Active learning is learner-centred, rather than teacher-centred and requires more than just listening. The active participation of all students is a necessary aspect of active learning. In order to enhance their higher order thinking capabilities, students must be undertaking tasks and simultaneously thinking about the work they have completed and the purpose behind it, in order to enhance their higher order thinking capabilities.

It can be difficult, although not impossible, to introduce active learning to the traditional lecture theatre, however, it becomes incrementally easier in the online environment. We have all experienced teaching whereby the student believes that by simply being present in the room they will learn. The equivalent online is that some students will perceive that if the video is playing, and they have their headphones on they will learn.

We have provided some examples of things we can do to help our students to stay focused and be active learners.


Give Clear Instructions

What you can do

Providing instructions that highlight the purpose of an activity, allow students to prepare for it and its associated learning outcomes can help. Activities that are not explicitly defined for students can cause problems, as they are open to multiple interpretations rather than easily solved by the application of clear instructions.

Learners must identify their own unique approaches to a task in order to complete it. Students should be able to focus on an activity rather than spending time trying to work out what is expected of them.

Things to consider

  • Using a standard template to represent all activities, which outlines clear instructions and expectations for each.
  • Recording short videos explaining an activity
  • If you sense that students are confused by or struggling with an activity, you may wish to record an additional video to provide clarification.
Examples of Active Learning

What you can do

We have sourced some great examples for active learning from others in the sector and collated these here. Many of these provide information on how activities can be adapted to suit the online environment, allowing them to be used both on campus or online.

How to do it

A few quick ideas to get you started.

This site has helpfully grouped the activities by class size and provides a complete module on active learning.

Get creative with the examples given and think about how these can be adapted to your class. You may have already implemented active learning into tutorials, however, in the blended environment, it’s also important to consider which aspects of lectures can be replaced by an active learning session.

Build a Glossary

What you can do

A glossary is an alphabetical list of specialised or technical words, terms or abbreviations and their definitions, usually related to a specific discipline or field of knowledge.  You might want to consider providing a glossary for the key terms in your course, or alternatively to encourage more active learning you can ask students to generate a glossary. They could work collaboratively either as a whole class or in smaller sub groups.   The glossary should be more than a simply dictionary of meaning, you can ask student to include links to or references to key information sources regarding this term, or cross reference to the lecture material etc. This can also be a really good way to get student to start to write things into their own words rather than  simply copy and pasting text which they don’t fully understand.   Building class or subject glossary can be an excellent group activity and can be used to encourage students to discuss their understanding of terms. 

You could extend this to something more detailed than a glossary and ask student create fact sheet or study notes on a specific topic. Students could work in small groups to generate the content using a standardised template, if you have more than 1 group working on each topic you can then get the matched groups to compare and discuss what they produce to come up with an agreed final version which can then be shared with the wider class.  This can be a simple way into having student provide peer review of each others work.

If your topic or discipline is one which is often misunderstood you could ask student build a glossary of errors. So they can identify where the terms have been used incorrectly or have bene misquoted.  This can be a fun exercise which requires high levels of application of knowledge

You could also turn this into a formative or summative assessment either as a straightforward glossary submission or you could incorporate questions into your assessment that require student to explain something using specified terms.

Things to consider

Ensure that what ever format that the class produce their glossary in is accessible to all.  This can be achieved through using a template document which has been set up to meet accessibility requirements .  You can provide information to student about aspects of the formatting that are set to support this, and therefore allow discussion around communication and interaction with others with different needs.

If the students are expected to build their own discipline/course/topic specific glossary, it is important that you either provide them with a list or source for the relevant words, and a source or location to find the definitions, or you provide them with guidance and training on determining the quality of what they find ( this can be the start of engaging student with critical thinking) Alternatively, check their glossaries periodically to ensure that they are defining the words appropriately. Many technical and scientific words have different meanings depending on the discipline and not all sources (especially online) are reliable. It is also a good idea to ask your students to include examples of uses of the words in their glossary.

How to do it

There are many way that student can work collaboratively on a shared document these include

  • Wiki
  • Google docs
  • Office 365

Pedagogical evidence base

E. Khoo et al (2012) I Learnt a Whole Lot More than Churning out an Essay: Using Online Tools to Support Critical Collaborative Inquiry in a Blended Learning Environment. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 16; 127-140.


What you can do

A debate is an active way for students to learn and is an activity which allows students the chance to take a position and gather information to support their view and explain it to others. Debates not only allow students to participate in a fun activity but allows them gain experience in giving a verbal presentation.

Things to consider

A debate can be converted to an asynchronous activity, for use in the blended environment, by having the speaker pre–record their presentation. The presentation could then be followed by questions and debate through a discussion board. This may also be a more comfortable option for less confident students.

