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
  • Resources
  • See also

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.


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