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Active Learning Strategies for Online, Asynchronous Courses

At our first fall 2020 meeting on Sept 29, we discussed ideas and suggestions from the articles listed in the references at the end of this post, and then participants shared their own ideas for active learning online.

Highlights from our discussion included:

  • Why do faculty and students generally believe that in-person learning is superior? Riggs & Lander (first paper above) argue that this is because we know the value of engagement and active learning, and we assume that these are more likely to achieve in person. However, Riggs & Lander point out that engagement and active learning in an online, asynchronous environment are possible—it is only a matter of training and experience (professional development opportunity).
  • Riggs & Lander outline suggestions to improve active online learning in three areas:
    • Course architecture
    • Web tools
    • Discussion boards.
  • Here are the suggestions offered by the STEM FIG participants:
    • Include instructor profile with photo
    • Have students upload an image that is meaningful to them if they do not want to upload a profile photo or turn on their camera
    • Form small groups of students for online discussion or lab (4-6 students)
      • Assign group leaders (rotate weekly or monthly)
      • Survey groups anonymously about participation of group members
      • For lab reports, assign one student in each group to write Intro, Methods, Results, Discussion and make one student the lead author. Rotate these roles with each lab report.
      • Have students use wikis on Blackboard as a joint study guide
    • Give specific instructions/rubric for discussion boards
    • Decreasing “copy and paste” in student submissions
      • Require students to explain course concepts in plain English—decreases plagiarism and forces students to write in their own words (see website https://splasho.com/upgoer5/)
      • Have students google real-life applications of the concepts being taught, or apply the concept to their own experiences
    • “Botany walk”—have students take a walk outside, or examine their own refrigerator and kitchen to identify various plants and do plant dissections.
    • Live organism observations—for example, recording observations of vertebrates in the park or pets at home
    • Using iNaturalist app or website (https://www.inaturalist.org/) to record observations and share with the wider scientific community (citizen scientist opportunity)
    • Provide students with two articles or two videos on the same topic, and have them compare or identify similarities and differences between the sources
    • Consider the amount of work assigned each week—the group consensus was to assign three activities for “lecture” and three for “lab” each week.
    • Permit multiple attempts or extra credit options to incentivize additional practice of the concepts without adding to mandatory workload


1.Actively Engaging Students in Asynchronous Online Classes (paper posted at both of these links, in case one doesn’t work)



2. Active Learning for the College Classroom (the original paper has been adapted to give tips specifically for online learning)


3. Tips for Creating an Engaging Asynchronous Online Learning Environment (from Wiley Education Services)


4. Developing curiosity and challenging students to solve problems (NYT has a paywall if you are not already a subscriber, sorry!)


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