Active Learning Online

Overview and Introduction: The WHAT and WHO

Active learning refers to a broad range of teaching strategies which engage students in the learning process, as opposed to passively taking in the information. The use of active learning strategies should be used in a way that ultimately assists students to reach the learning objectives. 

Active learning applies the use of  student engagement strategies and techniques to promote student mastery. Active learning opportunities shift the space (online or face-to-face) to be more student-centered, challenging the traditional, instructor-centered approach.  

Teaching for active learning means:

      • Becoming a facilitator and guide, rather than the main source of knowledge
      • Fostering independent, critical and creative thinking
      • Focusing on the why rather than the how of learning
      • Encouraging effective collaboration
      • Transforming students from passive listeners to active participants
      • Developing and implementing interactive, student-centered activities

Online courses should not be immune to the use of active learning strategies. The execution of such strategies must be more strategic and explicit, but they can be adapted to work in online courses. In doing so, learners must shift from being passively engaged to more active as they interact with peers and the course content. Students of all years will benefit from the use of active learning strategies in an online course.

Implementation and Timing: The WHEN, WHERE, and HOW

Prior to integrating active learning strategies to online courses, determine what strategies will easily adapt to an online course and best support the module outcomes. Even in an online course, active learning should be introduced to learners at the beginning. Provide a rationale and links to research that explains why the strategies are being used and how these can benefit all learners. Continue integrating active learning throughout the course and consider the type of ASU licensed technology tools that will best support the engagement with the content and student mastery. Scaffold the number of active learning strategies introduced to the course initially, starting with one to two strategies. This provides time to troubleshoot, analyze data for effectiveness and gain confidence in the use of such active learning strategies for virtual learners.

Online Hybrid Online


Online, Synchronous Hybrid Online, Asynchronous


Breakout room groups. Create small-group breakout rooms based on  topics, group projects, or random assignments.

Polling. Pause in your virtual lecture to pose a question with a poll via Zoom or other educational technology.

Zoom icons and annotations. Use the Zoom icons to provide feedback to students as they work and share. Enable annotations in Zoom (Zoom Annotation Tool) for students to annotate the screen in breakout rooms.

Collaborative documents. Use Google Keep, Zoom whiteboard, and/or create shared Google Docs or slides so that students can collaborate in real time. Collaborative note taking enables students to jot notes, connections, images together.

Google Jamboard. Jamboard creates a collaborative space for brainstorming in Zoom breakout discussions for up to 50 students.

Breakout rooms and small groups.
Create break out rooms for small groups both online and in the class for students to join small groups.Polling. Many polling systems can be used for both online and face to face students. Use a licensed tool that works best for your hybrid class.Canvas tools. Design activities and use a licensed Canvas tool to support student engagement. Create Muddiest Points quizzes after online modules to maximize your in-person class time.


In-person labs. Bring students into the room to conduct hands-on labs and/or project-based learning opportunities.

Collaborative documents and Google Jamboard are tools to use for hybrid classes as well, similar to synchronous online classes.

Discussion Board Prompts. Discussion boards are a great way to help students stay engaged in the course, to answer questions that can’t be reviewed in class, and to give context to ideas when class time is limited.

Videos. Interactive videos are a great option to keep students engaged by using tools like PlayPosit, that allows questions to be embedded in lecture videos. Faculty can also have students create quick videos to demonstrate their learning or have discussions.

Online learning portfolios. Learners select representative work to demonstrate their progressive nature of learning throughout the course and reflect on what they learned continuously.

Collaborative documents and group work opportunities are also ways to engage online students through active learning.


Consider the strategy and the varying levels of preparation each strategy will require. Also plan out the time associated with implementing the strategy in class. An important item to plan for is the chunking of the lesson instruction. For example, if a live lecture is being conducted through Zoom, break the information into chunks, or smaller amounts or shorter times. At each chunk, implement an active learning strategy. This allows students the opportunity to work with the information just taught in a meaningful and active manner. Even in an online space, students need to be expected to collaborate, interact and participate. 

In virtual courses, the use of active learning must be promoted by the faculty member, strategic and intentionally organized [1]. For that reason, it is necessary to account for the following items:

      1. Learning Objectives-  Plan for active learning strategies that will assist students in mastering the objective.
      2. Assessment- Determine hoe the active learning strategy will ultimately support learners in mastering the content.
      3. Active Learning Strategy- Not every activity will work, especially if the course is, for example, 100% asynchronous.

Don't forget image with sticky notes.Tips for Active Learning Online

      • Select 1-2 active learning strategies that can be easily adapted into a virtual course.
      • Explain the rationale to students for using the strategies and explain how it will benefit them.
      • Consider the accessibility of each tool for all learners.
      • Start with low stakes activities that allow students to get to know one another and learn how they are expected to engage with the content.
      • Take into account that technology issues will occur so plan ahead.  Build in set up time, provide students resources for common technology issues and consider alternate ways to engage if the tool does not work.
      • Group students at the beginning of a course to work together and assign points related to group work.
      • Be open to student input and feedback about the strategy effectiveness.

Rationale and Research: The WHY

The objective of active learning is not just to have your students perform tasks, but also to reflect on their actions. This is known as metacognition. Students can begin to take more control of their learning if they are working with the information in a meaningful manner [2].

Planning and building a home requires a great deal of thought about the overall structural design and function of the structure. The same can be said for designing asynchronous and synchronous courses in a way that promotes student to student engagement through the implementation of active learning strategies.  

  • Architecture of engagement [3]
    • Intentionally show students how to maneuver the online course. This can increase the course engagement and understanding overall. 
    • Explicitly outline expectations for module interaction. This will allow learners to know what kind and how many times/methods they are expected to engage in over the course.  
    • Use effective digital materials to support learning. Use tools that are appropriate to the course and are effective for learning
  • Use of web-based tools and LMS [3]. Use Educational technology beyond and outside LMS to provide additional engagement opportunities. Some tools allow greater opportunities for students to engage.
  • Use of discussion boards as interactive spaces [3]. Change the way discussion boards are used. Step away from asking one question to all students or even requiring students to comment. Ideas and reflections become redundant. Turn discussion boards into spaces to share presentations using tech tools, videos, voice overs, gallery spaces for images, memes, workspaces for small groups.

Reliable sources in higher education have found how active learning benefits learners. Students today have the opportunity to learn from anywhere and it is necessary to think about designing active learning courses for all learners in all modalities [4], [5], [6].


Additional Resources and References

[1]  D. Austin and N. D. Mescia, “Austin and MESCIA strategies to incorporate active learning into online …” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 14-Sep-2022]. 

[2]  “Resources and Technology,” Columbia CTL. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 15-Sep-2022]. 

[3]  S. A. Riggs and K. E. Linder, “Actively engaging students in asynchronous online classes – ED,” Dec-2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 17-Feb-2023]. 

[4]  R. A. Howell, “Engaging students in education for sustainable development: The benefits of active learning, reflective practices and flipped classroom pedagogies,” Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 325, p. 129318, 2021. 

[5]  J. Allsop, S. J. Young, E. J. Nelson, J. Piatt, and D. Knapp, “Examining the Benefits Associated with Implementing an Active Learning Classroom among Undergraduate Students,” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 418–426. 

[6]  M. Prince, “Does active learning work? A review of the research,” Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 93, no. 3, pp. 223–231, 2004.