“Learning is not a spectator sport.” Chickering & Gamson, excerpt from the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, (1987). Principle number three, ‘Good practice encourages active learning.’
Agreed! Studies prove time and again that college students do not learn when listening passively. To clarify further, twenty minutes of listening to a lecture is the maximum amount of time that students can process information effectively according to research cited in Does Active Learning Work, A Review of the Research (Prince, 2004). The method of lecturing as we know it may be coming to an end. In my last post I examined the concept of active learning, where students are engaged and involved in the learning process. I provided several examples of active learning in college classrooms across the nation that are replacing traditional lectures. But what about active learning in online courses? What does active learning ‘look like’ in a virtual environment when the face-to-face component is missing? This post will provide educators with course design strategies for implementing active learning principles in online environments that will lead to rich learning experiences for students. I’ll also include specific examples of active learning activities in general education courses delivered in the online format.
What is Active Learning in the Online Environment?
Active learning is defined as “students [that are] engaged in more activities than just listening. They are involved in dialog, debate, writing, and problem solving, as well as higher-order thinking, e.g., analysis, synthesis, evaluation.” The authors of this definition (Bonwell & Eison,1991) were defining active learning for the face-to-face classroom, as was Chickering and Gamson, authors of the opening quotation.
Yet active learning in the virtual environment is no different than learning in face-to-face classrooms; we can apply the same definitions to online learning communities. The goal is to encourage students to dialog, write, think and evaluate no matter what learning environment the student occupies. If we consider Bloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive development, we want students to employ skills that go beyond the entry-level skills of knowledge and comprehension. We want students to develop and use higher order thinking skills of application, analysis and synthesis. Before we move to the design steps, I’ve listed the types of active learning which will help with the course design process.
Categories of Active Learning Online
1. Individual learning activities are types where the learner applies course content that is read either online or through course materials through writing, diagrams or concept mapping.
2. Cooperative learning can be defined as a structured form of group work where students pursue common goals while being assessed individually. Examples include discussion forums where students respond and engage with fellow classmates and peer review projects. Click here for a resource on cooperative learning.
3. Collaborative learning refers to any instructional method in which students work together in small groups toward a common goal. Examples of collaborative learning activities are case studies, debates in teams using discussion forums, reports or essays that are created collectively then evaluated as a group.
Instructional Strategy Design Steps
In the multiphase approach of instructional design (ID), the instructional strategy phase comes after the development of the learning outcomes and the objectives for the course (which should support the overall outcomes). The instructional strategy builds upon the learning objectives, then the delivery system or instructional vehicle and the typeof learning activity are selected (click here to read more about the ID process). Below are the components of an effective instructional strategy for active learning in the online course:
- Identify instructional objectives that will support students in reaching the overall learning outcomes for the course. The instructional objectives will dictate the complexity of the active learning selected – for the purpose of this post we will work with instructional objectives typical of general education undergraduate level courses. To read more about creating course objectives, click here.
- Decide what kind (category) of active learning activity will best suit the objective(s) taking into consideration other factors such as time, complexity of execution, weight of grading (as applicable).
- Evaluate alternatives for the learning activity and select the best fit.
- Develop instructions for the activity. This is a critical step, including detailed, concise and clear instructions. Also necessary, is a brief paragraph introducing the activity which includes an explanation of its purpose. Students, especially adult learners, want to know why they are doing something and how it fits into the overall learning objectives. Another reason for including an introduction is that it establishes an element of motivation for students, which increase the chances that students will complete the activity successfully. Below is an example of the purpose clearly outlined in the introduction of an activity:
Introduction to a Group Project in an Online Science Class (Sample)
“ For the Group Challenge Assignment which begins in module four, you will be working in groups of three. Below are the groups…..The purpose of doing a group assignment is two-fold: first to help you to communicate and articulate your thoughts and beliefs about …. and second, to be able to consider alternate viewpoints that may differ from your own. Being able to successfully accomplish both, will allow you to engage in a thoughtful and meaningful discussion about science that is consistent with….” Detailed instructions follow this introduction.
