Active Learning 


The cognitive load of learning during a pandemic and concerns over student disengagement, required refocusing attention on learning and finding creative ways to engage students. Faculty devised innovative ways to increase student engagement in the remote learning environment. By using live polls, implementing collaborative exams, flipping the classroom, and providing simulations and real-world experiences, faculty across disciplines dedicated themselves to creating multiple ways for students to actively engage in their learning process. Faculty adopted a holistic approach to active learning in their courses by inviting their students to encounter course content asynchronously prior to class whether in the form of text, video, audio; to engage with the information and ideas presented (e.g., asynchronously through practice assessments and online discussion posts; and synchronously through various in-class activities), and pausing for students to reflect on their learning (e.g., writing to a prompt at the end of class or through an informal online office hour conversation). 


What You Can Do 

The diverse array of faculty narratives provides inspirations and insights into how a classroom environment can be cultivated and designed in a way that supports students’ active learning. What can you do now? See below for tips to consider whether you are getting started with active learning or looking to move forward with the lessons learned from the pandemic teaching experiences. Schedule a one-on-one consultation to discuss active learning in your course, contact Join the CTL and colleagues for the annual Active Learning Institute to engage in hands-on activities and discussions to design your course for active learning.

1. Determine learning objectives and the information and ideas students should encounter.

What knowledge and skills will students learn in your course? Reflect on the curricular priorities and articulate the course learning objectives that are learner-centered, action-driven, and achievable. Design your course around those learning objectives, determine how you will assess student learning, and then plan for your students’ active learning experiences.

2. Engage students with the information and ideas in a variety of ways.

Encourage and support collaborative learning.

Support students to take ownership and responsibility for their learning by encouraging and encouraging peer collaboration. Collaborative learning can also help foster community and counter potential feelings of disconnection or isolation. Consider incorporating project-based learning or other active learning strategies into your course design.

Design for effective and engaging lectures.

Whether teaching a small discussion-based course or a large course, design for effective and engaging lectures that move students from passively receiving information and ideas to actively engaging with the content. Use a polling platform like Poll Everywhere to invite students to respond to your prompts during lectures and assess their understanding. Develop poll questions that engage students in higher-order cognitive processes, such as applying concepts or evaluating hypotheses, to assess your students’ understanding.

Leverage instructional technology for asynchronous learning.

Use Columbia-supported instructional technology to encourage active learning inside (e.g.., active learning strategies using Zoom) and outside of the live class sessions. Utilize the tools for community building and promoting engagement in CourseWorks. Enhance your course discussion boards through Ed Discussion, a communication, discussion, and Q&A platform integrated with CourseWorks. Consider engaging your students in QuizCon, a confidence-weighted multiple-choice quiz platform that helps students perform better on quizzes and retain more information.

3. Create opportunities for students to reflect on what and how they are learning

Help students develop metacognitive thinking skills and concretize for themselves what they have learned by prompting them to reflect. Students with metacognitive skills are more self-aware as critical thinkers and problem solvers, and they are able to choose more effective learning strategies for themselves. In your class, use reflection prompts to make reflection a regular and an integral part of the learning process for students. 

“As someone who grew up being a quiet student in class, I don’t think that there is just one way to engage, which is often seen as raising one’s hand and talking. (…) How do we make space so that other people’s ways of engaging with content can also be heard and recognized? The activities that my students did prior to class was a way for them to put their ideas out there, to make contributions to class, and to be thinking about and processing course content.”

Read Dr. Yoon’s narrative

Dr. Haeny Yoon

Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education, Teachers College

“Technology is great only when it is used to serve the instructor and the students’ learning goals. While it helps me facilitate active learning for students, what I value most is the student presence and student engagement in the classroom. Students should be the main players in the classroom, and I always encourage my students to contribute to creating an engaging learning environment.”

Read Dr. Zhang’s narrative

Dr. Yi Zhang

Associate in the Discipline of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, SEAS

“We had to get creative to find ways to engage students with clinical decision-making experiences outside of the clinical arena; this included the use of standardized patients via telemedicine to simulate clinical experiences for our students. (…) We asked the students to write a clinical reflection, to talk about what it felt like to be engaged with the patient and consider culture in regards to clinical practice. The students wrote so many interesting things about culture”

Read Dr. Fahey’s narrative

Dr. Ellen Fahey

Assistant Professor of Nursing, Columbia University School of Nursing

Browse through the narratives in this theme for more inspiration and to learn about how Columbia faculty have supported their students to engage in various forms of active learning synchronously and asynchronously.