Active Learning in the Online Classroom: Apply Knowledge Activities

Dr. Julia M. Gossard is associate dean for research in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, associate professor of history, and distinguished associate professor of honors education at Utah State University. Dr. Gossard is a proponent of high-impact, innovative teaching, and her teaching portfolio at the graduate and undergraduate levels is expansive with specialties in gender, family, sexuality, and childhood; the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions; and historical research methods and theory.

Dr. Julia Gossard
Image Credit: Julia Gossard

“Just have students complete a discussion board assignment,” suggested a colleague just prior to the start of the fall 2020 semester. Their half-hearted suggestion was in response to my question of how to engage students in my European History since 1500 course in active, online, asynchronous learning assessments. Having never taught—or even taken—an online, asynchronous course, I had no clue how to approach active learning in this teaching modality.

The many nodding heads on my screen in response to this colleague’s suggestion during an online teaching workshop indicated that this was how most, if not all, of them were going to approach active learning in their online courses. As Flower Darby explains in Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes (2019), discussion boards can be an incredibly helpful tool both for building community in an online class and for allowing students to apply knowledge they have gained in lectures, readings, and other course content (p. 103). But so much of my teaching philosophy and practice up to that point had been built around active, high-impact learning strategies, even in large general education survey courses like European history, which enrolls up to 180 students each semester.

My solution to avoid a discussion board every day was to “chunk” course content while also focusing on students’ deliberate practice of skills through the creation of “Apply Knowledge Activities.” These assignments provided instructional variety that kept students engaged in the course until the last day. They also helped to keep my students accountable.

In my traditional in-person classroom, students regularly engage in small group work, jigsawing primary sources together to form a convincing historical argument. Students also engage in various role-plays to analyze competing interpretations. For example, students engage in role-plays to debate the advantages and disadvantages of mechanization during the Industrial Revolution. But these are practices not necessarily easily replicated in an online environment, and certainly not always in a discussion board assignment.

To foster the active learning I want in the online environment, I first “chunk,” or organize content, around no more than three mini-lectures (up to 20 minutes apiece) each day of instruction. For European History, each week has two instructional days. Students can choose to complete these “days” whenever they wish, but breaking the content up into two days can help students in time management and content mastery. By engaging with the content in smaller chunks, students learn, engage with, and retain information better (Kosslyn, p. 61).

Along with the mini-lectures, students must read at least one primary source excerpt and a chapter or sections of Western Civilizations. This provides students key background information that the mini-lectures supplement, expand upon, and complicate. Then, students must complete at least one of that week’s several options for “Apply Knowledge Activities.”

Apply Knowledge Activities, also referred to as “AKAs,” can take several different forms. First, they can be a discussion board like what my colleague suggested, with prompts that I amended from in-person class discussions. Students should provide meaningful responses with evidence taken from assigned primary sources and/or textbook readings. Students who may have been active during in-person courses tend to like this option, seeing it as an opportunity to build a community and interact with their peers.

In other Apply Knowledge Activity options, students are prompted to complete their reading in the Norton Illumine Ebook for Western Civilizations, which provides them with an active reading experience. For instance, each chapter of Western Civilizations includes a “Competing Viewpoints” interactive activity that brings together excerpts from two different primary sources on a particular historical topic. Students are led through a close reading of these excerpts and a series of questions that help them develop better reading comprehension and historical analysis skills.

These interactives push students to engage with each chapter to deepen their abilities, providing specific feedback both when they get the answer correct and when they get it wrong, allowing them to try again. In these AKA assignments, the grading pushes directly to my learning management system, with students earning a 100% if they complete the assignment. This allows students to build these key skills in a low-stakes environment, and allows me and my teaching assistants to spend time providing feedback on higher-stakes assignments where instructor feedback is key.

One of the main goals of these kinds of low-stakes assignments is to equip students to engage with higher-level reading and analysis. To help with this, other AKA assignments ask students to analyze supplemental primary sources and respond, in one to two paragraphs, to a specific prompt. Although we grade this mostly as a completion grade, these AKAs can help students reflect on knowledge that they learned from that day’s lectures, textbook reading, and primary source reading. They practice key skills like evidence selection from all of their source offerings. I also have tried to choose a variety of different kinds of primary sources for these options, focusing on art, political cartoons, material culture, radio clips, music, and other non-textual primary sources. On some of these AKAs, students can choose to record their responses instead of writing them, allowing them to practice their oral response as well.

Although AKAs may not be active in the same way that in-class discussions, gallery walks, or jigsawing were, they do provide the opportunity for students to actively learn. Students from my online version of European history have consistently improved their progress on relevant learning objectives like primary source analysis and argumentation. This is due in large part to the fact that AKAs force students to immediately engage with course content in different ways than they might in a physical classroom. Students are challenged to reflect on their learning immediately, applying knowledge taken from that day’s lectures and readings to various problems and prompts.

In addition to helping students make meaningful, measurable progress on learning objectives, AKAs also kept students engaged in the material. Several students have told me that when they first saw the long list of Apply Knowledge Activities to complete (25 out of 45 possible options), they initially thought these assignments were another set of boring tasks to check off a to-do list. But, as one student eloquently put it on an anonymous student survey, “. . . the activities were actually fun because there was difference in the AKAs [from] week to week. I got to read soldiers’ diaries and watch rock music videos from the ’80s!” Students perceived these lessons as not only relevant to their learning but also entertaining and engaging. Active learning is so important in online classes to help keep student morale up and student achievement high. With my Apply Knowledge Activities, I successfully built a course that is both true to my high-impact teaching philosophy and benefical to student learning.

Works Cited

Darby, Flower & James M. Lang. (2019).  Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes, 103.  

Kosslyn, Stephen. (2020).  Active Learning Online: Five Principles that Make Online Courses Come Alive, 61. 

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