Course activities and learner interactions

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This document is part of a larger collection of documents on online instruction from the Center for Teaching, Learning and Mentoring's Instructional Resources KnowledgeBase. See more online instruction documents from that collection.

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Kinds of course activities and learner interactions available in online courses

Course activities are all of the exercises, assignments, projects, discussions, and more that allow students to apply their learning and practice their mastery of material from a unit or module. These components in an online course also provide the foundation for the multiple types of interaction in a course, which include learner-to-content, learner-to-learner, and learner-to-instructor.

Opportunities for learning application and interaction should be integrated into the course in a way that enhances and balances the lecture content and other instructional materials. Moreover, course activities should be sequenced appropriately as well as varied in nature in order to retain student engagement and interest.

Why Is It Important?

The online learner benefits substantially from frequent and meaningful opportunities to engage with the content, with their fellow students, and with the instructor. Therefore, course activities and opportunities for interaction are critical to learner success in the online environment in particular. Not only do they provide ways for students to apply what they have learned, but they also foster engagement among learners and between learners and the instructor. The most effective activities and interactions are those that stimulate learners cognitively and motivate them in the pursuit of the course’s learning objectives.

How to Put Into Practice?

Below are four general steps for implementing online activities and interaction opportunities:

  1. Select learning activities that accomplish objectives.
  2. Use teaching methods that engage students in meaningful activities.
  3. Provide ample opportunity for interaction.
  4. Allow enough time for collaborative or group activities and discussions.

There are a plethora of options when selecting activities and interactions for a course. Therefore, it is helpful to consider the following when selecting activities:

Types of Interactions

Interactions in the online learning environment fall into three categories: learner-to-content, learner-to-instructor, and learner-to-learner. Each of these types is uniquely important for student learning and can complement the other two when integrated strategically into a course.

Learner-to-Content interactions are how the learner interacts with the instructional materials in a course.

Learner-to-Instructor interactions are how students and instructors connect at numerous and timely points throughout the course.

Learner-to-Learner interactions are how learners connect with their peers in the context of the course.



Absorb-Do-Connect, created by William Horton (2006), is a relatively simple framework that divides activities by their function. According to Horton, this model provides instructors with a lens through which to consider the balance and variety of activities within a course. It also acts as a guide for instructors to build scaffolded activity sequences in the achievement of progressively higher-order thinking skills. While this framework avoids generalizations about which activities fit into which functional category, it does describe the nature of each category:

  • “Absorb” activities and interactions support learners’ information extraction and consumption from various learning materials and media, e.g., an online presentation or guided tour.
  • “Do” activities and interactions promote learners’ practice or application of information gained from “absorb” activities, e.g., a case study or group project.
  • “Connect” activities and interactions facilitate learners’ forming of linkages between new and previous information within the context of their own lives, e.g., a peer review or web scavenger hunt.

Reference: Horton, W. (2006). E-learning by design. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Additional Resources

Critical thinking

Critical thinking, as defined by the Critical Thinking Community, is the “intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” Critical thinking can be used to evaluate and explore information in virtually all academic disciplines. Critical thinking methods enhance learning through active involvement and reflection.

Following are three ways to implement critical thinking in an online course:

1. Creating an Environment that Supports Critical Thinking

An environment that supports critical thinking includes structuring of interactions to foster critical thinking, feedback that focuses awareness on the student’s own thinking processes, and the use of questioning to obtain and process information. It is also important to help students understand the purpose and benefits of critical thinking so that they can be open to the opportunity to learn and use critical thinking.

2. Using Questioning to Develop Higher-Order Thinking

Every thought can be explored in more depth by considering:

  • The origin of the thought (e.g., How did I come to believe this?)
  • Support for the thought (e.g., Why do I believe this?)
  • Conflict with other views (e.g., What are possible objections and how would I respond?)
  • Possible implications and consequences (e.g., What follows from this view?)
  • The learner’s thinking processes (e.g., What have I learned? What’s working well?)

3. Incorporating Critical Thinking Assessments

Continuous monitoring and practice throughout the course are important in the development of critical thinking skills. Various classroom assessment techniques (CATs) can be used to evaluate critical thinking. Most CATs involve student reflection on or explanation of their learning, usually through brief, anonymous responses to simple questions or prompts. Here is a brief resource on CATs.

Additional Resources

See Also: