Getting Back on Track with Active Learning

The quality of the student experience took an unavoidable dip in the Spring of 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, recent research suggests that future semesters are likely to improve, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study profiled by Inside Higher Ed’s Colleen Flaherty.

Among the myriad losses—time with classmates, face-to-face lectures, research labs, extracurricular life—students, faculty and staff did the best they could to keep pursuing learning outcomes. Flaherty notes that students from the study scored lower on standardized course assessments in Spring 2020, but the study also highlighted the two variables that can reverse the trend. 

Luckily, both are in the control of instructors: improving online teaching skills and emphasizing active learning in lesson plans.

The study found no link between demographic information such as race or gender with negative or positive academic outcomes, to the relief of the educators involved, Flaherty notes. The researchers also found that when professors have previous online teaching experience, their students perform better. This fact should be a source of optimism now that most instructors have some online experience under their belts.

The other factor is active learning, which CNDLS defines as “an approach to education that does not consider students the passive recipients of knowledge transmitted from an expert, but rather, active agents in their own learning.” It allows students to engage better with the concepts and ideas taught in the course, “through talking, writing, reading and reflecting” rather than just listening to a lecture.

The NBER study identified the most effective active learning methods to be centered around peer interaction, activities such as “think-pair-share activities with partners, small group activities, encouraging students to work together outside class time in preassigned groups and allowing students to work together on exams,” according to Flaherty.

Flaherty also spoke with multiple pedagogical experts who offered differing views on asynchronous learning. Given the potential for engagement and the ways that it can engage previously disengaged students, asynchronous learning methods can “encourage connection and learning,” according to the CNDLS guide on the subject, which includes models for lecture plans and resources for creating asynchronous online learning materials.

For instructors, it appears incorporating active learning methods and spending some time to better understand online pedagogy will go a long way toward getting better assessment scores and driving better learning outcomes for students. For more information on how to improve your online courses, CNDLS provides a wealth of resources and our team is always ready and willing to help!