Valeria Baudo & Alessandra Tomasini (METID-Politecnico di Milano); Deborah Arnold, AUNEGe

People often think of active learning as something you do in the classroom, or even outdoors, but with a bit of thought and preparation, active learning can be done online, and online learning should be as active as possible (Khan et al., 2017; Salmon, 2013).

With the emergency switch to remote teaching due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a lot of Zoom lectures, which are tiring for both teachers and students, and certainly not the most effective way of engaging learners, in particular when it comes to developing soft skills.

The eLene4Life project has put together a collection of 30 active learning methods for soft skills development, described in practical terms in the eLene4Life Dynamic Toolkit. In fact over half of these methods are tagged as being relevant for, and possible in, an online learning context.

These methods are currently being piloted in five countries (France, Germany, Italy, Poland and the United Kingdom). Again, due to the pandemic, some of the pilots which were initially planned face to face had to be adapted rapidly to an online modality.

This blog post is thus the first in our eLene4Life active online learning series, to provide you with concrete examples which we hope will inspire you.

Here we look at the first two examples from the eLene4Life pilots at Politecnico di Milano (Polimi), which were run entirely online. The second blog post in the series will look at two more, which were run both face to face and online. And we of course welcome further guest posts on the topic, with the possibility of integrating new methods into the Dynamic Toolkit.

Feedback Exchange

Illustration of Feedback exchange active learning methodFeedback Exchange is an exchange of information communicated to the learner that is intended to modify his or her thinking or behaviour to improve learning. It should be non-evaluative, supportive, timely, and specific.

We used this methodology in the “Economics and Computation” course, a course taught in the 2nd year of the Master Degree at Polimi and attended by almost 60 students. It is based on a flipped learning model and at the end the students are involved in a challenge to solve complex problems. This course is intended to be based largely on interaction among students since it is based on group work. In the original plan (pre-covid19) the teacher is in class and gives students real time feedback about the work done. The teacher has previous experience in innovative teaching and active learning and, during the Spring semester 2020, he decided to develop the formative assessment part by using a rubric to give students formative feedback on teamwork performance.

The pilot experience was conducted completely online due to the pandemic and the initial design of the teaching experience did not change. The students are divided into groups and they interact online through Microsoft Teams for completing a challenge to solve the complex problem provided by the teacher. During the course, more than one challenge was conducted. At the end of each challenge, every student provides a self assessment via a rubric provided by the teacher in order to evaluate the teamwork process as it occurred in the group. The teacher, looking at the rubric filled in by students and thanks to the observation conducted online (skimming online from the room of one group to another during the challenge), provides feedback about the teamwork and gives suggestions for improvement. After that a new challenge occurs with the same process. The final feedback by the teacher is intended to give the students an overview about their teamwork skills.

How to implement it online

Implementing this structure online was not particularly tricky and it was effective. The course itself was designed in a way suitable for online use only. The most difficult thing was to observe the challenge online since the students were not in the same physical room but spread across virtual ones and it was necessary to jump between rooms. But the rubrics provided by the students were extremely useful and they were designed from the outset to be completed online. It is interesting to note that the dynamics of the groups did not change in the online setting.

Classroom response system

Classroom response systemClassroom response systems are widely used in traditional face to face settings in order to stimulate the attention of students during a lecture and to improve engagement.

These are interactive remote answering devices that offer instructors a means to gain some simple real-time feedback from the audience, and are also known as electronic student response systems, clickers, personal response systems, student response systems, or audience response systems.

How to implement it online

Polimi teachers were used to using this tool (in particular Socrative) in the traditional face to face setting. Due to the lockdown we moved the teaching completely online. The use of active learning methodologies in an online setting in a large classroom was scary at the beginning and challenging too. The active learning was developed in a course called “Structure of Matter : Principles and Applications” attended in the third year of the Bachelor degree in Engineering Physics at Politecnico di Milano. This entailed proposing a complex exercise (one for each of the four modules of the course) to the students, who had one week to solve it individually, at home. After one week, they had to upload the solution on the Politecnico di Milano LMS (called BEEP). During the following lesson, some points of the exercise were debated by means of teacher-paced classroom response system  quizzes (through Socrative), whereas the most difficult ones were developed by the professors and then discussed with the students.

Since the course is attended by a high number of students, the use of Socrative quizzes helped us to understand if some students had particular problems about some specific points of the exercise, whereas the majority of the time was dedicated to the discussion of the most complex parts of the exercise. In this case, we encouraged the direct participation of the students, by sharing with them some hints to correctly solve the specific points and listening to their doubts. Socrative was used as a self-assessment moment for students, proposing questions to verify the acquired knowledge.

After testing this methodology online we can say that active learning is appreciated by the students. The novel situation related to the COVID pandemic has revealed that active learning can be performed even with online classes, without modifying the planned individual learning outcomes (ILOs) and it was very successful. Although this was performed completely online, we plan to reproduce it also in the classroom setting once the pandemic emergency is over. Using a classroom response system in an online setting was something that we would not have imagined doing if COVID19 had not happened, because we were used to using it in the traditional classroom setting. However, at the end of the experience, we can say that moving it online was easier than expected, since we experienced that the most important thing is a careful design of the teaching activity and, if this is done well, moving it online just requires some minor adjustment.

Tips and hints for moving active learning online

If we intend to use a tool or a methodology for a specific need we must not only check if this need occurs in the online setting too, but also adapt it. For instance a part of our designed experience of active learning was related to peer exchange after Socrative. This was too complicated to manage online so we decided to not implement this part, but this lack did not affect the whole learning experience since the students were positively surprised at receiving an “active learning approach” also in an online setting.

The two examples described above are techniques integrated in a wider ‘challenge-based learning’ approach. Readers might be interested in exploring further the soft skills which can be developed through related approaches such as online project-based learning, for example self-regulated learning, motivation and group collaboration (Yilmaz et al., 2020).

Based on our experience we can say: active learning in an online setting? Yes we can! (and maybe we must!).


Khan, A., Egbue, O., Palkie, B., & Madden, J. (2017). Active learning: Engaging students to maximize learning in an online course. Electronic Journal of E-Learning, 15(2), 107-115. Retrieved June 29th 2020 from

Salmon, G. (2013). E-tivities: The key to active online learning. Routledge.

Yilmaz, R., Karaoglan Yilmaz, F.G., & Keser, H. (2020). Vertical versus shared e-leadership approach in online project-based learning: a comparison of self-regulated learning skills, motivation and group collaboration processes. Journal of Computing in Higher Education.