Four-Step Strategy to Create Active Learning in any Learning Space—Online, F2F or Blended

In a recent article The 3 Instructional Shifts That Will Redefine the College Professor, the ‘dynamic classroom’ was listed as number one. The dynamic classroom is where faculty “do practically anything other than lecture” (Craig, 2015).  A meager definition but the idea is right on—active learning, where students apply concepts through discussion, debate, writing, hands-on experiments, etc. produces better learning results. Numerous studies back up the claim; a recent paper shows student performance increased by just under half a standard deviation with active learning compared with lecturing (Freeman et al., 2014). In this post I share a four-step strategy that instructors can use to make learning active for online, blended or face-to-face learning spaces. Readers will find instructive examples and resources on active learning in the photo gallery (below) as well as in the list of resources at the end of this post.

Active learning is not a theory but a teaching method that supports learning. The method uses techniques such as writing reflections, discussion, problem solving—activities that promote analysis, synthesis and evaluation that guide students towards achieving learning objectives. Typically tools are used to support the activity, for example handouts, whiteboard, chalkboard, smart phone apps, platforms such as Google Drive or Twitter. The choice of activity and tool are (or should be) determined by the learning goal, as well as other factors that include, time available, location (in-class or online), class size and others that are specific to the students, such as their skill level and access to tools.

Another way to define active learning is to consider the opposite—passive learning where students are recipients of knowledge, are expected to record and absorb knowledge  delivered by an expert—a faculty member or textbook (McManus, 2001). Passive learning aligns with behaviorist theories where the student is viewed as an empty vessel waiting to be filled. In contrast active learning aligns with the constructivist perspective of learning. The constructivist view embraces the idea that knowledge is actively constructed by the learner and integrated with his or her existing knowledge and experience.

Active Learning Photo and Resource Gallery
Click on an image below to open up the photo gallery. Each image is captioned with a link to further information about the method featured.

Four-Step Strategy for Making Learning Active
Below is a four-step framework for re-designing a lesson or unit to make learning active. Integrating active learning requires a skill set that goes beyond skills required for facilitating the traditional lecture format; numerous institutions provide professional development for faculty and instructors looking to incorporate active methods given the time and skills required. This framework below is a starting point; it features the bare bones principles of making learning active. An important note, the lecture method still has a role; lectures are an effective method to deliver information, yet it’s using lectures (and active learning) strategically as a method along with others that creates a comprehensive instructional strategy (“150 Teaching Methods”).

To illustrate the framework an active learning scenario featuring a group of nursing students in a face-to-face (F2F) course is used and described in the ‘application’ section of each step.

1. Identify learning objectives for the lesson/unit. Considering the learning objective or goal ensures the activity aligns with the course objectives and the lesson itself. If the unit/lesson doesn’t have a specific goal, but the course has overall learning outcomes, create one by considering the question—what should students be able to do or know after the lesson that will support them reaching a (given) course objective? A useful tool for identifying and writing learning objectives is a Bloom’s Taxonomy resource from UNCC ‘Writing Objectives Using Bloom’s Taxonomy’.

Application: Using the nursing students scenario the two goals for the learning unit on eating disorders are: 1) identify symptoms associated with disordered eating, and 2) determine a patient’s symptoms on the eating disorder continuum. These goals support one of the course objectives  • Analyze patient behaviors to determine presence of disordered eating on the eating disorder continuum, and helps students gain the knowledge and skills needed to meet this learning outcome.

2. Identify core concepts students need to learn. List key concepts— frameworks, formulas, theoretical principles etc. students need to learn. Determine the breadth and depth of knowledge required—the level at which students need to know the concepts, e.g. familiarity or mastery. Consider students’ current level of knowledge on the topic; this  helps determine how concepts will need to be presented to students before they engage in the activity.

Application: In the scenario nursing students need to recognize symptoms of disordered eating and determine which patient behaviors are normal and ones associated with eating disorders. Students need to know characteristics of eating disorders and be familiar with the ‘eating disorder continuum’.  Faculty determined that knowledge of the students is varied, thus assigned a textbook reading prior to class and selected a short video to show prior to the activity that illustrated key concepts.

3. Consider options—select activity and tools. This step has two phases. First determine types of activities that could work for the concepts given the learning context—class size, learning space, time constraints, etc. The activity might be a debate, mind map, or small discussion. Next identify the tools needed to support the activity, while also considering factors such as students skill level and access (to the tool). If skill level could be an issue, consider providing instructions, tutorials for students to learn the tool and build learning time in accordingly. If the learning curve is deemed too high given the time allocated, consider an alternative tool.

Active nursing class
Nursing students work on concept boards in small groups in School of Nursing class at University of Wisconsin-Madison (2014). Picture by Jeff Miller.

In the nursing face-to-face class of 150 students a concept board activity was chosen. Students worked in small groups after watching video about a woman struggling with binge eating. The activity was introduced by professor with questions to guide the discussion. The groups collaborated using a white board to create their concept board.

This activity can be applied to online setting—student groups can create a concept board using Google Draw program on Google Drive. Students can work on the concept map asynchronously or synchronously.

4. Articulate activity instructions in detail. Instructions that highlight the goal of the activity and its purpose frame the activity and prepare students for learning. Instructions for F2F and online environments need to be specific, clear and detailed and should include three components, 1) goals of activity, its purpose and expected outcomes, 2) details of the assignment: requirements, due dates, concepts to incorporate, format for product, etc. and 3) execution details: group or individual assignment, how groups will work together, e.g. group etiquette, collaboration strategies,  tools and platforms to use (more so for online classes).

Closing Thoughts
Active learning is a proven method that supports learning. Yet it’s one of several that supports knowledge building and creation that engages and motivates students. Below is a list of resources for educators looking to incorporate active learning strategies into online, blended or F2F course.



7 thoughts on “Four-Step Strategy to Create Active Learning in any Learning Space—Online, F2F or Blended

  1. Thanks very much for an excellent a simple and effective strategic plan for active learning. I consistently find that the applied approach taken in my graduate seminars is the highlight for the student experience. That individually, and as a group, they have participated in a process that is now living in a museum is a big deal for the students and the institution.


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