How do I activate students during my lectures?

Activating students during lectures can be challenging, but is rewarding. It helps to capture and maintain students’ attention and engagement in order to foster deeper learning.

Before you start

Make sure that the activating teaching (activity) is not just entertainment or a mere alternative to listening, but conducive to students’ learning. This comprises designing activities that help students achieve the learning objectives of the course.

Getting started

A basic activating teaching strategy that requires little preparation is asking questions during the lecture. Depending on your goals, different types of questions can be useful:

  • Recollection (& application): which of the four treatment that we’ve discussed is most useful (for X)?
  • Prediction / thinking along: what do you think are the main causes of Y? How would you design a study to explore Z?
  • Argumentative/evaluative: do you agree with assertion C and why? What would be a counterargument to what I’ve just explained?
  • Analysis: how does A compare to B? In what ways are the findings of study A and B inconsistent/contradictory?

Answering is often voluntary, likely resulting in an interesting discussion with a particular (type of) student, but to activate all students you could consider:

  • Having students discuss answers with their neighbours
  • Having students raise hands or stand/sit to indicate their response
  • Randomly asking students to answer
  • Using an electronic voting system

Knowing that their answers matter is crucial for students’ motivation for and engagement in class and for the activation to be effective for learning, therefore make sure to refer to their answers.

Activating students during lectures can be time consuming. It can save time to ask students to complete some of the activities outside of class (e.g. make a mind map on topic X, formulate arguments for a debate, reflect on a question, make a summary) and possibly submit it online.

    • If students submit their preparation work online before class, you can adapt your lecture accordingly.
    • If students submit their “answers” to the activity related to the lecture after class, it will help you to assess how effective your lecture was.

More challenging ways of activating students during lectures are described below.



How can I adapt my teaching to differences between higher education students?

Students differ in terms of interests, prior knowledge and skills, and learning preferences to a great extent. As a consequence, students have different levels of motivation, attitudes about teaching, and responses to specific instructional practices. How can you address these differences in your teaching?

Students in higher education differ in (Felder & Brent, 2005):

  1. Learning preferences

Some students are comfortable with theories and abstractions; others feel much more at home with facts and observable phenomena; some prefer collaborative learning and others value individual learning; some prefer verbal explanations and others prefer visual representations.

  1. Approaches to learning and orientations to studying

Students tend to approach their courses in three ways:

  1. Students who have an orientation to reproduction tend to adopt a superficial approach, relying on memorisation and making little or no effort to understand the material being taught.
  2. Students who have an orientation towards meaning tend to adopt a deep approach; probing questions and exploring the (conceptual) limits.
  3. Students who have an orientation towards achievement might adopt both a surface or deep approach, doing whatever is necessary to get the highest grade they can.

Getting started

Firstly, try to get to know your students. A straightforward way is being aware of verbal and non-verbal feedback from your students. Students might complain about the level of the course content, express demotivation, show procrastination or work in a superficial manner. This may indicate that students either need more instruction or need to be guided towards an orientation that promotes meaning. Another approach would be to discuss the differences and resulting preferences. Some students may feel uncomfortable expressing their needs and aims. Online tools give students the opportunity to be more honest in their responses as they can stay anonymous to their peers.

Secondly, adapt to students’ need in terms of the content, the learning activities, the level and/or educational tools or challenge students to go the extra mile. Some example are:

  • Learning activities: Taking differences in learning preferences into account, alternate between individual and group work, concrete and conceptual exercises and written or visual explanations. For (small) group work, alternate between group arrangements based on prior knowledge or learning preferences and between homogenous and heterogeneous groups.
  • The level: To adapt to or challenge students, try to create more time to provide personalised feedback. A well-known method is flipping the classroom in which students watch lectures at home so that the face-to-face time in class can be used for students’ questions and collaborative work.
  • The content: Let students decide what (sub)topic they want explore further; working from and thereby developing their individual talents stimulates students’ sense of autonomy.


How can I stimulate students’ independent learning by using ‘constructive friction’?

We aim to design education in such a way, that students take responsibility for their own learning. However, not all students are used to take responsibility for their own learning; not all students know how to do so; and not all students appreciate education wherein they are expected to take the lead.

Consequently, as a lecturer, you may need to help students ‘learn how to learn’. Letting students experience friction by not meeting their initial needs can be a way to do so.

Getting started

Taking responsibility for own learning is conceptualised as students’ self-regulated or self-directed learning in the literature. Vermunt and Verloop (1999) describe how different interplays between a teacher’s and a student’s regulation of the learning process can have different outcomes:

  • Congruence occurs when the teacher’s teaching and the student’s learning is compatible. Typical examples are strong regulation of learning in a first course, as students are not (yet) used to the regulation expected in the educational setting and loose teacher regulation in a master thesis, when students are expected to be able to take the lead.
  • Friction occurs when teaching and learning are not compatible. A typical example is when students are expected to manage group work themselves, but struggle to do so without teacher support and/or deadlines. Yet, (destructive) friction also occurs when lecturers provide too much guidance and support and fail to call upon students’ skills and knowledge.