How to do it

Many members of staff have taken part in, or organised, debates in on-campus courses, so as an active learning tool this might be one that you are more comfortable converting to the online environment.

This website gives some great tips on running an online debate.

To convert debates to the blended environment, you could consider having a speaker in each team on campus and a speaker online. Encourage interactions between those students who are on campus and those who aren’t.

Pedagogical Evidence base

Hmelo-Silver, C.E. Problem-Based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?. Educational Psychology Review 16, 235–266 (2004).

Woods, D.M. (2020) Teaching Tip Applying Team-Based Learning in Online Introductory Information Systems Courses. Journal of Information Systems Education 31(1),40-50

Mumtaz, S.  & Latif, R. (2017) Learning through debate during problem-based learning: an active learning strategy. Advances in Physiology Education. 41(3) 390-394

Commonplace books

What you can do

Commonplace books are a longstanding method of active learning, used to generate connections between different topics. One way to think of them is as scrapbooks, where lots of different pieces of information are collated alongside thoughts and the links between items.

Things to consider

Modern, digital commonplace books do not restrict the ways in which information can be presented and can contain pictures, text, videos and audio. This multimedia approach allows students, building their own commonplace book, to choose whatever range of media works best for them. If students are working on a collaborative book, however, consider providing advice to all contributors about how to make the information accessible to all.

How to do it

Blackboard Journals can be used to produce individual commonplace books, while Padlet/Microsoft Teams Notebook and OneNote can be used to produce cooperative ones.

To connect to the ‘real world’, use social media hashtags, on Twitter or Instagram, that students can post to at any time. This will allow students to instantaneously make a connection between a topic of conversation and something they have seen.

Pedagogical Evidence base

Geraths, C. & Kennerly, M. (2015) Pinvention: Updating Commonplace Books for the Digital Age, Communication Teacher, 29:3, 166-172

Student-led learning and teaching

What you can do

Learning by teaching is an example of active learning, which allows students to actively research a topic, prepare information and teach it to their peers. This approach can help students, by allowing them to concentrate on a topic and communicate their learning with their peers rather than their teachers.

For large classes, students could work in groups to produce teaching resources. Each group could be responsible for producing a summary sheet on a given topic, setting up and leading a discussion forum or co-creating a wiki. If each group is working on a different topic, consider how you will ensure that all the students engage with all the topics. You may want to introduce a system of peer-review or peer-reward whereby student have to nominate which group produced the most inspiring/useful (or other category) piece of work. This approach encourages each student to engage with all the material produced.

Things to consider

  • Group working can be difficult for some students, especially if the social presence has not been well developed in the course.
  • Consider tutor assigned groups or set topics and allow student to select based on their preferred topic rather than on who they know.
  • It may be appropriate to provide some additional guidance on effective group work.

Pedagogical Evidence base

Eliot L. Rees, Patrick J. Quinn, Benjamin Davies & Victoria Fotheringham (2016) How does peer teaching compare to faculty teaching? A systematic review and meta-analysis, Medical Teacher, 38:8, 829-837DOI: 10.3109/0142159X.2015.1112888

Alan Marvell, David Simm, Rebecca Schaaf & Richard Harper (2013) Students as scholars: evaluating student-led learning and teaching during fieldwork, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 37:4, 547-566

Melody J. Bernot, and Jennifer Metzler (2014). A Comparative Study of Instructor and Student-Led Learning in a Large Nonmajors Biology Course: Student Performance and Perceptions. Journal of College Science Teaching, 44(1), pp. 48-55.

Student-led assessment

What you can do

You might consider asking students to submit potential questions (and answers) for a final class test. This could be done at the end of each week or unit of learning.

Consider asking your students to work through what has been learnt during that week or unit and, taking into account the associated learning outcomes, design questions for a test.

This activity can help students to focus on the learning outcomes for a course or part thereof. It can make students feel that they have an opportunity to contribute to the course and assessment design.

Things to consider

  • To make this easier for students, it is a good idea to control the range of question types to multiple choice (MCQs), true/false, matching etc.
  • Inform students that a certain proportion of the final class test will be comprised of the questions they set, assuming they have been set at an appropriate level.
  • Consider providing feedback on early submissions to demonstrate what would constitute a good question, or how questions can be improved.
  • Some students may not feel confident in posting. You might consider allowing anonymous posting to support engagement.

How to do it

  • Ask students to submit questions and answers through a specific discussion board with threads set up for the different weeks or units or learning outcomes.
  • Encourage student review and revise each other’s submissions, this support the idea of students learning through assessment rather than simply assessing learning.

Pedagogical Evidence base

Dale Hancock, Nicole Hare, Paul Denny, & Gareth Denyer (2018) Improving large class performance and engagement through student‐generated question banks. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education. 46(4) 306-317