Active learning journeys: the TREC model

Dr Rod Cullen and Orlagh McCabe

What is the idea?

TREC (Cullen & McCabe, 2021) is a model that was originally developed to help academics in higher education working in any subject discipline, with limited experience of fully online teaching, to design, develop and deliver engaging active learning in “live” online classes. The model has been popular and subsequently adopted for teaching in a range of contexts at all levels.

The model was envisaged as a process that would take students through a structured, four stage active learning journey (see Figure 1).

TREC is a teaching method that embodies an active learning approach, it is important to make this distinction as Armellini & Rodriguez (2021) identify “active learnings core elements are student activity and engagement in the learning process” (Armellini & Rodriguez, 2021, p. 3) both of which are explicit in a TREC journey.

Trigger: Students are presented with a task that requires them to think about, and articulate in some way, what they already know, understand, or believe about a topic, concept, or theme. We feel that an important aspect of the trigger activity is that it places value on the students’ initial knowledge, understanding and lived experiences and it is important that the tutor emphasizes this as part of the activity.

The primary purpose of the trigger is, however, to get the students to articulate a response. This might be as simple as answering a multiple-choice question or something more complex that involves writing down an answer or drawing a picture. The trigger can be completed individually or in small groups. The key thing is that the trigger moves ideas from inside the students head as a tangible output that can be shared with the tutor(s) and other students. For example, in a session introducing the concept of active learning we might ask the students to write down three characteristics of active learning.

Review: Once students have completed the trigger the responses can be shared back to the class as a whole and the contributions can be reviewed with the learners. This provides an opportunity to highlight and discuss common themes and differences in the class responses. This helps to develop shared understanding within the students and again the tutor has the opportunity to emphasize the value and relevance of the student contributions.

Expectations/Evidence Having reviewed the student responses/contributions the tutor can compare the outcomes with pre-prepared expectations and evidence sourced from wider research and literature. For example, where learners have been asked to share three characteristics of active learning, these can be compared and contrasted with characteristics found in formal definitions of active learning from published sources. In this respect there is an opportunity to build upon common themes, explore and re-examine misconceptions and test assumptions in existing sources. In this respect tutors can build confidence in students to challenge their own thinking but also that represented in published work.

Consolidation – Tutors can subsequently challenge learners to reflect more deeply upon their initial understandings. This may involve a follow-up task to consolidate deeper understanding. In the context of our active learning example, learners might be asked to share (in writing or orally) examples of effective active learning they have experienced as either a student or in their own teaching practice.

The TREC model active learning journey is summarised in Figure 1.

TREC model in 4 stages Trigger, Review, Expectations/Evidence and Consolidation. Full description in the main text.
Figure 1. The TREC Model

Why this idea?

The most significant aspect of the higher education sector’s response to the COVID19 pandemic was a rapid shift to fully online teaching. For many academics this was a completely new and daunting prospect. Like most institutions, Manchester Metropolitan University initiated substantial staff development and training opportunities to support academic colleagues in their preparation for this significant change to their teaching practices.

In our staff development and training provision we wanted to provide a large number of colleagues, who were new to teaching online, with a simple learning design approach that would avoid the possibility for learners to disengage or become passive recipients of content in online sessions. Additionally, and of most importance, was the desire to inspire and empower colleagues to design and deliver an active and engaging curriculum. Therefore, the promotion of active learning strategies became an integral feature of the rationale for TREC.

The TREC model emerged from reflections on the session planning process and has become central in facilitating the design and delivery of active learning through which learners construct their own understandings and make meanings about particular events and experiences (Mikalayeva, 2016). In our experience the TREC approach not only embodies this, but ultimately promotes understanding for learners, resulting in increased skills, particularly in terms of being in a position to analyse, evaluate and synthesise their ideas.

There are many benefits to active learning, for example, placing learners at the centre of their learning provides a level of autonomy that many will find empowering which in turn can increase confidence. In addition, developing key skills by engaging with interactive resources (such as case studies and problem-based learning) can contribute towards the development of useful transferable skills (Rands & Gansemer-Topf, 2017).

