning outcomes. The goal is to structure learning around activities that drive comprehension and connect students with the subject matter, themselves, and each other. Research suggests active learning supports knowledge retention across disciplines more effectively than traditional passive lectures or discussions.

Active learning finds origins in Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956). The stairs of Bloom’s taxonomy include Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. However, an updated study from 2001 changed Bloom’s stairs to active pillars, replacing the former “static notions of educational objectives.” The updated taxonomy includes Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating.

As a more student-centered approach to the classroom, active learning asks students to engage in two primary ways:

  1. Take meaningful action on behalf of their learning
  2. Couple that action with reflection regarding the learning experience

These active states of processing and reflecting produce powerful levels of cognition.

Why is it important now?

Active learning is entrenched in in-person education. And now, virtual classrooms offer an opportunity to utilize active learning strategies to animate online learning. The pandemic revealed traditional lecturing did not translate well in virtual settings. In online classrooms, college students report they lose focus more frequently. For example, a 2020 research study by Barnes and Noble Education found that 64% of students expressed concern over maintaining focus and discipline in virtual settings. To help solve these deficiencies, instructors are reframing synchronous learning with active strategies.

Benefits of active learning online

There are many benefits of active learning in online synchronous classrooms, but here are some highlights.

  1. Help students deepen their understanding of a given subject and topic
  2. Ensure learning success by evaluating comprehension throughout a lesson or semester
  3. Build peer-to-peer connections in the virtual classroom, which has been shown to increase course completion and student satisfaction
  4. Provide professors with feedback on the effectiveness of their instructional methods
  5. Challenge students to see themselves in their education and engage in more complex analytical modes of relational thinking
  6. Combat online course fatigue with live, synchronous engagement

What is a Virtual Synchronous Class?

A Virtual Synchronous Class is an online learning environment where students and instructors participate in real-time interactions, replicating the traditional classroom experience. Students attend classes and engage in discussions using digital tools like video conferencing. It offers benefits like immediate feedback and live interaction but requires stable internet and dealing with time zone differences. Some institutions provide session recordings to accommodate diverse learners.

What are the benefits of synchronous online classes?

The benefits of synchronous online classrooms are:

  1. Real-Time Interaction: Students can engage in active discussions, receive immediate feedback, and interact with instructors in real-time.
  2. Sense of Community: Scheduled classes foster a sense of connection and collaboration, creating a virtual classroom atmosphere.
  3. Enhanced Engagement: Live interactions capture students’ attention, leading to increased focus and better retention of course content.
  4. Immediate Clarifications: Students can seek prompt clarifications on assignments, promoting a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
  5. Social Learning Opportunities: Real-time collaboration with peers allows for social learning and sharing of perspectives on various topics.

Four active learning strategies for higher education virtual classrooms

Here are four active online learning strategies for your virtual classroom coupled with a digital learning tool that can help.

1. Metacognition

Metacognition activities help facilitate reflection. Test students’ comprehension in real time with live touchpoints.

Ask students to critically assess their limitations: What do they know about the subject matter, and what do they expect to learn? How has my perspective changed?

This type of active learning also includes evaluating work styles: What should I remember to do next time? What did not work well that I should change?

Online Tools
Polls are a great way to provide whole-class assessments and check-ins and measure student understanding at live touchpoints. Or, after an assignment, poll students to reflect on what they could improve. Then, share results live with the class so students can see how they stack up with the whole class.

2. Experiential Learning

Help students bring ideas to life and practice with actual results, people, and cases. Structure learning around active case studies and experiences. Ask students to undergo field work for a live research project. Shape learning objectives around getting students out of the classroom and into the world. Use the classroom to report findings, get feedback, or discuss. Consider asking students to present results with field collaborators or in class.

Online Tools
Ask students to plan experiential learning projects using shared tools like Google Jamboard, Miro, or Padlet. Use these tools as shared references to easily view in a live session.

3. Think-Pair-Share

Think-pair-share (TPS) is a cooperative learning strategy where students work together to solve a problem or engage in analysis. The strategy follows a basic operation:

  1. Think individually about a topic, discussion, or question.
  2. Pair each student with a partner or small group.
  3. Ask students to share their thoughts with their pair. Consider later expanding “share” into a whole-class discussion.

TPS asks students to engage with one another to achieve a learning goal. The strategy allows students to directly consider their ideas against peers, which creates a social thinking loop. Students not only process a topic but practice communication, problem-solving, and collaboration. TPS can be a short activity to start a larger class (5-10 minutes) or a more extended activity for an entire discussion or workshop (30 minutes).

Online Tools
Breakout Rooms are the heart of think-pair-share in a virtual classroom. Use breakout rooms to set up pairing sessions for students’ 1-1s or small group discussions. Keep track of all students at once with tools like Class, where you can monitor breakout rooms side-by-side together.

4. Flipped Classroom

It’s important to engage students who are participating less–and give them their unique moment. “Flip” your classroom to see who could be more involved. Organize your live seating chart view by students participating least. Then ask them to start guiding the discussion. They can come up with new questions. Or, they can pick up where the conversation left off. For a maximum flip, keep it a surprise.

Online Tools
You’ll need to modify your seating chart arrangement for a flipped classroom. With Class, you can arrange your seating chart by students who participate the least or most. Choosing the least will bring those quietest to the top of your screen. Once your classroom is flipped, there’s only one thing left to do: flip it back!

Conclusion: Synchronous learning and virtual classrooms

If you’re instructing online synchronous classrooms, try active learning strategies to keep students engaged. Active learning combats engagement fatigue in virtual classrooms. But it also promotes analytical thinking, problem-solving, and peer-to-peer collaboration skills. The more active you make your classroom, the deeper learning experiences your students will have. These strategies can help students get the most out of their virtual classroom.

4 Active Learning Activities in Online Learning

Watch a step-by-step demo on how to run active learning strategies in a live online class.

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About Mike
Mike Lovell is the SVP of Marketing at Class. He has dedicated his career to technology and the applications that can innovate the way people live and learn.