Redefining Engagement in the Online Classroom: Understanding Active Learning

In active learning, students engage with the educational material, participate in the classroom and collaborate with others. Instead of listening to their instructor and memorizing content, students in an active learning environment apply concepts to real-world situations.

 As a result, active learning encourages independent, critical and creative thinking skills.

One hundred years ago, John Dewey laid the foundation for what would be known as active learning in a 1915 book. “The teacher and the book are no longer the only instructors; the hands, the eyes, the ears, in fact the whole body, become sources of information, while teacher and text-book become respectively the starter and the tester,” Dewey wrote in Schools of To-morrow. “No book or map is a substitute for personal experience; they cannot take the place of the actual journey. The mathematical formula for a falling body does not take the place of throwing stones or shaking apples from a tree.”

Plenty of evidence suggests that active learning is preferable to passive approaches. Accordingly, education should reflect a more engaging learning environment and process.

Supporting Research

Two studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of active learning in physics classrooms. In the American Journal of Physics, more than 6,000 physics students’ standardized test scores were measured across 14 traditional courses and 48 courses that used interactive-engagement methods. Students in active learning environments performed 25 percentage points higher than those in traditional classrooms.

A second study in the American Journal of Physics measured student performance of conceptual physics knowledge. Implementing interactive-engagement courses for introductory physics, the study ran for three years — with 11 different instructors and approximately 1,200 students. The switch to active learning resulted in student learning improvement of 38 percentage points.

Other research confirms the value of active learning, particularly in science classrooms. A literature review in Advances in Physiology Education evaluated research on active learning across several disciplines, including educational psychology. “Active learning works,” the article said. “It should be clear that there are large bodies of evidence from a number of different fields supporting the effectiveness of active learning.”

For engineers, active learning has also produced compelling results. Richard Felder, professor emeritus of chemical engineering at North Carolina State University, published his research on the subject in the Journal of Engineering Education. Felder taught five experimental courses consisting of chemical engineering students. The experimental group generally earned higher course grades, while students in the comparison group were twice as likely to leave chemical engineering before graduation and nearly three times as likely to drop out of college altogether. “Strong anecdotal evidence suggests that the experimental group outperformed the comparison group in developing skills in higher-level thinking, communication, and teamwork,” Felder said.

“The methods that constituted the experimental instructional approach have been shown in study after study to have positive effects on students’ academic performance, motivation to learn, and attitudes toward their education and toward themselves.” – Richard Felder, Ph.D.

Active Learning Online

With adaptive technology and a focus on active learning, online education can deliver a high-quality experience to students. A few principles help guide active learning in the online classroom.

Creative Thinking

By applying concepts and theories to real-world situations, an online environment can harness the full power of active learning. Through coursework and discussions, students develop their analytical skills and get the opportunity to see how the course material functions. For instance, once nurses learn typical communication theories, they can discuss in an online forum what common scenarios may occur on the job and how to respond. Additionally, debates can help students see multiple sides of a topic and practice applying what they have learned.


Collaboration is another pillar of active learning. Online learning environments that encourage discussions about course content and application help students gain a deeper understanding of what they have learned, and this goes hand-in-hand with creative thinking. Other collaborative efforts, such as peer-reviewed assignments, help students learn by seeing another person’s viewpoint. This forces students to think critically and dialogue with others, which points to a stronger grasp of the content.


In online learning, engagement is critical. If students are intrigued and invested in their education, they will perform better and their motivation for achieving their goals will be enhanced. Active learning takes engagement to a new level and encourages students to discover solutions and new ways of thinking. As students collaborate with their peers and instructors in the online learning environment and develop their critical and creative thinking skills, they will be more engaged — and more successful.

Rivier University

At Rivier University, we’re proud to promote active learning in our online courses to help students master knowledge and skills that they can apply in their current and future jobs. In a convenient and flexible online learning environment, active learning is a foundation for our programs of study.

  • Students in our international business class discuss case studies about real companies, such as Apple and Google, to learn about the challenges faced by businesses in our global environment.
  • Students in our B.S. Nursing: RN-BS program receive assistance from faculty members to identify and synthesize evidence-based research. They also learn the importance of data collection and analysis to improve population health.
  • Students in our Master of Public Health program gain insight into current world epidemics, such as Ebola and SARS, to become engaged in their education, knowing public health has never played a larger role in our world than now.

Active learning is more than just a theoretical concept at Rivier University. Students are engaged in their learning and prepared to solve real-world problems. Find out more about our online degree programs today.