Interplays between teacher and student regulation of the learning process

Degree of student regulation Degree of teacher regulation
Strong Shared Loose
High Destructive friction Destructive friction Congruence
Intermediate Destructive friction Congruence Constructive friction
Low Congruence Constructive friction Destructive friction

Adapted from Vermunt & Verloop, 1997, p.270

Friction can be unpleasant to start with, however it could also provide an important boost to learning when friction is used in a constructive manner; that is, when students are challenged to develop their competences and expertise.  By providing just a little less guidance than students might (think they) need (i.e. creating ‘constructive friction’), lecturers can give students the opportunity to develop in ways that they did not expect they were capable of doing on their own (cf. ‘out of a comfort zone’).

You can create constructive friction to promote independent learning at different levels:

  • in lesson/lecture, for instance by asking students to prepare and present part of the content themselves
  • in an assignment, for instance by inviting students to design and complete part of the assessment (of the process/group work)
  • in a program (line), for instance by having students plan their curriculum, including when and where they will conduct an internship/thesis/capstone


Vermunt, J. D., & Verloop, N. (1999). Congruence and friction between learning and teaching. Learning and instruction, 9(3), 257-280.

This article describes teaching activities that elicit the most often used cognitive, affective and metacognitive learning activities, differentiated for teacher, shared and student-regulated learning processes.

How do I lead a group discussion in class?

A prototypical activating teaching activity is a group discussion: a discussion about a topic, issue, problem or question, that invites students to actively contribute to the lesson and enables the lecturer to immediately discern and correct misunderstandings.

Getting started

To get a discussion going, the question or statement to be discussed deserves careful attention. Different types of questions, likely to lead to different discussions:

  • Questions for memorization (what do you know about X? What does concept X mean?), likely evoke a discussion about the (prepared) literature, or general declarative knowledge. They can be used to check students’ preparation and establish students’ prior knowledge.
  • Questions for understanding (how would you explain X in your own words?) evoke a discussion about different interpretations and are useful to reveal misunderstandings.
  • Questions for analysis (how does X compare to Y?) and evaluation (what are the advantages of X?) likely evoke a debate and are useful when the goal is to explore different perspectives or formulate an informed opinion.

To get a group discussion going, your role as a lecturer should not be that of the expert answering questions or responding to statements (i.e. not lecturing), but that of a facilitator, encouraging students to participate, while maintaining focus on what is important. In a group discussion, students interact with each other: it is your job to redirect questions and statements to the group (e.g., who (dis)agrees? What would an alternative explanation be?). You can also use this technique to correct wrong statements, by actively encouraging students to correct each other’s misunderstandings.

Risks and challenges

A risk in group discussions is getting sidetracked: focusing too much time on irrelevant issues. Your job is to shift the focus back to the core of the issue by paraphrasing and summarising.

A challenge in group discussions is keeping track of everything that is said. Having a student take notes, or taking notes yourself, that are visible to the whole group (e.g. on a flip chart, white board, or on a computer being projected onto a screen), visualizes the breadth of discussion and highlights missing elements.

Another challenge is dealing with students who do not participate in the discussion. Depending on the reason (e.g., fear of being embarrassed, lack of preparation, do not see the added value), different solutions might work. For instance, you can establish communication ground rules and/or explicate why you choose a discussion over a lecture.



Further reading

  • Linda B. Nilson (2010), Teaching at its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors (3rd). Jossey-Bass, San Francisco: chapters 13 en 14.
  • Wilbert J. McKeachie, Marilla Svinicki (2006). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Strategies for College and University Teachers, College Teaching Series, Twelfth edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston New York, Chapter 5, p.35-56.






How do I find out what my students already know?

Knowing what your students know enables you to design your teaching based on students’ understanding. It can also inform you about the effects of your teaching before the results of final assessment are in (when it is  too late to adapt your teaching!). Yet, how can you tell what your students are thinking?

Getting started

Below are three examples of teaching and learning activities that activate and explicate students’ (prior) understanding. Using them at the start of a lesson or course helps determine prior knowledge and understanding and activates their learning; using them later on is more informative about the effects of your teaching.

Quiz- Quizzing students, for instance with a series of multiple choice questions or statements, is a fast way of determining students’ understanding. Offline quizzes can use answer options as raising hands, standing up or moving to different corners. Several interactive digital Apps (e.g., PresentersWall) offer more options, including voting, rating, or open questions. Students vote using their own phone, tablet or laptop.

