Using active learning strategies to build connections between students and lecturers Faculty Spark - View, reflect and apply

Last updated on 25/02/2020

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Emma Robinson uses active learning strategies that focus on building connections between herself and students. Client interviewing skills practice was embedded into online classroom sessions in a fully online Graduate Certificate course.


With over 90% of our students since 2014 from non-English speaking backgrounds (99.1% in 2016) and the majority without a law background, having to learn complex legal concepts and interpret complex legislation in a short space of time (4 courses in one trimester), in a fully online program, was challenging.

There is a particular need to build a learning community in a fully online course like the GDAMLP where students have no physical contact with their teacher or fellow students. They are at risk of disconnecting and not engaging with the learning materials.

In addition to the innovative online instructional design measures we have put in place, I have also purposefully introduced a number of online active learning strategies for the specific purpose of improving the social and teaching presence in all of the modules across all eight courses based on the community of inquiry model.

My goal in introducing these strategies was to ensure that students felt connected to me as their teacher and to each other, despite the lack of face-to-face interaction with the objective of increasing student participation and engagement.


As my teaching philosophy has developed, I have realised that my students will learn more effectively if I (a) build a relationship with my students based on trust and accessibility and (b) make learning explicit in the GC/GDAMLP. This is particularly important in the GC/GDAMLP where the vast majority of students are learning legal concepts without a background in law, with English as a second language and returning to study after some years, with little prior experience of online learning. This two pronged-approach to my teaching is based on the constructivist theory that it is the student themselves who need to make their own meaning and understand the learning materials by engaging with those materials (Ertmer & Newby, 2013).

Building Relationships Online: To help students become independent learners, it is crucial to first build relationships with my students and to encourage them to connect with each other (Jaggars & Xu, 2016). I have therefore worked to ensure a high level of teacher-student interaction and to encourage student-student interaction across the GCAMLP and my teaching modules.

The purpose of building strong online relationships with students is to build a sense of community within the cohort. This in turn motivates students to engage with the learning materials. I have used all the available tools within Blackboard Collaborate, (ie. Collaborate Plan, Polling and Breakout rooms) to achieve a seamless, sophisticated online classroom where student learning is the focus rather than the technology itself.

This is achieved through active learning strategies to build both teacher-student and student-student interaction with these online workshops incorporating live polling quizzes, content recap, collaborative group work with problem-based scenarios in virtual break-out rooms. During each workshop I also purposefully refer to and include students who are watching the recording of the live session so that they also feel connected to and engage with the workshop.

The most powerful example of how interactive, collaborative and practical an online classroom can be is demonstrated in my client interviewing skills practical workshop where I use Collaborate Plan and Collaborate breakout rooms to allow on average 30 students to practise their client interviewing skills in pairs. Student feedback has been uniformly positive and enthusiastic. I also use virtual breakout rooms for collaborative learning in every online workshop thereby providing sustained and consistent opportunities for students to learn from each other through discussion and enquiry (Hattie & Yates, 2013; Laurillard, 2012).

As part of my efforts to build relationships, create a learning community and encourage participation, I have also introduced short Collaborate polling quizzes to the start of each of my weekly online workshops helping students to activate their prior knowledge (Ambrose & Lovett, 2014), providing students with immediate feedback and allowing them to self-test often and over an extended period of time (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013).


Attendance at the live online classroom session has remained high and feedback from students has been uniformly positive:

Firstly, I wanted to express my appreciation for the great workshops. I found them (and you) very engaging each and every time. You move through the workshops ensuring you are educating us and not merely parroting a script. Your caring and supportive nature really shows through which I believe is paramount especially when it’s done via webcam.

Her way of delivering online live lectures was just more than expected. Always allowed students to ask questions. Always engaged students during all lectures. Provides helpful feedbacks (sic). Communicates very quickly and timely.

Since introducing these online active learning measures, quantitative and qualitative data on SEC/SET has been consistently high across all four courses. Responses have also been positive to two specific questions added to measure feedback on active learning.

This staff member actively encouraged me to participate in the learning activities and this staff member helped us to engage with the material and concepts.

As student numbers in the program have increased, the more strategies I have put in place to build relationships with students and encourage them to become active learners. I have seen a corresponding positive students response as the number of students selecting to nominate me for an award has increased.

Enabling Technology


As a lecturer in the fully online Graduate Diploma of Australian Migration Law & Practice (GDAMLP) program, I aim to harness technology to create a better learning experience for my students.

When teaching in an online course, it can be challenging to see beyond the technology and reach the students. Technology is after all in everything you create and do in a fully online course. However, by focusing on student learning as a goal, rather than technology itself, my purposeful use of technology can be seen in a number of small, sometimes hidden innovations.

Combined, they have proven to be a powerful and effective way to improve student learning in my courses.

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Preferred Citation

Robinson, E., and Learning Futures (2020). Using active learning strategies to build connections between students and lecturers. Retrieved from