Improving student engagement with active learning: Three technology-enhanced strategies

Yasmin Wong
June 15, 2022

A lack of student engagement can manifest in many ways. Whether through erratic or no attendance, lack of participation in group discussions, or resenting course demands, low student engagement can be troubling for educators. This is particularly true of students in STEM subjects, as the most recent Advance HE student engagement survey revealed. 

With increased staff workloads and growing student cohorts, academics must now muster the energy to improve engagement with their students. Students may struggle to see the benefit of learning topics that are not graded, or feel they do not have sufficient time to complete non-compulsory exercises and classes.

Active learning has been cited by many studies to positively increase student engagement levels and promote a deeper level of learning. In STEM disciplines in particular, the utilisation of active learning can reduce failure rates (Freeman et al., 2014), narrow achievement gaps (Theobold et al., 2020), and encourage students to attend and engage in online and face-to-face sessions (White et al., 2015). The use of technology-enhanced active learning can benefit educators who wish to promote active learning in both in-person and remote learning environments. 

Here we discuss three ways you can incorporate technology-enhanced active learning into your course to help boost student engagement.

1. Flip the learning 

Flipped learning methodology has become increasingly common over the last decade, and returning to in-person teaching has been a valuable method for boosting student preparedness. The strategy involves requiring students to participate in an activity before attending an in-person lab, lecture or workshop. This may be reading an article, watching a video or completing an online task.

This initial exposure to content means students arrive with a base level of knowledge. Direct teaching time is now much more valuable, with students being more confident to undertake the tasks, ask questions of higher thinking and develop a deeper understanding of the theory (Loveys & Riggs., 2019, Teo et al. ,2014).

How can we help?

‍Our LabSims and Smart Worksheets provide ready-made pre-lab activities that students can use as an introduction to the practical and analytical techniques they’ll soon be undertaking in labs. This not only provides an opportunity for preparation but also offers transparency on the skills and techniques students will be exploring in practical sessions.

The University of Exeter provided access to interactive LearnSci resources a week before lab classes, allowing students to practise skills at their own pace before entering the lab. This resulted in 97% of students feeling more prepared for their lab classes. Increased preparedness and confidence allowed students to feel more confident in what they were going to be doing in the labs. 

The University of Westminster also used them to help students prepare for a set of super-labs designed to cover a wide range of skills, and found that students were much more confident engaging with the techniques after completing pre-lab activities.

“The impact of the pre-super-lab activities was also noted by academics, with one commenting they were genuinely impressed with how good their group's basics of pipetting was after they had completed the LabSims.”
Caroline Smith, Assistant Head of the School of Life Sciences, University of Westminster

2. Encourage exploration and “failure”

The ability to fail, make mistakes and learn from them is core to scientific education and research. Despite this, there is a huge stigma attached to failing within STEM undergraduates, with many fearing failure (Nunes et al., 2022). 

Offering an opportunity for students to work outside of their comfort zone, encouraging exploration and risk taking could help them engage more actively with their work. This can help students embrace failure and better understand the techniques in their course.

“Failure is a key aspect of the scientific method that should be viewed as part of the learning process rather than something to be feared or avoided.” - Nunes et al., 2022, p.35

How can we help?  

LabSims allow accessible activities for students to complete before, during and after in-person sessions. Giving students a safe, virtual environment to explore complex experiments means there is less stress associated with performing an experiment incorrectly or breaking expensive equipment (Winkelmann et al., 2020).

Students can also be encouraged to explore mistakes by being encouraged to identify the errors in set-ups. This can be useful for encouraging students to explore these methods when they feel uncomfortable failing purposely. Many of our partner universities have used virtual lab environments to not only provide accessible learning but to boost student involvement in remote and hybrid sessions.

Additionally, using advanced digital worksheets - such as Smart Worksheets’ - that offer immediate feedback specific to their input helps students develop a better understanding of not just what they got wrong, but why it was wrong and how they can fix it. These also provide unlimited datasets that are randomly generated, meaning students can practise over and over again, making common mistakes and errors as many times as they need to build their comprehension and competencies.

3. Gamification and points

Gamification brings game elements into non-game scenarios. It not only brings an element of fun and interactivity to learning, but also improves motivation and engagement and can reduce stress.

Gamification doesn’t have to be difficult.
It can sometimes be as simple as offering badging and points after activities occur. This not only helps motivate students to engage in work but also helps them link their activities to the real-life skills they are gaining, helping them build up a portfolio.

How can we help? 

LabSim and Smart Worksheet usage and completion can be tracked and graded, meaning you can award badges, points or grades for completing certain tasks and motivate students to engage.

More advanced examples include setting up game-based environments such as escape rooms. During the pandemic, a final year student at De Montfort University created a virtual escape room game that encouraged students to practise their skills and apply them in a fun and engaging way. 

Using virtual tools such as LabSims, students had to complete virtual tasks to crack the code by calculating the protein concentration of a patient’s urine. The game successfully engaged students and the innovative project won a Teaching Innovation Award. Although completed remotely, this method could also be applied to in-person tutorials and workshops.

Where do I start?

Active learning benefits student learning experiences and boost engagement when compared to traditional lecture-style learning. Although certain factors have been known to hinder the use of active learning - such as lack of time, lack of resources or large cohorts limiting methods, there are many ways you can get support to incorporate more active learning into your teaching.

We’re here to help you. Our LearnSci community offers opportunities to discuss ideas and learn from other educators. Our Community Groups bring together academics worldwide to explore topics and share best practice, and you can see more innovative examples from the applications of our Teaching Innovation Awards

If you're looking for more ways to incorporate technology-enhanced active learning, get in touch with our team and learn more about how we can support you in improving student engagement and enhancing learning.

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