Let the Learners Drive: Three Ways to Make Active Learning Work


Decades of research demonstrate that active learning is superior to lectures, but lecturing is still the dominant mode of teaching. Why do lectures persist? One hypothesis is that faculty avoid active learning because it is inherently risky — and risk is uncomfortable. Students risk looking silly when asked to contribute, and professors risk having the whole lesson derailed by putting control in the hands of students. While active learning is riskier than a lecture, done well, it results in far better outcomes. Luckily, teaching in a virtual environment presents a unique opportunity to mitigate risk and leverage active learning for student growth.


The Eurostar vs the 1967 Volkswagen

As a good professor, you prep before delivering a lecture; you’ve probably done this one before. You know the flow, the exact order of ideas, the next image that will pop up, the joke you will tell on slide thirty-four. You’re in control of the situation and can move through the material without friction. Occasionally, someone raises a hand that might set you off course, but you are front and center, so you can quickly put the train back on the tracks. Lectures are like the Eurostar, and you are the conductor, speeding smoothly from one point to the next, giving students an easy, pleasant ride through your ideas. 

Active learning, on the other hand, can feel more like a road trip, without GPS, in an overpacked, 1967 Volkswagen hippie van that occasionally breaks down. Although you might have a clear destination in mind, the driver keeps switching, and you’re at the whim of your many co-pilots. You’ll miss exits, circle back around on your route, and, from time to time, get completely turned around. You risk conceptual fender-benders or worse. But, like any good road trip, when active learning is done right, it is a memorable and meaningful experience.

Bonwell and Eaton (early proponents of active learning) suggested it was best to create “instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing.”. This sounds simple enough, but it means you must know what you want students to learn, design an activity that helps them learn it, then have them explicitly reflect on what they have learned. Bad active learning, where people do something without an achievable goal, without clear procedural directions, and without reflection, is far worse than a lecture. Doing active learning well is time-consuming and difficult. To make matters worse, students don’t believe active learning works, even when it goes well. Research by Deslauriers and colleagues (2019) shows that people learn more from active learning, but actually think they learn less. Rather than seeing struggling through the material as a sign of growth, students pay attention to the negative emotions associated with the struggle and code it as “not learning.” This information should equip you to help students navigate the active learning experience.


How to make active learning succeed

  1. Contextualize what you are doing, and why, for your students. Teach them about the research that shows students prefer lectures but learn more from participating. Spell out the importance of preparation and frame it as a social norm; you will provide guidance and clear up confusions, but students are directly responsible for each other’s learning. Explain that you will call on students, even when they don’t have their hands raised. This is not to embarrass students but to invite everyone into the conversation and build community. Stress that participation is not a quiz; it’s okay to be wrong. In fact, research by Richland and colleagues (2009) shows that guessing and getting an answer wrong results in more learning over time than simply being told something. These norms are actually easier to establish in virtual environments because, unlike in lecture halls, people don’t have a script for what should unfold; new environments are the perfect time to establish new habits
  2. Facilitate a session with a clear destination in mind. The goal is not active learning for active learning’s sake. Know where you want students to get and create exercises and structured discussion questions that guide the class toward that point. Each student contribution is a potential gear shift in service of your destination. Ask leading questions. Know who should drive when. Steer each contribution towards your goal. Solicit student input until you get the answer you need. Once you get it, shift to the next point. Your job is not to call on every single hand-raise but rather orchestrate a discussion that drives the group towards your destination.
  3. Use the technology to illuminate the road. Walking into a physical classroom and trying to get students involved is like driving at night without headlights. You rarely know what is in whose head, nor the best way to pull it out. If you’re hoping for a nuanced discussion before revealing an insight, you can’t call on a student who will blurt out the answer immediately. If you’re trying to move through something quickly, you can’t call on someone who will send you off on a tangent. Thankfully, tools that are the norm in virtual environments help you peer into your students’ minds and effectively navigate the flow of your session. 
    • Free response polls help immensely as you direct the session on the fly. If you quickly read answers as they come in, you’ll have time to plan who to call on while the rest of the class responds. 

    • Multiple-choice polls can serve as quick comprehension checks. Call on students who got the answer wrong to explain their logic, and have those who answered correctly help course-correct. 

    • You can also ask students to vote on a position and then explain their logic, or better yet, provide a reasonable argument for the position they did not choose. Pair up people who voted on opposite sides to debate the right way to approach a problem in front of their peers. After a back-and-forth or two, ask two new people who voted similarly to take over with new arguments, or call on an observer to explain how the presented arguments have reinforced or swayed their initial position.

    • Breakouts give you a bird’s-eye view of each groups’ work. Even if your platform doesn't let you actively listen in on breakout discussions, you can still keep track of group progress by creating structured worksheets in shared, collaborative documents. Ask students to fill out the questions and keep the group documents open in different tabs so you can quickly see how each group worked through the exercise. When everyone returns to the main classroom, ask a group that got stuck to present their process. Then ask students from a group who got further to resolve the first group’s confusion.

There is no one path that will lead to effective active learning, but if you’ve been avoiding it because it seems difficult, the tools found in virtual environments can help you find your way. You are probably a pretty good teacher; give your students a chance to be good students. Explicitly set class norms, request preparation, and solicit participation. Be clear about where you are going and why, then use polls, worksheets, and breakouts to guide the discussion safely there. If you let the students drive while you navigate and embrace wrong turns as opportunities for learning, you’ll be able to memorably get where you are going. Long live road trips.



Bonwell, C.C., and Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom. ASH#-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.

Richland, L E., Kornell, N., & Kao, L.S. (2009). The pretesting effect: Do unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance learning? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 15(3), 243.

Wood, W., Tam, L., & Witt, M.G. (2005). Changing circumstances, disrupting habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(6), 918.


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