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Faculty Resources for Online Teaching

Active Learning in Online Lectures

A lecture is defined as "one person speaking, more or less continuously, to a group of people on a particular subject or theme" (Trenholm, Alcock, Robinson, 2012, p.2). The e-lecture is any form of a lecture that uses some combination of hardware and software instead of face-to-face delivery (Trenholm, Alcock, Robinson, 2012). 

When designing your lectures, here are some limitations based on the literature of the lecture to consider.

  • Lectures fail to provide instructors evidence of student learning (Bonwell, 1996). For example, how do students show that learning has developed?
  • Students are passive learners because there is no mechanism to ensure that they are intellectually engaged with the material (Freeman et al., 2014). As a result, information tends to be forgotten quickly.
  • Students' attention wanes quickly after fifteen to twenty-five minutes (Wankat, 2002).
  • Wide reports of boredom in lectures (Mann and Robinson, 2009). As a result, students missed subsequent lectures.
  • Lectures presume that all students learn at the same pace and are at the same level of understanding (Bonwell, 1996).

However, lectures are often necessary. For example,

  • Lectures can be presented to large audiences.
  • Lectures can present a large amount of information.
  • The lecture may be the only mode that online platforms support. 

Understanding the needs and limitations provide insight on how to improve your teaching. 

Active learning is generally defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process and is often contrasted to the traditional lecture (Bonwell and Eison, 1991). These activities can address some of the limitations of the lecture above. Furthermore, these strategies can be easily incorporated.


Mini-lectures. Break up your lectures into mini-lectures. To address the attention span limit of fifteen to twenty-five minutes. Limit the time you are presenting material within this time frame. Afterward, ask students to work on solving problems for fifteen or twenty minutes. 

Breaks and Pauses. To give time for students to catch up and reflect on information delivered. Provide multiples break or a pause in your lecture (e.g., after each or a couple of examples) and ask students to reflect on the key points discussed and how they can apply it to mathematical problems. 

Breakout rooms. After a mini-lecture or during a break or pause. You can send students into breakout rooms (preferably 3 to 4 students per room). They can work on the problems together, or ask questions of the examples discussed in the mini-lecture. The breaks also allow students to refresh their cognitive load allowing them to listen effectively. 

Think and share. Ask students within small breakout rooms to share what they got out of the mini-lecture. It is easy to forget what was taught. Often students have fragmented pieces of the puzzle. In small groups, students can put together the puzzle.

Short writes. Ask students to write in their own words their understanding of what was taught for several minutes. Ask them to identify questions they want to ask or content they are unsure of. These questions and uncertainty can be shared among peers or questions to email the professor. 

Encourage the sharing of emotions or struggles. The affective domain can not be separated from cognitive processes. For example, if a student is frustrated, this affects their ability to perform cognitive tasks. A student with high energy can also be limited in cognitive task. Ask students to share emotions with their peers. If they prefer not to, ask them to identify these emotions in their writing. Identifying one's current state of emotions is part of the learning process.

Encourage mistakes. Being stuck and making mistakes is a necessary part of learning. It is about what you do in-the-moment when a mistake is realized or you are stuck. This moment is a powerful learning opportunity. Talk through how you face these moments so students can see how you approach these states.

Muddiest and most important. Every so often, ask students to write down what they find the muddiest or the least clear concept. This helps them reflect on their understanding. At the end of a mini-lecture, ask students to write down the most important points. 

Use various examples. Instead of the worked example, when you go through step-by-step with commentary how to do a question. Present different types of questions. For example, how to solve a multiple choice question (especially, if this style is used in their assessment). Go through open-ended questions that target understanding. Use incorrect worked examples to highlight misconceptions. Intentionally do a step wrong to see if students are following along.

Invoking mental imagery. Ask students to draw an image, graph, or vector diagram representing the information presented. This helps them make connections to visual understanding.

Connect to experience. Ask students to identify times they have come across this topic and the experience they have had with it.

Express the necessary shifts of understanding content. When adding fractions, different denominators signal a need for a common denominator. The reason behind the common denominator is because you cannot add or even compare parts that are fractioned into different units. The students need to experience a similar shift in attention and connections to previous discussed content. 

Use the technology. Online platforms have functions to add polls, and question prompts for students to engage in. These polls and prompts allow students to share their struggles, state of emotions, or content questions. For example, you can set up a Word Cloud on Mentimeter so students can see how other students are feeling. Also, students can stay anonymous, thus be more willing to share. A Padlet can be set up for students to take pictures of their work and share it with the class.

Formative quizzes. Formative means ungraded. The goal of these quizzes is to determine how students comprehend the material delivered. You can set up a quick quiz on Centennial. Other free online sources include SurveyMonkey, OnlineQuizCreator. The results from this quick quiz provide allow you to address misunderstood information or misconceptions. 

Lecture summaries. Students can better synthesize course material if they are provided with specific opportunities to summarize lectures during class. These lecture summaries can be shared with the class and posted on the course shell afterward. You can even designate the responsibilities amongst students to post a summary of the class.

Modelling what a mathematician does. A mathematician seeks patterns, they experiment (e.g., what happens if I change or add variables), they give precise descriptions of steps, invent notations, make arguments based on logic, they visualize, they conjecture, and they guess. These are skills you want to draw students attention to.

We are all learning. Especially during these times, we are always learning. From how to use technology to learning to teach online. When students see you are struggling through and embracing your learning, they can relate to the fact that learning is not suppose to be immediate or easy.

Share your Teaching Strategies

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Teaching Math Online by Matthew Cheung. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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