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?
- 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.
Tip on flipped classroom (to follow)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- the current situation (today); and
- 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
1) To what extent do students have opportunities to actively participate in lectures and seminars?
- 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?
- 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?
- in 2025
Examples of measurable answers: (x) percentage of lecturers have Basic Teaching Qualification (BKO)
4) How are students supported in becoming autonomous learners?
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: