Faculty Focus


Four Ideas to Spark Active Learning in an Online Classroom

Lightbulb creates spark and ominous glow

Active learning can be an intimidating concept for educators.  Many educators have heard the term but struggle to understand the true meaning of active learning and/or integrate active learning strategies within their classroom. As such, it is important to define active learning in simple terms. According to Bonwell and Eisen (1991), active learning is “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (p. 2). Essentially, active learning involves including students in what they are learning, and fostering an environment that encourages them to think on these matters. Student involvement and metacognition, or thinking about thinking, are fundamental to one’s ability to understand active learning. While active learning can be challenging, adding the complexities of remote learning can make it even more tricky to navigate.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused every educator to adjust. Personally, I have intentionally implemented active learning strategies in my remote classroom and hope to share some of my key learnings. One important consideration for active learning involves an educator’s willingness to experiment and ideate—in order to learn, one must be willing to take risks. In the beginning, educators may feel uncertain and it may seem clunky at first! That is completely normal. Keep trying and don’t give up! Now, let’s discuss some strategies that I have used in remote settings and the impact it is has had on my students.

Wildly successful active learning strategies

Polling. Remote learning comes with its challenges, but it is possible to succeed at active learning strategies remotely. Zoom is my platform of choice for remote learning. Zoom has a built-in polling feature that allows you to input multiple choice questions in advance, but you can also add polling questions on the spot. Polling allows students to vote and/or answer anonymously. If you have students that are hesitant to speak up in class, this is a way to involve them. Once students answer the poll, Zoom shows the results for the entire class without revealing who selected which option. As educators, this polling feature shows you how well the students are understanding the content and allows you to “course correct” in real time.

Letter to Future Students. Another active learning strategy that I enjoy using in my classroom involves students writing a letter to future students. Currently, students at the end of the term will write a letter to future students. In this letter, they will highlight the most important concepts they learned, helpful tips, and suggestions for succeeding in the course. Usually, this is done electronically through Microsoft Word. But recently, I began using Flipgrid and believe this is an excellent place to leave a “letter” for future students. Flipgrid is a video messaging platform that allows students to record short videos. They can react to the videos and the instructor is able to moderate the topics and responses—it’s like bringing a message in a bottle to the 21st century. My suggestion to you is to make this an end-of-course assignment, which allows students to analyze and synthesize everything they have learned in the course. Then, the next time you teach the course, you can include the link to the videos and encourage students to listen to former students that took the class. It is a great hit!

Simulation. Despite the challenges COVID 19 presented, active learning can happen anywhere. In a graduate-level strategy course, instead of merely talking about strategy, I invited students to become executive team members of their very own organization and engage in strategic thinking and decision making. Each week students were invited to lead an executive briefing, and during that time, they shared the rationale for their decisions. This was an opportunity to practice their presentation skills and analysis skills. The executive briefings involved a debrief on the decisions made, lessons learned, and future considerations. Additionally, I asked students follow-up questions and provided guidance on their overall strategy. When engaging in a debrief, it is important to provide feedback and offer correction to students.   Lederman (1984) cautions that “knowledge that is the product of experience is highly subjective.”  Debriefing is important to correct student errors. The simulation allowed students to engage in decision making where they were able to see their outcomes every week.  This activity was an excellent way to facilitate active learning virtually. While simulation was an effective active learning strategy, there was an area of opportunity.

Area of opportunity

Gallery Walk. In a face-to-face class, I teach a lesson on emotional intelligence which involves a gallery walk.  A gallery walk is where students work together and present their ideas on a sheet of chart paper. Students complete an emotional intelligence inventory and then learn from one another through this gallery walk. I attempted to do this virtually and discovered it needed more development. While Zoom did offer breakout rooms, the success in the face-to-face class involved students mindfully browsing other students’ posters and sitting in a round circle, which helped facilitate the openness of the discussion. I have concluded that some active learning strategies work better in different environments. It is important to note, not every face-to-face learning strategy is always adaptable for a virtual environment.  However, the only way to know if it will work is to experiment.

We must strive to foster an environment where active learning can flourish. We have a part to play in active learning processes, but the students are the stars of the show. One of my favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein, “I never teach my pupils what to learn, I provide the conditions in which they can learn” (p.126).

Dr. Adrianna Davis is an instructor at AdventHealth University. She has been working for over ten years in healthcare administration and has worked with a variety of leaders ranging from emerging leaders to executive level leaders. She is passionate about helping all leaders discover their unique leadership abilities in order to apply those skills in the workplace.   


Bonwell, C. (1996). Building a supportive climate for active learning. The National Teaching and Learning Forum, 6(1), 4-7.

Lederman, L. C. (1992). Debriefing: Toward a Systematic Assessment of Theory and Practice. Simulation & Gaming, 23(2), 145–160. https://doi.org/10.1177/1046878192232003