Active learning: making learning engaging

A sparkler in the dark

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).