Online Learning Puts the "Active" into Learning

The COVID-19 crisis of 2020 was followed shortly by the Zoom infestation, as educational institutions and corporations scrambled to find new ways to keep students engaged and to train employees. 

Unfortunately, simply putting a face-to-face or PowerPoint lecture online does little to make it more effective and, in many cases, may even have the opposite effect. On the other hand, curtailing in-person sessions presents an opportunity to use interactive techniques proven to lengthen attention spans, deepen understanding and increase retention.

“The very nature of an interactive learning environment implies an increased cognitive load on the learner due to the number of activities required and decisions needed,” said Matthew Jorgensen, Director of eLearning at Saint Stephen’s College, Gold Coast, Australia, in a recent blog posting.

He cited these effects, among others, of well-designed interactive instruction:

  • A greater percentage of students accessed the online content when it was interactive.
  • Adding interactivity increases effectiveness, expands the attention span of learners.
  • Students also spent a longer duration of time engaging with the online content when it was interactive.
  • When learners have control over their learning, they are more involved and participate in the learning process which is critical in maximizing engagement.

Quizzes matter

To be truly effective, interactivity needs to be extended to testing as well as instruction, Harvard researchers have found. 

The researchers found that interspersing short quizzes into an online learning course can dramatically increase student retention of material. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In a series of two studies, Daniel Schacter, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Psychology, and Karl Szpunar, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology, split a twenty-minute lecture into four five-minute segments. Some research subjects were presented with math problems after each segment while others were not. In the end, all subjects were tested on the material of the lecture.

The subjects who were quizzed in between segments scored higher than all other groups, even outperforming the group that was allowed to review the material from the lecture.

Schacter said the study demonstrated the benefit of frequent short quizzes, without which online courses can become little more than “jazzed-up PowerPoints.”

“It’s not sufficient for a lecture to be short or to break up a lecture as we did in these experiments,” Schacter said. “You need to have the testing.”

In a  recent posting, the SurveyAnyplace blog gave some pointers for effective use of quizzes, including:

  • Give immediate feedback on incorrect answers: It’s not enough to tell learners they’ve answered wrong or right. Make sure you provide corrective, in-depth feedback; studies say this helps improve retention massively.
  • Quizzes help learners to stay focused and keep moving forward. 
  • Challenge learner perceptions by asking a question that they’re likely to get wrong. That way, you grab their attention.
  • Frequent no- or low-stakes quizzes help cement long-term learning. They require the learner to bring previously acquired information to mind. By retrieving information, learners organize it and create cues and connections.

It’s not passive

There’s more to it, of course, but these points summarize the benefits of active learning, which might be simply defined as anything that is not passive reading, viewing or listening. 

“Active learning refers to the robust research finding that learning is more durable and lasting when students are cognitively engaged in the learning process,” said Jay Lynch, PhD, Course Design, Development, and Academic Research, Pearson, in a 2016 article in Higher Education. “Long-term retention, understanding, and transfer is result of mental work on the part of learners who are engaged in active sense-making and knowledge construction.”

At the Consumer Education Council, we are working to apply the latest research to our interactive learning projects. We work to maintain an informal style with interactive tools and frequent quizzes to keep learners interested and to boost their retention.