How Active Learning Connects to Success

March 25, 2024

We’ve distilled optimal digital learner engagement into five key ingredients for High Engagement at Scale in digital learning experiences. We’ll share these ingredients over a series of posts. Our second ingredient to explore with you is active learning

Most of us have attended a class in which the teacher kicked things off with an icebreaker. The idea of an icebreaker might make you cringe, but the purpose is profound: warming up interpersonal connections, breaking down barriers to engagement, and helping people learn. Although icebreakers often seem silly, they’re effective because they require each person to be an active participant.  

Traditionally, both in-person and online classrooms were designed around the teacher.

Class was more about the proverbial sage on stage, not the guide on the side.

But designing around the teacher doesn’t promote active learning, which is as critical online as it is in person. 

Online learning used to be focused solely on watching material passively and in a specific sequence. There were few instances in which learners were encouraged to actively participate. That isn’t the case anymore. Today, well-designed digital learning involves multiple opportunities to stimulate learning interactions. 

For active learning, teachers and learning designers must prepare dynamic learning modalities such as reflection questions, practice scenarios, games, and applied projects in addition to their strictly instructional content. When these elements are all present, learners don’t passively consume information, they immerse themselves in experiencing it. The digital learning experience motivates them to engage, think, and apply what they’re learning. They shape their own path through the learning experience.

Driving Engagement through Activity

Our second ingredient for High Engagement at Scale in digital learning design—active learning—uses various active, applied, and integrative tools to promote engagement at scale. We start with well-designed content and add great interaction design so we can match the learning experience with learners’ desired outcomes. That helps us tap into their intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. This motivation helps them remember what they learn. 

The following aspects of active learning are crucial factors in making the most of this ingredient:

  1. The learner needs to be motivated to engage with the content.

  2. The learning design needs to be dynamic to deeply involve the learner.

  3. The learner must be a respected thought partner in the learning experience.

Motivation to engage

Motivation is more than a buzzword. It’s based on techniques that enable learners to both perceive the value of a learning experience and also set expectations so they can learn successfully. 

  • Connecting learners with why they’ve decided to take a course helps them see the material as relevant. If learners don’t see relevance, new learning is less likely to sink in. Learners thrive when they have meaningful milestones that clearly connect them to why they’re taking a course. When Studion worked with Colibri Group, a professional development company that offers learning experiences on a wide range of topics, we grounded every experience in “finding your why” to tap into the deeper reasons each learner sat down at their computer in the first place.  

  • Progress on goals should be palpable, including encouragement and support to keep learners on track. Just as with classroom-based learning, positive, motivational messages help students lean in and achieve. That’s why our learning experience design can include elements like:

    • A personal goal calendar that populates with each learner’s personal “whys” and steps for reaching the goals they set

    • The option to collaborate with peers and celebrate their accomplishments.

  • Gamification can be a powerful visual and emotional motivator. Because motivation is central to success when learning online, if gamification can be used to benefit the delivery of information, it’s a great tool for keeping engagement high. Khan Academy is renowned for doing this with space-themed badges that appeal to a community of predominantly math and science learners.   

Dynamically acquired knowledge

Many people learn well through kinesthetic or physical activities. Dynamic learning design gets learners to participate physically or through collaboration. 

  • Even in the digital world, learners’ senses can be engaged. For example, Brilliant is a platform for math and science that provides hands-on interactions to aid understanding. Sliders let learners manipulate graphs to understand curves. Three-dimensional shapes can be folded to learn geometry. But this approach can be applied with even simpler interaction designs, too. We’ve used drag-and-drop features to allow learners to organize lists or move options around on a framework, bringing a more physical experience into play. 

  • Reflection is a key step for interactivity, too. While many online courses use formative and summative quizzes, learners should also be given space and encouragement to discuss what they’re learning in groups or to respond to prompts that ask them to reflect and journal. 

  • Applied projects and scenarios are the ultimate form of active learning. Applied projects are a core part of ICIC’s leadership course for inner city businesses in under-resourced communities. We knew these learners had no time to spare, so we designed a learning experience in which, once new concepts were taught, learners immediately applied their new skills. They’d tackle high-priority projects such as marketing plans around social media visibility. This provided a double benefit, allowing learners to learn new skills while getting their daily jobs done. For an even more technical solution, DuolingoMax, a language learning app, leverages AI to enable learners to role play and practice language through scenarios like going to a cafe or inviting a friend for a hike.

Respected thought partners

Organizations, educators, and learners all are partners in learning. Therefore, those imagining and designing learning experiences must be responsive to learners’ needs, goals, and feedback. Having an understanding of these things is vital for reaching meaningful outcomes.

  • Learners should be able to shape their own learning experience and give meaningful feedback about it. For global nonprofit Bridgespan, Studion included live coaches within their learning experience so that learners had the opportunity to tell someone what they thought in real time. We also invited learners to provide feedback after each milestone, which was then used to update the course before each launch.

  • Learners can also shape their learning experience through optional challenges and prompts that allow them to go deeper into the material. Assessments can be set at different levels so that learners can choose the more challenging option if and when they feel ready.

Participating in Learning 

Drawing learners into a digital learning experience through active learning has a positive impact on their ability to retain what they’ve learned. It also enhances their motivation to keep learning. That’s why we build learning experiences that engage learners through assessments, clear milestones, reflection, and feedback, among other methods. When learners are interacting with their learning experience directly, they’re more likely to move past any challenges they encounter and reach their goals.

While all of these approaches will continue, we’re also starting to see AI take a larger role in facilitating active learning. At Studion, we’re excited about the ways that learners and educators can partner with generative AI and machine learning algorithms to gain greater personalization and higher interactivity. 

Does your learning experience meet High Engagement at Scale benchmarks?

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