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
  • See also
  • Resources

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.

  • The ICTO/LeidenUniversity website gives detailed information on the programmes/projects/pilots concerning blended learning that took and will take place at Leiden University.
  • 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


Activating teaching

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 activating teaching, and this is reflected in student evaluations. This calls for (re-)designing teaching to (further)  stimulate a diverse student body to explore relevant issues and research questions.

  • What are the university's objectives with this theme?
  • What are the key aspects?
  • What are important questions?
  • How do we know we’re making progress?
  • Further reading
  • Teaching example

  • Students participate actively in the educational process
  • Students participate in small learning-communities and gain shared knowledge and insights
  • Teachers use activating teaching to promote student engagement, which translates to higher student retention rates
  • The design of educational programmes encourages students to progressively take responsibility for their own learning and become autonomous learners

In activating teaching, 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 teaching can be activating:

  1. Activating teaching 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. Activating teaching 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. Activating teaching 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

Activating teaching is more than adding assignments, activities and technological tools to a lesson or course, as activating teaching not only changes the role of the students, but also of the teacher. Activating students requires preparation before and reinforcement during class. Sometimes, it also entails resisting the impulse to “take over” when students appear to be struggling; typically, this shows that they are actively engaging with the learning process.

Designing activating teaching 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 teaching and 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 teaching activities. This way students’ learning is optimally supported (see also Biggs, 1996, and Chapter Assessment and Feedback HYPERLINK).

Learning to learn actively

The extent to which students will be actively engaged in class depends on what the teacher does and how the lesson is planned, but also on what students are familiar with. When students have little experience with activating teaching, 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.

Step 1. Reformulate the (university’s) objectives into questions concerning

  1. the current situation (today); and
  2. the desired situation in 2025

Step 2. Make the answers to the questions measurable

Step 3. Use the answers as input for further (re-)design

For example:

1) To what extent do students have opportunities to actively participate in lectures and seminars?

  1. today
  2. in 2025

Examples of measurable answers: students have (x) opportunities for dialogue, presentations, discussions, role play, practice and apply theory

2) How does the faculty offer opportunities and spaces for small learning communities to thrive?

  1. today
  2. in 2025

Examples of measurable answers: there are x suitable (break-out) spaces for student group work

3) To what extent do teachers know how to activate students?

  1. today
  2. in 2025

Examples of measurable answers: (x) percentage of lecturers have Basic Teaching Qualification (BKO)

4) How are students supported in becoming autonomous learners?

  1. today
  2. 2025

Examples of measurable answers: (%) students have immediate access to study skills support; study skills practice is embedded in (x) courses; students can freely allocate (x) EC

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


To follow