Lectures: Activate Your Students

Keeping students engaged through fascinating, structured and varied lectures is one thing, but you can get even more out of your lecture when you also manage to activate your students. 

Create a safe learning environment 

First, pay attention to the context of your lecture: if you expect your students to participate actively, then it is important that you as lecturer create a safe learning environment. The students should feel that they can communicate openly without being ridiculed.   

Therefore, be supportive of incorrect answers and always try to interpret the error by finding the logic behind the incorrect answers. Emphasise the negative and positive aspects of the answer, and if necessary, draw attention to your own shortcoming: "Obviously, I did not explain that properly." 

Certainly also avoid statements such as "Look to the left of you, look to the right of you, only one of the three of you will pass this paper". If you refer to the exam, do so in a positive way: "Don't underestimate the exam; it is a serious amount of learning material. But many students before you have proven that it is not impossible. Prepare weekly for the lectures and I am always available for questions if and when needed". If you indicate that you have high expectations of the group, the chances are that the students will reach them. 

Ask questions 

The most obvious way to actively involve your students in the lecture is by asking questions. Please note that students are often not used to being asked (many) questions. As a result, it may require some perseverance on your behalf to get them to answer a question. So make it clear that you ask the students a question and that you expect an answer. Ask one (clear) question at a time. If you ask multiple questions at once, the students won't know which question to answer and they will disengage. If possible, at the start of your lecture, announce that you expect participation from the students and give students time to get used to your approach; if they realise that this is your approach, their activity level will improve. 

Give enough time to think 

Students often need a moment to find an answer. Therefore, wait a few seconds after you ask a question. That way you really indicate that you really expect an answer and give the students the chance to formulate an answer (first for themselves). Don't keep repeating the question to fill the silence. That disrupts the students' thinking process. 

Repeat and paraphrase the answer you receive; maybe not all students have heard it and this way you can also check whether you have understood the answer correctly. The answer you get may be different from the model answer you had in mind. Don't be surprised and check if the answer meets your expectations in terms of content. 

Encourage everyone to formulate an answer 

There is a danger that only a few students will actively think about the question while the other students wait for their fellow students to come up with an answer. To avoid that, ask the students to write down the answer first. This way, you encourage all students to think, and slower students get the chance to formulate an answer. It is also less daunting for students to be asked what they’ve written down.  

You can also ask your students to first discuss the answer with their neighbour. The discussion will confirm or disprove their answer, giving them more confidence to answer the question. If you want to give your students more reflection time, you can also ask to prepare the answer to some questions by the next lecture. 

Another, quite simple way to get everyone to answer is to organise polling. For example, you provide a statement that will trigger different opinions and various response options. Give the students a moment to think about the statement before asking them to vote. Voting can be done by raising a hand or coloured cards, or you can rely on a voting system

Let students work together 

You also activate the students by encouraging them to work together during your lecture. In a large group, this is not always evident, but there are a number of strategies that make this possible: 

Buzz groups 
A buzz group is a short group assignment. Students hold a brief discussion (a few minutes) in small groups of two to four students. 

In think-pair-share, students first consider an assignment individually and try to solve it by themselves. Then they consult in groups and share their opinion with each other. The final step is to discuss the solution with the whole group. 

Peer instruction 
After lecturing a piece of theory you immediately give an application or exercise. First, the students work out the assignment individually after which they vote to give their answer. Then they consult in pairs and try to convince each other that their answer is correct. Finally, another vote takes place. As a result of the discussion, the second vote will produce more correct answers. 

Divide the group into small groups. Each group works on a part of a larger assignment. After that, the groups are split up and new groups are formed, each member of which has worked on a different part in the first group. Each team must now try to find an answer to the main question based on the expertise from the different fields. 

Use classroom assessment techniques 

Give a written task

You can ask the students to hand in a written task at the end of the lecture. This way you can detect judgment errors and respond to them in the next lecture. Always indicate that the assignments won’t be quoted. Some examples: 

  • One-minute paper: A contact moment is often wrapped up with a conclusion by the lecturer. But you could leave that to the students: for example, instruct them to write down three points about what they have learned today or to summarise the core of the lesson in their own words. That way, they reflect on the main and secondary issues. The answers show how much the students have taken away from the lecture. The students are expected to do this in one minute; therefore, this teaching method has the obvious name of the one-minute paper.
  • After you have dealt with a particular topic, ask the students to think of at least one way in which they could apply what they just learned in practice.
  • Ask students to write down all the arguments for and against a particular measure. 


