Active Learning Online for TAs

What is it?

Active learning encompasses any learning activity in which the student participates or interacts with the learning materials, content, and/or processes. Active learning includes individual, small group, or large group activities centered around reflecting, writing, talking, experimenting, or problem solving.

Why is it important?

Research shows that students learn more when they participate in the learning process. Additionally, as anyone who has participated in an online training knows, it’s hard to stay focused for long periods of time when content is being passively communicated. Like in face-to-face classes, successful remote teaching places students at the center and prioritizes learning activities that will develop students’ skills and knowledge. These active learning activities can help students predict, discuss, summarize, synthetize, or reflect upon course content. 

How to do it?

With a little creativity, you can adapt many of the learning activities you would use in a face-to-face class to remote teaching. 

As a teaching assistant, you might be asked to lead synchronous (“live”) lab or discussion sections via video conferencing technology like Zoom. You can use active learning activities during those sessions. You might also be asked to assign or direct a group of students through asynchronous learning activities.

The following continuum of online active learning strategies represents a variety of activity types that can be incorporated into online course design. These activities vary in the amount of work required to integrate the activities into course planning and teaching. Those that are at the “greater complexity of integration” end of the spectrum may take more time to integrate into teaching and will likely be beyond your scope as a teaching assistant. Those that fall near the “higher ease of integration” tend to take very little time to implement and may be things you can incorporate into online sections or even online office hours. 

Online active learning strategies as well as their definitions:

  • 1. Pause for Reflection:
  • After introducing a core concept or key point, allow students to think about the information and/or review their notes to identify gaps in understanding (i.e., information that may be unclear to them) or ways in which the concept, idea, or point might be applied to a real world setting. You can implement this activity as part of a live, synchronous discussion or section meeting. As a TA, you might also write general “pause for reflection” questions and share them with your students, asking them to reflect on the prompts provided as they view a recorded discussion/section video you have uploaded. This is one way you can encourage your students to reflect upon and synthesize what they have just learned, even if you are not physically present.
  • 2. Minute Paper: 
  • Ask students to spend a minute (or a few minutes) writing short responses to a question or questions meant to gauge their understanding of a concept from the “lecture” component of class. Afterwards, students can post their response to a discussion board, submit their response as a Canvas assignment, or share verbally during a synchronous meeting or study session. You could also use a similar activity during online office hours. For example, if you have several students in your Zoom room at once, you could direct Student A to take a couple of minutes to try to write out a response to a question they have while you conference with Student B. Then, you can have Student A “unmute” themselves and verbally debrief their answer with them.

  • 3. Muddiest Point: 
  • Towards the end of a live discussion or lab session, a pre-recorded lecture video, or an asynchronous online module, ask students to write a short note explaining which point from that day’s class or unit is most unclear to them. If you lead online discussion sections, you might ask students to post these comments to a discussion board prior to your discussion session so that you can address these areas in your session. You might ask the students in your sections to post “muddiest points” weekly even if you aren’t leading any sort of live session, and prepare a short clarifying video or handout based on their responses.

  • 4Think/Write-Pair-Share: 
  • For this activity, pose a question and give students a few minutes to think about the question and then write down their response. Then have students pair up and share their ideas. You can do pairing activities on Zoom via break-out rooms during synchronous meetings. Students can also share responses via the Zoom chat function or a Canvas thread with other students in the class.

  • 5. “You are the professor” Question Creation:
  •  Assign groups to create questions that help check for understanding of concepts. Students can do this synchronously via Zoom during discussion sections or asynchronously via a shared Google doc through the “Collaborations” tab on Canvas. If they come up with good questions, you might share them with the instructor as possible exam questions.
  • 6. Role playing: 
  • Ask students to “act out” a position or argument to get a better idea of the concepts and theories being discussed. Role-playing exercises can range from the simple to the complex (e.g., skeptic, community member, scientist, historical figure, etc.). They can do this during a live video discussion session, or you could ask students to record and submit videos of them speaking from the perspective of the assigned role. If you choose to do this, keep in mind that students will have varying degrees of access and familiarity with technology. It would be wise to provide an alternative activity if they are unable to produce a video such as submitting a script or a “letter to the editor” written from the perspective of that role. 

  • 7. Jigsaw Discussion: 
  • Divide the class into small groups, each of which is assigned a different task. For example, each group might be asked to summarize the key points of one article or solve a different equation. Each group completes their task. Then, new groups are formed, each composed of one member from each of the original groups (so all group members in the new group have completed a different task). Students then take turns presenting their work to the rest of the group, synchronously or asynchronously. In this exercise, each student is an ‘expert’ in one task and exposed to all other tasks. Again, you could facilitate this using breakout groups via Zoom during a synchronously discussion section or asynchronously via shared Google docs.

Active learning activities for remote teaching:

  • Screen sharing during synchronous, Zoom meetings:
    • Share your screen to help students focus on the content that you are presenting. You may want to share your screen to show your slides, play a video, model a process or procedure, or share another type of learning resource. You might find this useful if you are trying to work through problems during office hours or guide  students through using specialized software. 
    • Have students share their screens to make a presentation, show an assignment, complete a procedure, report back, or share how they completed a pair or group activity.
    • Share your screen to give feedback so that you can walk students through your comments.
  • Breakout rooms during synchronous, Zoom meetings:
    • Use this Zoom feature to create student groups during live Zoom meetings. Breakout rooms are the online equivalent of putting students into groups in a face-to-face class to work together.  As in a face-to-face class, students can discuss a topic or work together in breakout rooms to complete a task. Students can be assigned to groups either randomly or manually.
    • You can use almost all of the active learning activities mentioned above in Zoom  breakout rooms. 
    • During the breakout meetings, you can circulate among groups to check on them and answer questions. If you want to give students time to discuss their thoughts and work independently, you can also stay outside of the breakout rooms and just remind students that after a certain time, you will all conviene back together. When you end the breakout rooms, students will have one minute to come back to your general group.
  • Poll students during synchronous, Zoom meetings:
    • If your Zoom meeting has polling enabled as a tool, you can use polling in similar ways to what you would use clickers in a classroom. You can ask students what they need more clarification on or design questions to check student understanding of concepts.
  • Hand raising during synchronous, Zoom meetings:
    • If your Zoom room has been set up to allow hand-raising as a tool, you can ask students to prepare to raise their hands and participate when you call for contributions. You can also call on students by name to make sure that you hear from students that may not be raising their hands. Students can “unmute” themselves when they are called on.
  • Embed reflection questions or comprehension checks in recorded mini-lecture or Zoom videos
    • If you record review sessions or summaries for students, you could add a few slides as part of your presentation that invite students to write down a summary of the main points so far (i.e., minute paper) or write down something that they are still confused about (i.e., muddiest point). They could then post these questions or comments on a discussion forum or bring them to video office hours.

Further Reading