Mindmap – Asking students to draw a mindmap about a central concept or question, visualising (hierarchical) relations between the central concept and related ones. It informs you about their understanding and activates their learning. Depending on their purpose mindmaps can be done in class or as preparation, by hand or online, individually or in groups. You can also ask students to continuously update the mindmap as they progress through the course, challenging them to directly link course content to their developing understanding.

Exam questions – Developing examination questions and answer models is a task usually reserved for lecturers, but when you ask students to do so, it requires them to think about the essential aspects of the course content,  activating their learning. The wording and level of the students’ questions (e.g. asking for (rote)memorisation, application, or understanding of course material) also informs you about students’ expectations in terms of the level of required understanding. Using one or more of the best questions in the actual examination is motivating for students and saves you work.









Teaching for active learning

Rather than the transmission of predefined knowledge to passive recipients, teaching is increasingly designed to foster students’ active knowledge construction, by interacting with other students, classroom materials and the teacher. Research consistently shows that actively engaging with content (for instance by discussing course material, linking it to previous understandings, looking at it from different perspectives, and reflecting on one’s choices, motivation and arguments) leads to more effective learning than what is referred to as the “consumption of knowledge”. Yet, the design of university education does not always foster active learning, and this is reflected in student evaluations of teaching. This calls for (re-)designing teaching to (further)  stimulate students’ active learning through engaging with relevant disciplinary issues and research questions.


  • Students participate actively in the teaching and learning activities
  • Students participate in small learning communities and gain shared knowledge and insights
  • Teachers use teaching approaches for active learning to promote student engagement and student achievement
  • The design of educational programmes encourages students to progressively take responsibility for their own learning and become autonomous learners

What are the key aspects?

In teaching for active learning, knowledge is not predefined, but always enriched by interaction with teachers, students and classroom materials, and students progressively take responsibility for their own learning throughout their university careers.
There are at least three ways in which students can become active learners:

  1. Active learning invites students to actively construct knowledge, for instance by teachers and students linking course content to prior understanding and looking at issues or questions from different perspectives. Teaching activities, ranging from asking questions during a lecture to mind mapping and (digital) classroom polls, reveal existing student understandings and can be used as starting points for further enrichment.
  2. Active learning invites students to interact with other students, teachers and classroom materials. Collaborative teaching activities as debates, think-pair-share, peer- or self-feedback are useful here, and are likely to enrich students’ understanding.
  3. Active learning also entails students progressively taking responsibility for their own learning. Larger assignments,  in which students have more freedom to pursue individual interests at their own pace, require students to plan their own learning and also tend to trigger reflection on the learning process.

Changing role of the teacher

Active learning is more than adding assignments, activities and technological tools to a lesson or course, as active learning not only changes the role of the students, but also the role of the teacher. Activating students’ learning requires students to prepare before class, interact during class and reflect after class. The student needs to do the learning and therefore at some times the teacher needs to fade out to provide the students with space and time to progress by themselves. Teachers need to resist their impulse to “take over” the learning process when students appear to be struggling; typically, the struggle shows that students are actively engaging in the learning process.

Designing teaching approaches for active learning starts with thoroughly thinking about students’ needs and learning objectives. Starting with these learning goals, teachers should consider the different ways students could achieve these goals and design (inter)active learning activities in line with these objectives. In this process, the assessment design also deserves attention, as it is important that assessment is constructively aligned with the learning objectives and learning activities. This way students’ learning is optimally supported (see also Biggs, 1996, and chapter Assessment and Feedback)

Learning to learn actively

The extent to which students will be actively engaged in class depends on the learning activities and how the lesson is planned, but also on what students are familiar with. When students have little experience with teaching approaches for active learning, or when they are confronted with different approaches to teaching and learning, they may express dissatisfaction at first. This signals that students may need guidance on how to learn actively. Vermunt and Verloop (1999) describe how teachers and students can balance the regulation of learning. They highlight how providing just a little less guidance than students might (think they) need (i.e. creating “constructive friction”) can support students taking increased responsibility for their own learning.

How do you know you are on the right track?

Further reading

Different websites offer examples of a range of activating teaching  practices (“activerende werkvormen/didactiek” in Dutch) for university teaching. Examples include:

Karel Roos (ICT coördinator at ICLON) has made an informative animation about active learning during lectures


Teaching example

The first and second year bachelor courses in EU law have large working groups, where students can ‘hide’ behind active students. Making sure students come prepared, is a challenge. Lecturers, among which Dr. Armin Cuyvers, have experimented with using obligatory prior submissions and peer-review of the take home questions, to improve the preparation as well as the interaction. They experience a higher level of (academic) discussion as well as fun in the working groups.