Give the students a number of questions that test their knowledge or skills. The series can consist of concepts that are food for thought or questions that allow students to analyse their personal behaviour. You can either use this technique at the beginning of the lecture as a teaser or at the end as a summary. 

Start or end with a test

  • At the beginning of the lecture, the test can gauge what the students have retained from the previous lecture, or you can focus the students’ attention on the topic you will cover in that lecture.
  • Collect the answers and look at them during the break; this way you get an image of the level and you can revise or highlight some elements in the second part of the lecture.
  • A test at the end of the lecture can show the students what they still need to work on at home and can also form a good basis to build on in the next lecture. 

How do you check if students are following the lecture? 

“Als ik de studenten vraag of ze het begrepen hebben en ik krijg een schaapachtig 'ja', dan roep ik iemand naar voren die moet uitleggen wat ik zonet heb verteld. De volgende keer krijg ik onmiddellijk vragen als ik hen vraag of ze het allemaal hebben begrepen.” (AAP, LW)

Check actively 

By using activating teaching methods in your lecture, you can often determine if your students are grasping your message. Also, by observing your students you can often find out if your message is reaching them: non-verbal signals such as surprised looks, students who stop taking notes or a 'buzz' that goes through the auditorium may clarify a lot. 

But of course, you can also take action yourself to determine what your students have taken away from your lecture. For example, professor X could call two students to the front at the end of a lecture and ask them to draw up a slide to summarise the content. The other students are asked to give input to the two students who are in front. The summary will tell you where the possible problems lie. At the same time, the learning material is being revised, which will help more students to understand the message. 

Be aware that asking a student to give a summary could be daunting for that student. So, a summary does not have to be the responsibility of one student: let one student start the summary and have others add to it. Or have the students consult each other and work on a summary together, and then ask one student to explain what they’ve discussed. 

Respond immediately to learning material that is not fully understood 

  • If you notice that most students have not grasped your message, you have different options. The easiest approach is to incorporate a short break. That way, the material can sink in and the students get some breathing space before moving to the next part of the lecture. 
  • You can also repeat the previous part of the lesson. Revision supports memory and helps broaden the students’ understanding. By presenting complex material in different ways, you offer the students different perspectives and links to their prior knowledge.
  • It can also help to highlight the most difficult parts of the material and explore that further. Once the students comprehend the more difficult reasoning, chances are they will also gain a better understanding of the learning material as a whole. An insightful example can also lead to a breakthrough with many students: by placing the theory in an authentic context, you help the students to grasp the different aspects of complex material. 
  • Finally, once again, if you find that your students cannot follow or that they are confused, ask them where the problem lies. For example, you can indicate that you notice that you've gone too fast. Ask your students explicitly what questions they have and not whether they have any questions. This small nuance in your questioning lowers the threshold.  
  • If the students don’t ask any questions right away, you could ask the first question yourself. This gives the students a little more time to think and you stimulate the domino effect: after the first question (which is always the most difficult), the other questions usually follow quite easily. That way you also indicate that you are convinced that questions will arise and that you take the time to answer them. 
  • Some questions are best redirected to the group, but make sure that you don't embarrass the questioner. Questions that show that the student has not yet understood something while most others already have are best answered by yourself. If a student asks a question about an extension of the relevant topic, you can rely on the group. By complementing the question itself, you will not embarrass the questioner. 


Get inspired by this video in which experienced lecturers share their tips and tricks about asking questions and interaction during a lecture:

Log in with your UGent account on MS Stream to watch the video.

Want to know more?

  • Svinicki, M., Mckeachie, W.J. (2010). McKeachie's teaching tips: strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers, Wadsworth: Cengage Learning. 
  • Bligh, D. (2000). What’s the use of lecturers? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 
  • Campbell, R. (1999). Mouths, machines, and minds. The Psychologist, 12, 446-449. 
  • ten Dam, G., van Hout H., Terlouw, C. & Willem, J. (2000). Onderwijskunde Hoger Onderwijs, Handboek voor docenten. Van Gorcumé. p.84-87 

Last modified Jan. 13, 2021, 10:55 a.m.