Add These Active Learning Activities to Your Courseware for Improved Student Outcomes

Written by: Pamela Baker

Active learning that involves and engages students beyond listening to the instructor and passive note taking should be the goal in all environments, including online courses. Active learning can involve strategies such as reflection, problem solving, discussion, collaboration, and writing or other creative activities.

The benefits of active learning include increased student engagement, improved collaboration skills, increased knowledge retention, and increased satisfaction for students and faculty. It develops students and their ability to retain knowledge, understand concepts, and master skills.

In a traditional face-to-face classroom, active learning may involve whiteboards, small groups, and poster presentations. When shifting to teaching in online modalities, the challenge is to sustain active learning in a remote environment. Many traditional activities can be effectively reproduced online — with online whiteboards, for example. Even better, digital learning tools open up opportunities for new creative approaches to active learning. For example, the challenges of asynchronous learning can be turned into a virtue with activities that ask students to collaborate through threaded discussions.

Below is a selection of active learning activities that instructors can consider when selecting and implementing courseware or other digital learning tools for online or hybrid learning:

Purposeful Pause

A purposeful pause can be easily incorporated into a video or live online lecture. The Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning recommends that the instructor pause every 15 minutes and ask students to briefly summarize what they just learned and to present any questions they have. During this pause, students can turn off their cameras. Alternatively, during the pause, students can join a breakout room to work in pairs.

Concept Mapping

At the Cambridge University Faculty of Education, Dr. Mark Winterbottom recommends using concept maps as an active learning strategy. In this scenario, the instructor asks students to determine the relationships among a set of concepts. Students draw connecting arrows between the relationships and label them with short, descriptive phrases. Students can work collaboratively on concept maps using digital whiteboard tools. 

Peer Learning

Peer learning is an active learning strategy that can be used effectively in online environments. Through peer discussion, students may see additional connections between concepts or even correct misconceptions. The Center for Innovation at Cornell University describes how peer learning online can be accomplished using breakout rooms in Zoom, online discussion boards, group collaboration in Canvas Groups, peer feedback assignments, and Google Docs for collaboration.

Embed Quizzes in Videos

Low-stakes quizzes to check student understanding are a common active learning technique. Meanwhile, many online or hybrid courses include unique video content in the courseware. The Center for Innovation at Cornell University suggests using video-editing tools like Panopto to embed quiz questions at checkpoints throughout a video.

Primary Source Analysis

Grace Moser, Professor of History at St. Charles Community College in Missouri, uses social annotation software for a modern take on the traditional primary source analysis assignment. Social annotation software allows a group of users to mark up and discuss an artifact uploaded to the platform. It resembles the comment feature on word processing tools like Word and Google Docs, except the document may be the image of a historical text, a photo, or a video file. Moser says this assignment gives students a chance to practice the work of being historians while teaching them critical thinking skills.


Zoom’s polling feature makes it easy to quickly check your students’ understanding or perspectives. The Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia University outlines a structure for polling to assess prior knowledge, solicit opinions on debatable issues, choose the next topic to cover, or get feedback on what helps students learn. 


Think-pair-share is a familiar classroom activity in which students work individually for a few minutes on an open-ended question (think), discuss their thinking with another student (pair), and then come back to a classroom discussion (share). The Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning recommends integrating the think-pair-share activity into remote learning using Zoom’s screenshare and breakout room features.

Student-Generated Test Questions

In this activity, the instructor provides students with a copy of the learning goals for a particular unit or chapter of a course and then students, often organized into small groups, are challenged to create test questions. The Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching recommends instructors to consider having each group share their favorite test question. Alternatively, you can compile the student-submitted questions and share as a study guide for the class. 

Branching Scenarios

Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching outlines a branching scenarios activity, which can be an effective technique for self-paced or asynchronous online courses, particularly for professional training. In this activity, the instructor asks the student to apply their knowledge in a realistic situation, make decisions, and present the consequences. Examples include role playing in a customer service scenario between a sales rep and a client, or how to respond to a person experiencing a medical emergency. Some training platforms allow instructors to use realistic images, sounds, and settings to help immerse the student further into the activity.

More Resources

Active learning involves thinking, interacting, creating, and reflecting to fully involve students. The more active learning activities you can incorporate into your courseware, the better the outcome for your students.

For more resources on this subject, browse these articles in the CourseGateway resource library:


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