How could others implement this idea?

The TREC model provides a framework for any academic practitioner to design active learning into their provision. In a staff development and training context we have found that it can be valuable in helping academics to review traditional presentation style delivery and look for opportunities to turn presentation content into activities. In this respect, we encourage academics to seek out aspects of lectures where they present data, lists, definitions, or aspects where opinions are split and to rework these as triggers and/or evidence within the TREC model.

For example, a traditional lecture might start by presenting students with a definition or range of definitions for a particular concept and then go on to explore this further. A TREC activity would start with a “trigger” that might ask learners (working individually or in small groups) to come up with their own definition of the concept based on what they already know. Students might share their own definitions in writing in a live online session via a chat tool or a collaborative digital whiteboard (we often use something like Padlet for this). When students’ have responded to the trigger the tutor can “review” the range of definitions the students have contributed, exploring similarities and differences, and working towards a shared understanding. The tutor can then make comparisons between the student generated definitions and formal definitions, which we refer to as “Evidence” provided in the literature. Subsequently, having captured digitally (via chat or Padlet) the participant input we might challenge the students to consolidate their learning by refining their own initial definitions of the concept.

Transferability to different contexts

The TREC model was originally conceived in the context of delivering “live” fully online sessions through tools like MS Teams, Zoom and Adobe Connect. However, it has broader applications than this. In relation to online learning the model could be extended beyond the confines of “live” teaching situations. In this respect the “trigger” could be brought forward to provide a pre-session activity, with instructions and submission via a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) or collaborative platform such as MS Teams. Review and Evidence/Expectations stages would be undertaken in the live session. Furthermore, consolidation activities could be undertaken as independent or collaborative follow-up activities also via the VLE or collaborative platform. In this way we might imagine bridging between live sessions with follow-up and preparation activities as summarized in Figure 2.

Image showing extended TREC model with Trigger stage brought forward as an advanced online prep activity and Consolidation stage pushed into an online follow-up activity providing a means of bridging between live teaching sessions.
Figure 2. Extending TREC beyond live sessions

The successful uptake of staff choosing to embed the TREC model in their practice could be attributed to its simplicity, something which we feel has been attractive to colleagues who are often dealing with a number of competing priorities. In addition, the model provides versatility in the sense that it can be used in online, face to face and hybrid situations, and is useful in the planning and design of sessions at all levels.


Armellini, A., & Padilla Rodriguez, B.C.,(2021). Active blended learning: Definition, literature review, and a framework for implementation. In A. Armellini & B. C. Padilla Rodriguez (Eds.). Cases on Active Blended Learning in Higher Education (pp. 1-22). IGI Global.

Cullen, W., R. & McCabe, O., (2021, April 25). The TREC approach to Active Learning. Media and Learning Association.

Mikalayeva, L., (2016). Motivation, ownership, and the role of the instructor in active learning. International Studies Perspectives, 17(2), 214–229. 

Rands, M.L., & Gansemer-Topf, A.M. (2017). The room itself is active: How classroom design impacts student engagement. Journal of Learning Spaces, 6(1), 26-33.

Image Attributions

Figure 1. The TREC Model by Rod Cullen and Orlagh McCabe is used under CC-BY 4.0 Licence

Figure 2. The extended TREC Model by Rod Cullen and Orlagh McCabe is used under CC-BY 4.0 Licence

About the Authors

Dr Rod Cullen is Senior Lecturer in Learning and Teaching Technologies and became a Principal Fellow of Advance HE in Jan 2022. He has over 20 years’ experience of online and blended learning with a long standing interest in interactive classroom technologies.  In recent years, his work has focused on advising and supporting teaching colleagues who have not previously taught online and for this he has developed some simple but effective approaches to designing active learning.

Orlagh McCabe is a senior lecturer in Academic Development at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is programme leader for the PGCLTHE in the University Teaching Academy and became a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy in March 2019.


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100 Ideas for Active Learning by Dr Rod Cullen and Orlagh McCabe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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