Active Learning Exercises for fostering student engagement in fully online courses

Vendor EPs
Author Information
Anne Tuominen
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Cascadia Community College
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
University of Washington
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Western Washington University
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

Meeting active learning outcomes may be more challenging in fully online courses (compared to face-to-face or hybrid courses) but carefully-conceived, varied, creative and regular student participation exercises, or active learning exercises, in the online course offer opportunities for student engagement and learning excitement. These exercises are more than just quizzes, as they are created from a variety of media and sources and are dynamically integrated with other course content, as the current generation of teaching and information technology has made possible (Toth 2009). Student expression and active learning engagement is thus fostered in different ways each week or in each lesson. Active learning exercises are highly adaptable to any course, and effectively and consistently contribute to students’ assessments of their active learning experiences. These exercises may also contribute to other learning outcomes.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

An Active Learning Exercise (or ALE) is created for each week or each lesson in a course. The exercises ask students either to know, apply, share, or explore particular concepts or themes or course materials, but in different ways each time in order to keep students actively engaged. The first week’s ALE might appear to be a simple ‘meet-and-greet’ discussion forum in which students introduce themselves in 1-2 lines AND share their answer to what may seem like a light question (but that will come up again in a later ALE.) In subsequent lessons/weeks,students are asked to consider an interactive graph presented in the news media, to make a virtual visit to a national survey and describe something they discovered, to contribute to a class wiki, or to share a connection between a film and course lesson on a discussion forum. Another week, students might complete an automated true/false or multiple choice quiz asking them to interpret a piece of data or show their understanding of a course concept or article. A final ALE asks students to share and comment on their choice as the most notable reading of the past quarter. The ALEs are briefly described ahead of time in the syllabus, but each one is available only as that week’s or lesson’s folder is opened, and is due some time that week. The due dates might vary from week to week as they vary by assignment type, so students have to stay engaged if they are to succeed (students seek to optimize their time and efforts, Dale and Lane 2004, Knight 2010). The assignments are graded on a 10 point scale and have firm deadlines and fairly specific questions (see Deed and Edward 2011 about the importance of instructor control of such assignments). The final grading though may be weighted heavily or lightly (5-30%), depending on how structured and rigorous the active learning goals are. One can also offer more ALEs than will be counted (in a 10-week academic quarter, one might offer 11 or 12 ALEs, keeping the top 10 scores, and thus not penalizing for 1 or 2 missed ALEs). ALEs can also be spontaneously added during an academic term, say if a particular concept is giving students trouble, or a news event precipitates an opportunity to integrate course materials. Some of them can even be optional, to enhance learning opportunities for particularly engaged students.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

Active Learning Exercises were designed by the instructor when she moved from face-to-face and online courses to exclusively online ones in 2011. They were initially called Participation Exercises, and the thinking was that creative, varied, and consistent exercises could substitute for the more physical and often spontaneous class participation possible in a face-to-face classroom. The best evidence that such exercises contribute to active learning, or at least to student perceptions of such learning come from the students themselves, particularly on a campus in which active learning is a learning outcome and is thus an element on student evaluation forms (see for example, Cascadia Community College). Comparing student course evaluations for a course (SOC 101) that has been offered by the instructor in both face-to-face and online settings (where the face-to-face setting did not contain the participation or active learning exercise assessment while the online course has), shows that student impressions of their own active learning in the course vary only slightly depending on whether students took the course face-to-face (before fall 2011) or online (from fall 2011). (Two samples of course evaluations, one before 2011 and one after, are attached to this application.) Similarly, questions about how the assessments in the course contributed to the learning outcomes, to the students’ own perceptions of their learning and measurements of what was taught are also very similar. In other courses in the online mode, the students’ perceptions of active learning contributions do not differ significantly, while at the instructor’s other institutions where student evaluations do not specifically ask about or measure active learning practices (University of Washington and Western Washington University), student comments reveal satisfaction with the mixed media nature of the participation exercises, their quality, and the opportunities these give to articulate thoughts and learning (selected comments from one institution are attached).

