12 Building Blocks to Use Learning Technologies Effectively – Building Block 5: Help Learners Process the Subject Matter Actively

The world is in the grip of the corona virus. Schools are closing and people are urged to work from home if possible. Education institutions and organisations alike are trying to figure out how to help their students or workers learn while at home. At this point, they’re forced to redesign their current offerings from face-to-face to digital at a distance. Although there are many pitfalls (redesign from in-person to virtual requires a careful design process), we thought it might be helpful to give some tips & tricks. Wilfred Rubens, a friend / colleague has recently written some useful blogs in Dutch and has kindly agreed to allow us to translate them to English. They’re all based on the book ‘Wijze lessen. Twaalf bouwstenen voor effectieve didactiek’ (‘Lessons for Learning: 12 Building Blocks for Effective Teaching’ which is at this very moment being translated into English), written by Tim Surma, Kristel Vanhoyweghen, Dominique Sluijsmans, Gino Kamp, Daniel Muijs and Paul A. Kirschner.

wijze lessenIn the book, Surma and his co-authors, discuss how to teach effectively using twelve evidence-informed instruction principles. Wilfred saw an opportunity to elaborate on the building blocks by teasing out the relationship between each building block and learning technologies. He published 12 blogs – one for each building block – in which he explained how learning technologies can be used to facilitate and strengthen the relevant building block (you can find the original blogs here).[1]


Wilfred Rubens [in the rest of this blog “I”] prefaces this fifth blog by saying: This building block is why I started writing these posts as I thought the importance of learning technology wasn’t explored deeply enough in Lessons for Learning.

The authors state:

Productive strategies make learners actively process the subject matter. The result is a new product created by the learner, like an explanation, a summary or a schema, all of which make the learner learn the subject matter more deeply as compared to for example more passive rereading. Actively processing information can be done individually but also in collaboration. It’s important to use these strategies at the right moment and even more so to teach learners how to use them.

In this chapter in Lessons for Learning, the authors discuss a few strategies and correctly point out that not all strategies are suitable for all types of content. They also stress that it’s important to teach learners about these strategies.

Obviously, many of these strategies can be used without learning technology, but usually using a learning technology makes the process more efficient.


Learners think more deeply about subject matter through WH-questions [who, what, when, where, why, and how], which you, the instructor/facilitator, can prompt them to come up with and answer. Another option is to have learners look for similarities, differences, and links between subject matter.

You can implement this strategy via a learning technology like Peerwise. This app enables learners to come up with different types of questions that they share with others who can also give feedback and use the questions to practise. Other apps like Questionmark or quiz applications of digital learning environments also allow learners to practise. However, learners usually aren’t authorised to create the questions, so the instructor/facilitator has to put them in. Peerwise does allow learners to enter both the questions and the answers themselves.

Another example of elaborating is creating online flash cards with a question on one side and the answer on the other. Websites like Quizlet or Cram allow learners to share the flash cards.

A final example, because the options are endless, is using weblogs. Have learners post blogs about the similarities and differences between subject matter or about the links between new subject matter and their prior knowledge. Other learners can then comment on their posts, making corrections, suggestions, etc. Weblogs offer the perfect opportunity to organise ‘thoughts under construction’, to reflect on certain topics and connect them.


This strategy involves learners explaining subject matter or solutions in their own words to themselves and, for example, record this. When you, as the instructor/facilitator, ask learners to record themselves, they make sure all learners participate. Learners can also work in pairs and interview each other with their smartphones. Moreover, the result can be used as a reflection tool to stimulate subsequent discussion later on. Learners can also use a creative pen tablet and screencast software to demonstrate how they solve problems. They write down their calculations on an online whiteboard while the screencast software records everything. Weblogs also enable learners to self-explain subject matter, but many learners probably prefer explaining things orally (instead of in writing). Podcasts can then be used in that respect.


When creating a spoken or written summary, learners rephrase the most important ideas from for example a class or what they’ve read. Again, they can use short videos, podcasts or blogposts. I once saw this implemented when I was visiting professor for an honours programme. Learners had to post a short video about every guest lecture and then upload it onto a Dutch platform called Pitch2Peer. Afterwards, they had to give each other quantitative and qualitative feedback on their ‘pitches’, giving medals to the best video. Every week one video was selected as the winning post.

Learners can also be asked to write a summary in the form of a tweet, limiting their text to 280 characters. Obviously, leaners can also upload a written summary, that way you can easily check which learners actually completed the assignment. You can again combine this with peer feedback.