- Evaluate the effectiveness of the activity from various perspectives after implementation. In most cases there will a product which is representative of students’ work, which can be used for evaluation. Other methods to assess the effectiveness include soliciting student feedback through a survey tool or assessment of the overall quality of student work.
Active Learning Examples
One of the benefits of online learning is the accessibility to resources on the Web. Many educators are wary of using online sources for content and learning activities, however I am an advocate of this method because of the interesting and authentic open resources available that can supplement instruction. But it is the careful selection of the media and applications that is critical, selecting those that are the right fit for the instructional objectives.
1) Individual Activity Example
Course: World History II Activity: Interactive Timeline of Revolution History
Introduction for Student: The goal of this activity is to describe the historical significance of one revolution that occurred between in 1770 and 1970 in terms of its political influence on subsequent events.
Instructional Vehicle: Online Discussion Forum
Instructions for Student (appear in blue text):
1) Click on the image below to go to the PBS website which links to this interactive map.
2) Roll you cursor over the shaded areas on the map once you are on the website [details here that describe the technical aspects of how to use the map].
3) Select one of the revolutions on the map that interests you or … [further options here].
4) To participate, ‘add new discussion topic’ in the forum and write three paragraphs about the revolution you chose and its historical significance by describing: its causes, the political climate at the time, the outcomes, and the revolution’s impact on subsequent political developments. For example … [guidelines provided here which also mention consulting the course textbook] This is a graded activity. Please see the grading guidelines and rubric for further details [this establishes the expectations].
5) Do not duplicate what a classmate has already posted.
2) Collaborative Group Activity Example
Course: Foundations of Science Activity: Group Position Statement [on a controversial issue]
Introduction for Student: Refer to statement I included in the design steps section
Instructional Vehicle: Online Discussion Forum for each group
Instructions for students (abbreviated):
How you will work together:
This is an asynchronous activity (not in real-time), which means you can participate at times that are convenient for you through your groups’ discussion board and through the messaging system within … This activity allows students to participate across time zones and personal schedules.
- Watch the video from ‘Ted Talk’ (link below) by ….. [topic is a controversial one].
- Work with your group to discuss the video’s content, then begin to create your group ‘statement’ using your group discussion board to get started… [we suggest students move to using Google docs to work on their position statement].
- Detailed instructions follow which I did not include in consideration of your reading time.
- Then second-half of the assignment is continued the following week where each group posts its position statement, and a class discussion ensues on the content of the group statements. Controversial issues usually generate much discussion, but does require instructor moderation.
Examples from other Institutions:
Mind the Science Gap: This class for public health students involves writing an article each week about a public health issue and posting it to the class blog Mind the Science Gap. Several mentors volunteer their time (myself included) to give feedback to students. Anyone can be involved and feedback is often from the general Web ‘public’. The course instructor does an excellent job of outlining the purpose of the assignment, and guidelines for giving students feedback on their articles.
Concept Mapping: I have read several journal articles about the use of concept mapping for group work, though I have not used it within our program to date. The idea appears to have potential, however all of the above principles of design would need to be incorporated. Click here for a blog post with a list of free concept mapping tools.
Active learning that involves students, that puts them in the center of the learning experience is possible in the online environment just as it is in the face-to-face classroom. We also see how active learning that takes advantage of the abundance of tools and applications available on the Web can make learning relevant, yet no less rigorous. Course instructors however are the key to successful learning outcomes by their involvement in instruction and development of active learning that adheres to pedagogical principles. Thanks for reading!
Photo Credit: Bloom’s [modified] Taxonomy by Ryan Somma, Flickr
Interactive Activities in Online and Hybrid Courses, Teaching Geosciences Online, Resources
How-to Make Learning Relevant with Active Learning, Online Learning Insights
by Patricia Armstrong, former Assistant Director, Center for Teaching
Background Information | The Original Taxonomy | The Revised Taxonomy | Why Use Bloom’s Taxonomy? | Further Information
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In 1956, Benjamin Bloom with collaborators Max Englehart, Edward Furst, Walter Hill, and David Krathwohl published a framework for categorizing educational goals: Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Familiarly known as Bloom’s Taxonomy, this framework has been applied by generations of K-12 teachers and college instructors in their teaching.
The framework elaborated by Bloom and his collaborators consisted of six major categories: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. The categories after Knowledge were presented as “skills and abilities,” with the understanding that knowledge was the necessary precondition for putting these skills and abilities into practice.
While each category contained subcategories, all lying along a continuum from simple to complex and concrete to abstract, the taxonomy is popularly remembered according to the six main categories.
The Original Taxonomy (1956)
Here are the authors’ brief explanations of these main categories in from the appendix of Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Handbook One, pp. 201-207):
- Knowledge “involves the recall of specifics and universals, the recall of methods and processes, or the recall of a pattern, structure, or setting.”
- Comprehension “refers to a type of understanding or apprehension such that the individual knows what is being communicated and can make use of the material or idea being communicated without necessarily relating it to other material or seeing its fullest implications.”
- Application refers to the “use of abstractions in particular and concrete situations.”
- Analysis represents the “breakdown of a communication into its constituent elements or parts such that the relative hierarchy of ideas is made clear and/or the relations between ideas expressed are made explicit.”
- Synthesis involves the “putting together of elements and parts so as to form a whole.”
- Evaluation engenders “judgments about the value of material and methods for given purposes.”
The 1984 edition of Handbook One is available in the CFT Library in Calhoun 116. See itsACORN record for call number and availability.
While many explanations of Bloom’s Taxonomy and examples of its applications are readily available on the Internet, this guide to Bloom’s Taxonomy is particularly useful because it contains links to dozens of other web sites.
Barbara Gross Davis, in the “Asking Questions” chapter of Tools for Teaching, also provides examples of questions corresponding to the six categories. This chapter is not available in the online version of the book, but Tools for Teaching is available in the CFT Library. See itsACORN record for call number and availability.
The Revised Taxonomy (2001)
A group of cognitive psychologists, curriculum theorists and instructional researchers, and testing and assessment specialists published in 2001 a revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy with the title A Taxonomy for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment. This title draws attention away from the somewhat static notion of “educational objectives” (in Bloom’s original title) and points to a more dynamic conception of classification.
The authors of the revised taxonomy underscore this dynamism, using verbs and gerunds to label their categories and subcategories (rather than the nouns of the original taxonomy). These “action words” describe the cognitive processes by which thinkers encounter and work with knowledge:
In the revised taxonomy, knowledge is at the basis of these six cognitive processes, but its authors created a separate taxonomy of the types of knowledge used in cognition:
- Factual Knowledge
- Knowledge of terminology
- Knowledge of specific details and elements
- Conceptual Knowledge
- Knowledge of classifications and categories
- Knowledge of principles and generalizations
- Knowledge of theories, models, and structures
- Procedural Knowledge
- Knowledge of subject-specific skills and algorithms
- Knowledge of subject-specific techniques and methods
- Knowledge of criteria for determining when to use appropriate procedures
- Metacognitive Knowledge
- Strategic Knowledge
- Knowledge about cognitive tasks, including appropriate contextual and conditional knowledge
Mary Forehand from the University of Georgia provides a guide to the revised version giving a brief summary of the revised taxonomy and a helpful table of the six cognitive processes and four types of knowledge.
Why Use Bloom’s Taxonomy?
The authors of the revised taxonomy suggest a multi-layered answer to this question, to which the author of this teaching guide has added some clarifying points:
- Objectives (learning goals) are important to establish in a pedagogical interchange so that teachers and students alike understand the purpose of that interchange.
- Teachers can benefit from using frameworks to organize objectives because
- Organizing objectives helps to clarify objectives for themselves and for students.
- Having an organized set of objectives helps teachers to:
- “plan and deliver appropriate instruction”;
- “design valid assessment tasks and strategies”;and
- “ensure that instruction and assessment are aligned with the objectives.”
Citations are from A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.
Section III of A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, entitled “The Taxonomy in Use,” provides over 150 pages of examples of applications of the taxonomy. Although these examples are from the K-12 setting, they are easily adaptable to the university setting.
Section IV, “The Taxonomy in Perspective,” provides information about 19 alternative frameworks to Bloom’s Taxonomy, and discusses the relationship of these alternative frameworks to the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy.