There's much more to teaching than telling.
There's much more to learning than reading, watching or listening.

John Dewey was trying to convince us of this way back in the 1930s:

“Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process.”

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn...”

So, the idea that students should be active in their learning (as opposed to passive recipients) may not be new. But, a lot of the wisdom and techniques out there are focused on face-to-face contexts - what does active learning look like in online courses?

In this post we’ll look at what active learning is, a little on why it works and some suggestions for what this means for online learning.

What is active learning?

Active learning is where the learner participates or interacts with the learning process, as opposed to passively taking in the information.

Active learning requires us to do something with information in order to understand and store that new information.

Passive learning is… Active learning is…
The workshop where the facilitator goes through their slides on leadership skills and attributes including showing you a 10 minute TedTalk which they summarise. The workshop that gets you to think of leaders you’ve enjoyed working with and discuss as a group the similar and different attributes.
The online module that shows you an annotated diagram of the parts of a cell. The online module that gives you an unlabelled diagram and hints for you to label for yourself.
The course that gives you an article to read as a key part of the course. The course that asks you to make predictions about the article before you properly read it (skimming headings etc.) and then gets you to complete some activities about the article – summarising, finding evidence, making connections.
The professional development session that explains best practice and what not to do. The professional development session that gets you to reflect on what’s not working out for you, set an action plan, implement it and reflect on it's effectiveness.
The video you watch home, work, or in the class which explains how to be culturally competent. The interactive story which gets you to choose what to say to another person and sends you down a particular path depending on your choice.
The notes that explain to you how to factorise an equation. The models that let you explore different forms of equations (factorised and expanded) and trying to spot the pattern. Then get lots of math problems to practice on.

Now ask yourself:

  • Which column is easier to deliver?
  • Which is more likely to stay with you and be more meaningful?
  • Which are you more likely to enjoy?

Active learning and constructivism

Active learning is based on a long established learning theory – constructivism. The construct here is that learners construct their own understanding. They don’t absorb, they build. They make meaning. Learners replace, adapt or build onto what they already know - their existing knowledge structures. In this way, we see learning is more than just acquiring new information. We need learners to work to actively ‘make sense’ of ideas rather than just remember facts.

I still remember in my first year of teaching high school students where my Head of Department said:

“Who’s doing the thinking in this classroom, you? Or the learners?”

I was. I was doing all the heavy lifting. I was working overtime to simplify complex ideas and deliver it in a pretty package. While that might not be the worst thing to do, it did mean my learners weren’t doing their own wrestling with ideas or searching for things they already knew to connect it with.

The success of learning depends on learners willingness to test things out, guess, and make mistakes. They need to engage in discussion, to bring things to the table, to accept that sometimes they’re wrong.

In summary:

Passive learning is… Active learning is…
Memorisation Understanding, application, critique, synthesis
Surface learning Deep learning
Transmission and absorption Construction
One-way A dialogue
Teacher-centred Learner-centred

Why does it work? (a little bit of neuroscience)

In the section above we mentioned “existing knowledge structures”. Well neuroscience thinks in somewhat similar terms. Our brains are essentially very complex electrical circuits. Cells within our brains (neurons) fire, connect and establish networks.

When we’re learning we’re making new connections and networks or changing existing ones – making them stronger or “pruning” them (they become weaker and eventually lose the connection).

Sometimes neurons are physically far away from one another and this is where the hippocampus comes in. The hippocampus acts as a sort of hub, connecting neurons that would normally be too separate to wire together.

The more separate areas that get activated during learning, the more areas the hippocampus has to connect. This makes that learning more embedded in the brain. And, it makes that learning easier to retrieve later. So while passive learning may lead to a weak connection between neurons, active learning can lead to deeply embedded neural connections.

So, when given the opportunity to actively engage with what we’re learning, we perform better. We’re more likely to activate neural pathways. And if the activity is more than simple retrieval (repeat what you’ve just learned) we can activate multiple neural pathways at the same time. This gives us a better chance to connect new and old information, correct previous misconceptions, and understand something better in terms of what we already know.

What does active learning look like for online?

So the more we can activate learners’ brains, the better they learn. Here’s some broad groupings of how we can keep learners active in our courses.


Give them opportunities to connect to what they already know - to their prior knowledge. When you’re introducing a new idea, first ask learners some quick questions about things that already know that connect to this new idea. This helps learners make connections to existing structures. This can take the form of a quick quiz, a discussion where they share their experiences, or asking them to create a mindmap of what they already know.


Let them try before teaching. Instead of telling, try setting the scene for hypothesising, looking for patterns, exploring, and getting it wrong but learning from mistakes. This looks like short low stakes tasks for learners to experiment. For instance starting with an unlabelled diagram and giving hints for learners to label themselves, or getting learners to match terms and definitions by looking at the etymology or construction of words.


Give them chances to check they’ve got it. We forget things, it’s normal. But if we include some small “have you got this?” tasks along the way, it prompts learners to retrieve what they’ve just learned from their short term memory. This retrieval improves long term memory, the ability to build on what they’ve learned, and ability to transfer what they’ve learned to other areas. In an online course this looks like short quiz-type tasks – multiple choice, matching, fill in the blanks, or a short scenario where they get to show you they can apply what they’ve just learned.


Include pre and post-reading tasks (comprehension). Pre and post-reading tasks have their origin in literacy and reading comprehension. The goal is often to help learners be purposeful in their reading and reflect on what they have gotten out of what they’ve read. In an online course, this means any articles or text that learners are set is accompanied by at least one task as well. If pre-reading, a task might ask learners to make predictions about the article before they properly read it (skimming headings etc.) If post-reading, a task might ask learners to summarise, find evidence, or make connections to other texts or ideas.


Ask them to deconstruct or critique (analyse and evaluate). It’s one thing to comprehend, but if you’re really working your brain you’re interrogating new information. Pulling it apart, analysing each bit and seeing which bits are useful. In an online course this looks like slightly more involved tasks – learners might be sorting pros from cons, doing a SWOT analysis, marking an example answer or text or outlining underlying bias or values in an idea.


If this post has got you interested in how you can achieve active learning in your online course. Check out our knowledgebase article on the range of techniques. From there you can get to more detailed instructions and example tasks for the particular techniques and then try them out in your course.