Mapping requires learners to create a visual representation that shows the links between different concepts. They can use mindmap tools, individually or in pairs, or create posters.

[Peer] Teaching

This strategy, in which learners teach each other, involves interaction between learners, whereas self-explaining does not. Again, learners can use videos or podcasts and ask each other for feedback. Videos and podcasts allow for more learners to react as compared to a typical classroom setting. You can also use webinars or virtual classroom sessions, but usually these are not really useful for interacting with each other. They do work well when you want others to participate in a class, for example supervisors or mentors.


The authors of Lessons for Learning have chosen to dedicate a separate building block to this strategy. I completely agree with them.

Collaborative learning

When I ask my audience during a presentation or workshop with teachers or trainers about the characteristics and examples of activating instructional strategies and techniques, the answer is always collaborative learning. Tim Surma and his co-authors point out that this isn’t always appropriate as not every assignment is fit for this form of learning. Moreover, making collaborative learning effective isn’t easy. The topic of computer supported collaborative learning isn’t dealt with in Lessons for Learning.

A lot of research has been done on using learning technology for collaborative learning. Moodle’s developers state their environment is perfect for collaborative learning. Other examples of apps that allow learners to collaborate are Slack, Basecamp and Microsoft’s Teams. Most research makes a distinction between collaborative and cooperative learning.

Annotation applications are also worth mentioning. I once wrote a blog about the use of these applications (like Perusall) in order to make learners actively process the articles that they were assigned to read.

Nowadays we have a lot of technologies at our disposal that enable learners and instructors/facilitators to work together, send each other messages, discuss topics online, divide tasks, and come up with schedules. About fifteen years ago I [Wilfred Rubens] and a few co-authors wrote a number of publications on using learning technology to enable collaborative learning. These technologies have changed a lot since then but, while the technologies have become more powerful, the underlying principles haven’t really changed. Moreover, these technologies usually don’t include in-built functions that support the process of collaborative learning.

[1] Note: These blogs don’t take criteria/requirements for selection of learning technologies into consideration (including costs). It’s always wise to first consider which learning technologies your organisation already has and which are also supported. The different tools or functionalities all have strengths and weaknesses. In general, you always need to explore the properties and make a conscious choice. In any case, always take the General Data Protection Regulation into account.

7 thoughts on “12 Building Blocks to Use Learning Technologies Effectively – Building Block 5: Help Learners Process the Subject Matter Actively

  1. Matt Bury says:

    Re: students creating their own flashcards, is there any research that has measured the learning gains of creating flashcard decks & studying them vs spending the same amount of time just studying tutor-made flashcards?

    The self-explanation, deeper processing argument makes sense to me but I wonder if there is a benefit to transferring information from one place, e.g. textbook, to a card or online app, i.e. very little actual processing.


    • Paul A. Kirschner says:

      Good question. The ‘benefit’ of allowing/having learners create their own flashcards lies in the advantages seen when comparing production versus reception. But, and this is a big BUT, whether this occurs is highly dependent on the learner and the quality of the question. This is similar to retrieval practice questions. If the learner is not capable of coming up with relevant, high-quality self-testing questions for retrieval practice, then it’s better to present her/him with good questions. Also, if the goal is the application of a concept and the learner sticks to writing retrieval of factual information questions, then a teacher-produced flashcard or quiz is better. Finally, an extra advantage of self-production is that the information is processed an extra time during the production phase and the learner must retrieve the information from her/his LTM to write the question or produce the flashcard.
      As for transfer: If one is only copying from one medium to another I wouldn’t call it transfer. Here the teacher can play a role in requiring paraphrasing instead of literal transcription. Again we see that this, in itself, is a form of information processing and aids learning.
      I guess my conclusion here is that the effect is dependent on the quality of the quiz or flashcard and that’s where the teacher plays a large role. Children need to learn how tho do this. We can’t take for granted that they can. This means the teacher needs to teach how to do it, examine the products, give feedback, allow for revision, etc. We observed this in research that we did with using summaries as a form of retrieval practice. We thought: Requiring the learner to write a summary would be the ultimate form of retrieval practice. The results were not in agreement here. To try to understand this we studied the quality of the summaries that the kids made and it was pathetic, to say the least. The kids had never learned and/or practised writing good summaries and if you can’t use the tool and/or never learned or practised using it, then it won’t work!
      Thanks for the question!


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