Active learning: making learning engaging

We’ve probably all sat through enough ‘death by PowerPoint’ slide decks to know what happens when we’re presented with information but don’t have the chance to engage with it. In the best-case scenario, we simply don’t learn anything. But often we leave the meeting or class worse off – with unanswered questions, frustration and reduced confidence in the tutor or meeting organiser.

One of the key roles of the Open University learning design team is to ensure that this doesn’t happen. We work with our module authors to help them create active learning – materials that prompt students to engage with the materials, with other students and tutors, and with tools and technologies of learning. Above all, we make sure that students are ‘cognitively active’ (The Open University, n.d.) This way, learners build their own understanding by forming connections between their existing knowledge and new experiences, and by reflecting on how their understanding has changed.

This is a core principle of constructive alignment (Biggs, 2003): the idea that learning activities incorporate assessment task that enable students to demonstrate that they’ve achieved the intended learning outcomes.

From reading information to applying it

Active learning is particularly important in online education, where students aren’t in the same location as their peers and may even be in a different time zone. However, they’ll certainly perspectives to share and experiences to reflect on, and our learning designers work with authors to help them develop active learning activities that ensure that students can do this.
Most of these activities will be online, and all are designed to prompt students not simply to read, see or listen to information but to search for it, process it, discuss it, present it, reflect on it, and apply it in real or simulated scenarios to which they can relate.

Why active learning makes an impact

This doesn’t simply make learning more interesting for students. It also promotes higher-level thinking (Brown, 2014), independent study skills, communication skills and problem-solving abilities (Sivan et al., 2000). These skills are transferrable to work, further study and personal and professional life, and will set our students up for whatever they choose to do next.

Active learning is about what the student does rather than what the teacher does. The OU activity types framework provides a way of looking at teaching materials from a student point of view.

Assimilative Reading information, listening to it or seeing it (such as in video format) and reviewing it Watching a video and reflecting on the main points covered
Communicative Discussing learning materials with other students and/or a tutor Discussing a problem via an online forum, agreeing on a solution within the group
Experiential Applying learning in a real-world setting and receiving feedback that helps students adjust their approach Learning through reflecting on a placement, work-related scenario or practical experiment
Finding and handling information Searching for new information and processing it, individually or in groups Carrying out research and evaluating the information gathered
Interactive/adaptive Applying learning in a simulated setting and receiving feedback that students can use to adjust their approach Working on problem-based scenarios, case studies or role play
Productive Applying knowledge and skills either individually or as a group to create a piece of work Creating a report, video, presentation or reflective account

Of course, we also include assessment in our learning materials. This can involve a number of different activity types: it nearly always has a productive element, but that doesn’t always mean writing an essay. The important thing is that the learning activities prepare students to complete their carry out the assessment.

Developing active learning from the start

Our approach ensures that course authors can start thinking about active learning from the moment they start planning their materials. We start by considering the overall structure and possible learning activities in an initial workshop. Our learning designers can then support authors as they start to develop module materials with activity design workshops, templates and guidance.

As they write, authors can track which activity types they’re using through our online Learning Design workload tool. And, as materials come together, we can explore the balance of activity types, media and pace of learning through a student journey workshop – a storyboarding session where authors can stand back and look at their proposed learning materials from a student’s perspective – with the whole module team.

This approach means that we can be confident that students will learn thoroughly, reflectively, and in ways that support their personal goals.

An evolving approach

We’re reviewing our approach in collaboration with OU module teams and the wider learning design community. This includes working on an updated version of our framework and exploring some of the challenges within the learning design process with the aim of adapting our approach to address them.

Useful resources

Collaborative activities guide

10 uses for online rooms


Biggs, J. (2003) Aligning teaching for constructing learning, HEA. Available at (Accessed 3 June 2020)

Brown, A. (2014) ‘Implementing active learning in an online teacher education course’, American Journal of Distance Education, vol. 28, no. 3, pp. 170–182 [Online]. Available at (Accessed 3 May 2020).

Sivan, A., Leung, R.W., Woon, C. and Kember, D. (2020) ‘An implementation of active learning and its effect on the quality of student learning’, Innovations in Education and Training International, vol. 37, no. 4, pp. 381–389 [Online]. Available at (Accessed 3 May 2020).

The Open University (n.d.) ‘3.1 Active learning’, Secondary Learning [Online]. Available at (Accessed 4 May 2020).

Workload mapping part 3: concurrency and activity makeup

In this series of posts, we’ve been looking at student workload mapping. This final post looks at the other neat things we can do once we’ve mapped out a module. 

Our example student, Alex, has had their workload smoothed out in the previous posts. Now that we’re sure the volume of learning and teaching for this module is manageable we can start checking that it fits in with the wider context of their studies, and that the studies themselves are suitably varied and engaging. We’re able to do this with our existing mapping data through Concurrency and Activity mapping. 

In this series of posts, we’ve been looking at student workload mapping. This final post looks at the other neat things we can do once we’ve mapped out a module. 

Our example student, Alex, has had their workload smoothed out in the previous posts. Now that we’re sure the volume of learning and teaching for this module is manageable we can start checking that it fits in with the wider context of their studies, and that the studies themselves are suitably varied and engaging. We’re able to do this with our existing mapping data through Concurrency and Activity mapping. 

Concurrency mapping 

The Open University has an increasing number of students studying FTE (Full Time Equivalent – 120 credits a year). As the majority of modules run throughout the course of the academic year, this results in modules overlapping one another. While proactive workload mapping has smoothed both over in our examples, assessments, and small dips and spikes can be magnified to the same damaging proportions as we discussed in our first post. 

By taking the mapped workload from both modules and laying the week-by-week workloads over one another, we can see the concurrent workload for students studying both modules. In this case, a small overrun in both modules in week 8 has generated an unwanted spike, that could lead to the same negative outcomes demonstrated with Alex, our example student, in part 1 <link>. 

We might also see this with assessments, where the likelihood of a higher student-directed workload (from a student revisiting material, researching and drafting an assignment) impacts the overall study time available for a week. This is a particular concern at level 1, where students are still building their time management skills – and may struggle to prioritise conflicting assessments across multiple modules.  

Our example student Alex may opt to prioritise the assessment on the core module of the qualification, and devote less time to an optional one – or feel overwhelmed by the sudden influx of self-directed workload and perform worse on both. While part of the solution to this is scaffolding and studentship activities, which build study skills throughout the module, maintaining an awareness of potential concurrency during design allows both calendars to be nudged towards a more harmonious alignment. This is most useful when a new module is being designed, and a relationship between that and an existing module can be predicted. 

Activity makeup 

Back in part 2, we mentioned mapping directed activities. While doing this, we divide those activities in to: 

  • Assimilative – read/watch/listen (this category includes most non-directed teaching material) 
  • Interactive/Adaptive – explore/experiment/simulate 
  • Experiential – practice/apply/experience 
  • Communicative – debate/discuss/share
  • Finding and handling information – analyse, collate, discover 
  • Assessment – write/present/report 
  • Productive – create/build/produce 

An aspirational makeup of these activity types is decided right at the beginning of the module design process – taking into account the subject, student demographics and more. Module mapping allows us to revisit that aspiration during design and see if it’s on track:

In this case, we can see the module has ended up with more productive and assimilative activities than initially planned. If we wanted to, we could filter this down to a unit or week level to see if particular sections are skewing the results and suggest structural tweaks. Alternatively, this may just be the natural evolution of the module’s teaching direction as it develops – and might not be a cause for concern. 

Sense checking against student profiles is a quick way of pulse checking activity makeup. In this case (mapped from our example level 1 module) we’re happy to see that Alex would enjoy a broad spread of activities while studying this module – but we would suggest boosting the finding and handling information activity time slightly, in order to better build towards expectations at level 2. We would also like to see more communicative activities at level 1, in order to help Alex better integrate in to the student community.  

While Alex is a figment of our imaginations, much of the data in this series of posts has come from modules at various stages of development. Quantifiable factors in learning and teaching will never tell the whole story – but hopefully we’ve demonstrated the differences that can be made through proactive evaluation, and student focused thinking. 

If you enjoy a good graph as much as us, or would like to know more about module mapping and our other evaluation work then let us know via twitter @OU_LD_Team. 


Workload mapping part 2: mapping in learning design

In this series of posts, we’re looking at student workload mapping. This second post explains how we monitor workload during module design, and where we might make recommendations to authors.  

Overall workload for a module is agreed right at the beginning of learning design, with set times to aim for based on the level of study, credits and duration of a module. In our first post in this series we looked at the case of Alex, and the 3 week workload lump. With that level 1, 60 credit 30 week module, the weekly workload should have looked something like this: 

Module directed workload: 13 hours 

Student directed workload: 7 hours 

Total workload: 20 hours 

This balance is taken in to consideration when planning the overall structure of a module, with authors dividing topics, units and blocks across the 30 weeks in as even a distribution as possible. 

Slight variations in the workload are to be expected, and can creep in unknowingly during drafting, where authors start blocking out the details of teaching activities. Detailed workload mapping starts here, with an aim to informing tweaks for the next sets of drafts. If we take another look at Alex’s module, the results might look something like this: 

So, how do we go about it? 

