How do I keep students engaged in my blended learning set up?

Blended learning combines learning activities in class and remotely online. The most important aspect of blended learning is that all the activities are connected and support each other. “Blended learning represents a new approach and mix of classroom and online activities consistent with the goals of specific courses or programmes”(Garrison, Vaughan, 2008). An ideal blend in education does not exist. In each learning practice you will have to strive to find the most effective blend for that particular situation. This means that educational issues are leading, and not the technology as such.

The example below indicates how adding a prior-knowledge test, in this case an online test, helps students preparing for their learning experience in the simulation on the subject of artery. The teacher wanted to make sure the simulation would not been used as an trial and error environment by students, therefore the prior knowledge test was made a compulsory part of the programme.

Getting started

There are different ways to provide student with online material; you can offer them digital learning material (films, articles, websites) or provide them with weblectures, knowledge clips, online aassignments, online feedback/peer feedback assignments or online discussion platforms. Also using digital educational tools, such as the peer review tool Pitch2Peer, is a possibility.

As mentioned above, the main question here is still what are the learning goals? How are you going to test the students and how are you going to make sure you design your programme in such a way that it supports these goals?

When you first want to start with setting up a blended learning design, there are a few design principles to bear in mind.

  • Start small; pilot your first redesign and evaluate under students;
  • Something in, something out; try to avoid programme overload;
  • Sequence the activities; put everything in an order and time line;
  • Re-use; there is already a lot out there!
  • Use lecture time differently; for discussion for example, or explaining more specific examples;
  • Be clear; explain that the online part is part of the programme and not optional.


  • D.R. Garrison, N.D. Vaughan (2008), Blended learning in higher education, Framework, Principles and Guidelines, Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, San Fransisco, CA. – This book provides a vision and roadmap for higher education faculty to understands the possibilities of organically blending face-to-face and online learning for engaging meaningful learning experiences.
  • Randy Garrison, Heather Kanuka (2003), Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education, Learning Commons, Room 525, Biological Sciences Building, University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2N 1N4, Received 19 December 2003; accepted 13 February 2004, Internet and Higher Education 7 (2004) 95–105 –This article describes how blended learning has the potential to enhance both the effectiveness and efficiency of meaningful learning experiences.
  • Associatie K.U. Leuven, Redactie: Luc Vandeput, bijdragen van Linda Tambuyser en Johannes De Gruyter (2011) Van e-learning naar geïntegreerd blended learning


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.