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

Access: Active Learning Exercises as outlined above offer all kinds of access, as students are invited to engage with materials and concepts from different angles and in different ways, playing to varying strengths and interests. As long as students have access to the course online, they have access to the active learning opportunities, as these are designed to be accessible to anyone, using resources that are freely available on the web, or by the institution, without additional subscriptions or online memberships or accounts.

Learning effectiveness: Because institutional evaluation forms do not allow for personalized questioning about particular elements of courses, especially innovative ones, the ability to assess the active learning or participation exercises’ ability to influence active learning outcomes remains limited. The report of one institutional assessment for ‘Learn Actively’ outcome in 2012 did not offer individual course and assignment outcomes. (Instructor submitted a set of exercises for this assessment in any case.) However, assessments of the different learning outcomes by academic discipline do repeat every few years, and as the research instruments are fine-tuned, these may offer improved opportunities for the instructor to gauge the effectiveness of ALEs in the future.

Student satisfaction: Student satisfaction appears to be high, perhaps in part due to the easy access to links, or activities, and also to their varied nature, as expressed in student evaluations. (See Evidence above and sample evaluation of online course, Winter 2013). Enrollments in several online courses are repeatedly at capacity.

Faculty satisfaction: From the instructor’s perspective, Active Learning Exercises allow for injections of creativity, spontaneity, and rigor. Yet these do not require substantial grading effort, and may increase faculty enjoyment in the online teaching experience. Some exercises are automatically graded, while others offer the instructor opportunities to insert a comment in response to an active learning moment. The ability to do these efficiently depend upon the learning management system used by the institution and the degree to which the instructor wishes to interact. Faculty interest in this and my other active learning teaching strategies was high at the recent The Future of Education conference 2013 in Florence, Italy in which I delivered a paper: “Creating Learning Excitement Through Active Learning Opportunities in Fully Online Courses”. (Attached to this application.)

Scale/cost: The only cost is in terms of time and effort on the part of the instructor, since the online learning management system and other tools are already available institutionally. The time to research or interactive websites or create exercises and then to grade them is the only real cost, and can be achieved with good institutional support of online faculty and their professional development needs (particularly if the faculty are not part of the physical campus community). The potential outcome, of generating active learning excitement via enhanced instructor teaching, benefits everyone--the students, the faculty, and the institution.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

As stated above, students must have access to the learning management system and the web, which they will have if they are enrolled in a fully online course. Thus the Effective Practice is not dependent on any particular kind of equipment so long as it gives the access above, to the students and to the instructors.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

Compensation for additional time spent on course development (2-12 hours each term, to create and update Active Learning Exercises) and on professional development opportunities (5-20 hours annually, to share ideas for future Active Learning Exercises), and other active support of online teaching faculty are the minimal costs that would enhance the use of this Effective Practice.

References, supporting documents: 

Cascadia Community College. 2013. “Learning outcomes.”
(accessed Aug. 2013).

Dale, Crispin and Lane, Andrew M. 2004. “’Carry on Talking’: Developing ways to enhance students’ use of online discussion forum.” Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education (3)1.

Deed, Craig and Anthony Edward. 2011. “Unrestricted student blogging: implications for acting learning in a virtual text-based.” Active Learning in Higher Education 12:11.

Knight, Jasper. 2010. “Distinguishing the learning approaches by undergraduates in their use of online resources.” Active Learning in Higher Education. 11:67.

Toth, P. 2009. “Cooperative Learning by Utilization of 2nd Generation Web technologies.” 1st Intl Conference on Education and New Learning Technologies. 6-8 July 2009. Barcelona, Spain.

Tuominen, Anne. 2013 (June). “Creating Learning Excitement Through Active Learning Opportunities in Fully Online Courses”. The Future of Education 2013, PIXEL Conference, Florence, Italy.

Tuominen, Anne. Course/Instructor Evaluation. CCC. Sample for Online Course SOC101 (Winter 2013)

Tuominen, Anne. Course/Instructor Evaluation. CCC. Sample for Face-to-Face Course SOC101 (Spring 2010)

Tuominen, Anne. Course Evaluation. WWU. Selected student comments on Active Learning (Winter 2013, Spring 2013)

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Anne Tuominen, Ph.D.
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