How do I persuade my students to prepare for class?

Class time is precious, as there is never enough time to cover all the interesting content of your course. For large- and small-scale teaching, lecturers often expect their students to come to class prepared, typically, by having read the literature or viewed the assigned videos (often referred to as flipped classrooms). If students spend time outside of class preparing, it means there is more time for in-depth discussion or challenging application of the course material during class.

Unfortunately, this does not always happen, leaving the lecturer with a difficult decision: start with explaining what should have been prepared or focus on the students that have prepared by taking the preparation as the starting point?

Getting started


  • Consider why students do not come prepared: perhaps the preparation was not challenging, or it was too difficult, too much or there was not enough time?
  • In the course syllabus, write explicitly that class preparation is expected and assumed for classes.
  • In the course syllabus, write explicitly the lecturer will build upon the preparation and that if students have not prepared they will easily fall behind and that it is their responsibility.
  • Use the first lesson to reinforce the same message about the assumed and expected preparation.
  • Ask your students what they expect about their own role and your role. For example, by asking: what do you think the lecturer should do if some students have not prepared? In this way an open discussion can take place in which the lecturer can steer the students towards the expected behaviour.
  • If students have to prepare an assignment or read literature, be clear about expectations. It could be helpful to ask a colleague to check your assignments on clarity. With regards to reading in preparation for class, explain what is expected of students, e.g. what they need to find out and/or what they should focus on (instead of just saying read chapter 11). This way students know what they need to focus on (e.g. finding the main (counter)arguments, or the research method(s) used).


Persuading students to come prepared:

  • Expect that the students come to class prepared and design lessons accordingly. When lecturers (implicitly) assume students do not prepare, this is typically reflected in the lesson design, for instance by starting with a recap of the preparation. This in turn stimulates students to not prepare, since preparation essentially becomes obsolete.
  • Organise your lesson in such a way that the preparation is used in a relevant way. Instead of repeating what students should have done, you can ask the students to give a summary or a presentation.
  • At the start of the lesson, ask who has prepared. After, you can start with a question that can only be answered after having done the preparation (“what is the main argument of X?”). Added value is that the lecturer also gets an impression of the students’ understanding . The advantage of knowing the students’ preparation at the start of the lesson, is that you can adapt your lesson to the level of preparation of the class. (You can also do this with an interactive quiz)

When (some) students do not come to class prepared:

  • In essence, students who have not prepared should notice it is not acceptable if they have not prepared. In small groups, telling students individually (during breaks, or before or after class) that their preparation is not sufficient, can be very effective.
  • If a few students have not prepared, stress that it is their responsibility to prepare and that you cannot adapt your lesson to this because you have counted on (and explicitly mentioned) their preparation.
  • Those who have not prepared could be asked to leave the classroom and catch up quickly, for example, by finding arguments for and against the issue(s), to be used during the discussion that will take place
  • Another option is to let unprepared students participate as much as possible, as a punitive approach may lead to a negative atmosphere leading to even more lack of preparation and could contribute to a decline in teacher-student relations and rapport.



See also

Tip on flipped classroom (to follow)




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.