Top five strategies for integrating active learning into virtual classes

It is all too easy for remote learning to become a passive experience for students, sitting on their own at home. Here Steven Mintz outlines some strategies for ensuring students remain actively engaged with their online courses

Steven Mintz's avatar
University of Texas at Austin
15 Oct 2020
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The rules of engagement for virtual learning
Rules to put in place to keep students engaged in the virtual learning environment

Too many students spell online learning b*o*r*i*n*g. 

But remote learning need not be dull or lifeless or passive or inert. There are simple ways to make online classes more engaging. The key is active, hands-on learning. 

Students learn best when learning is active: when they are mentally involved, when they engage in hands-on activities, when they are involved in a process of enquiry, discovery, investigation and interpretation.  

When students are passive, their brain don’t do an especially effective job of processing or retaining the information. But real learning involves more than memorisation. Students need to reflect on their learning. They need to actually do biology or chemistry or literary criticism or sociology. 

Students need to undertake enquiries and solve problems and apply what they have learned. 

Active learning transforms passive students into detectives, myth-busters, problem-solvers and forensic scientists. It gives them the opportunity to investigate enduring mysteries, debunk legends, engage in role-playing exercises and take part in heated political or scholarly debates. 

So how can we integrate active learning into our virtual classes? Here are five strategies that work, and that can involve a single student or be team-based. 

Enquiry-based learning 

Enquiry-based learning is a form of active learning that places students at the centre of the learning process. It begins with a question or problem that students must investigate. The students, then, conduct research; identify, analyse and interpret the evidence they uncover; draw conclusions; and present their findings. The enquiries can be structured or more open, and the outcomes can be known in advance or discovered only through a process of investigation. 

An enquiry approach builds on the adage “Tell me and I forget; show me and I remember; involve me and I understand.” It requires students to take responsibility for their own learning. 

Examples include: 

Researching a topic: Students might be asked to investigate whether a particular political or medical or scientific claim is true or false. For example, is it the case that more than half of marriages end in divorce? 

Evaluating evidence: Students might evaluate particular pieces of evidence. They might ask what particular advertisements tell us about shifting ideas about beauty, ethnicity and race, or femininity and masculinity. 

Analysing a case: Provide students with background information about a political or diplomatic or military decision and ask them to analyse the decision-making process, consider options or alternatives, and evaluate the outcome. 

Game-based learning 

This approach integrates game-like elements – such as interactivity, competition, playfulness and immediate feedback – into teaching and learning. The use of rewards, recognition, points and levels helps to motivate students and encourages perseverance. Here are some examples: 

Research Scavenger Hunt: Ask students to discover how many children a typical mother had in 1800 or the number of automobiles in 1900. 

Treasure Hunt: Challenge students to solve a series of problems or to answer questions to reach or find the “treasure”. 

College Bowl: Pose questions to teams of students to see which group can answer the questions correctly first. 

Place-based learning 

Learning need not take place only in a classroom or a laboratory. A hallmark of archaeology, geography and environmental science courses, field-based learning can take place in almost any discipline and give students the opportunity to apply their research skills. Underlying this approach is a belief that neighbouring communities and environments outside the classroom contain assets that can significantly enhance student learning. 

For this to be educationally meaningful, the students need to formulate a research question; undertake background research; collect, process and interpret data; and draw and present conclusions. 

Examples of field- or community-based learning include collecting interviews and oral histories or investigating historical sites. Or ask students to go outside and identify particular rocks or minerals or plants. 

Technology-enhanced learning 

Technology is a tool, not a pedagogy. Nevertheless, new instructional tools have the power to transform education by facilitating new forms of collaboration and interactive learning.  

Examples range from the simple – such as classroom surveys and polls – to the more complex. Students might create a mini-movie (a digital story) or a podcast. They might also annotate a text (using Hypothes.is or Perusall) or create a timeline. 

Project-based learning 

Learning by doing helps students link theory to practice and translate academic knowledge and skills into tangible products. The best-known form of learning by doing is project-based learning. Ideally, project-based learning requires students to go through a multistage process of design, planning, execution, public presentation, critique, revision and formal assessment.  

The project outcome need not be a physical product. It can consist of a detailed policy proposal, a teaching resource, a briefing paper or another authentic outcome. 

Learning – especially online learning – should not be a spectator sport. Meaningful learning requires active engagement, critical thinking and thoughtful reflection. Even online, your students can engage in active enquiry and become creators of knowledge. 


Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and was a founding director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, which was responsible for designing and testing new educational models and technologies. 


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