The process changes slightly as a module fills out and nears presentation, but the core elements of mapping are: 

  • Word counts 
  • Reading speeds 
  • Multimedia assets 
  • Directed activities 

Word counts are a good early measure for study time, with text often representing a sizable chunk of teaching in distance education. This is based on estimated Reading speeds for different types of content. Introductory material might be read at ‘normal’ speed, while high cognitive load sections (dense definitions or models that might need slower or multiple readings) will need more time allocated per-word. 

Multimedia assets including AV material are mapped based on their duration, multiplied by two, allowing for pausing and taking notes. Images receive a flat figure depending on their nature, with less time allocated for decorative or illustrative images than detailed infographics and diagrams. 

Directed activities are written with an estimated time as part of best practice (E.g. Activity 1.1 – 40 minutes), which we then sense-check and use for mapping. While doing so, we also look at the different types of activities being used, categorising them as we go. We’ll look at this more as part of the final post in the series. 

At the end, we are able to see not just the workload of a module, but also the top-level composition: 

As you can see, text/reading content accounts for a large proportion of the workload in Alex’s module. We can now see though that the crunch points in weeks 5 and 6 are largely due to higher proportions of directed activities and AV content. Our feedback for the next phase of drafting would be to: 

  • Week 1 may benefit from slightly more study time to help quickly acclimatise level 1 students to the expected 7 hour mark (perhaps 1 more hour). Check that induction and studentship activities have been accounted for. 
  • Look to reduce overall workload for weeks 5 and 6. Planned activities and AV currently account for a disproportionate amount. 
  • Week 10 may be a little text heavy, which could affect engagement. 

How much we map is often down to the specific needs of the module. In some cases, the first 7 weeks will give enough of an idea to even out the workload as the rest of it develops.  In other cases, the full module is mapped out to look for peaks and troughs. 

Fortunately, in the case of Alex’s module, the crunch in week 5 is identified early, and is smoothed out in subsequent drafts before first presentation. Alex has a consistent experience, a better work/life/study balance, and the quality of learning and teaching itself once again becomes the primary determinant of success. 

In the final post in this series, we’ll look at how we use mapping data to measure concurrency (multiple module study) and activities – and the opportunities that opens up. 

Workload mapping part 1: The student perspective

In this series of three posts, we’ll be looking at student workload mapping. This first post explains why planning is so important from a student perspective – and some of the thinking behind it.

Alex is studying a 60 credit Level 1 module. Curriculum guidance suggest this should involve around 20 hours of study per week, 65% of which is module directed (direct teaching) and 35% student directed (personal study and revision around the subject). Subsequently, Alex expects around 13 hours of module directed workload each week.

The first few weeks go well, with Alex getting the hang of both study and the subject. The teaching scales up to the 13 hour mark – and Alex gets used to balancing study against other life commitments, such as work and family. Confidence builds up, and Alex is on course to pass the module.

Unfortunately Alex hits a stumble in week 5. A large unit collides with assessment preparation and a group activity, and suddenly Alex needs to squeeze 20 hours of work in to 13. If we assume Alex is studying Monday-Friday then this is a jump of 1.4 hours a day to 4. If also working full time (with a 9 hour day including commute, a conservative estimate for modern adult learners) then the scale of the problem becomes even more apparent…

  • hours module directed study 
  • 1.5 hour of student directed study 
  • 9 hours work 
  • 8 hours sleep 

resulting in a 22.5 hour day, leaving and hour and a half to fit in cooking, eating, washing, shopping, waking up and the rest of life. 

In this case, Alex attempts to study in the same manner as before, but is unable to keep up. The first blow is to confidence, ‘Am I falling behind because I’m not up to it?’ Unable to find additional time during the week, Alex squeezes’ in a few hours at the weekend, and plans to play catch up next week. 

Unfortunately the assessment is due next week, and Alex’s performance on it takes a hit. The following week is another unexpectedly lumpy one – and Alex gives up on playing catch up in order to try and nail the new material. Unfortunately there just isn’t enough time in the day, and Alex starts the following week with a another backlog of teaching.  

In this example, a three week spike in workload could have resulted in a student suffering: 

  • reduced confidence 
  • lower assessment performance 
  • less certain achievement of learning outcomes 
  • damaged work/study/life balance 

Alex may choose to drop out of the module, or stay on with the risk of the issues worsening. If the blow to confidence is really big, Alex may withdraw from study altogether, a decision that could have a profound impact on Alex’s life – and it’s all entirely avoidable. 

In ‘Student workload: a case study of its significance, evaluation and management at the Open University’ (Whitelock, Thorpe and Galley, 2014), workload was cited as a significant factor in student withdrawals in both the Open University and the wider HE sector.

In the next post in this series, we’ll take a look at one of the ways the Open University addresses this through the module design process. 


Whitelock, Denise; Thorpe, Mary and Galley, Rebecca (2015). Student workload: a case study of its significance, evaluation and management at the Open University. Distance Education, 36(2) pp. 161–176.