Active learning: how to engage students in your lectures

Last week I attended a course oSDU logon ‘Interactive Lecturing’ at the University of Southern Denmark. I am preparing an elective course, and I thought this course might be good input for how to make my classes as attractive as possible!

Active learning
Our university would like to stimulate active learning on the part of the student as much as possible. Active learning is about engaging students in the learning process, have them “do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing” (1), rather than passively sit in the classroom and Classroom (andresmh)receive information. But of course, that is not
always easy. For the teachers, because it might be out of their comfort zone, but also for the students, who have to be actively engaged with what is offered in class. Research has shown, however, that although students expect traditional formal lectures, they actually prefer to be taught by interactive lectures and group-based activities (2).

How to stimulate active learning?
The course gave a helpful overview of several ways in which you can stimulate the level of interactivity in a lecture, ranging from student response systems to “think-pair-share” to the flipped classroom. While the flipped classroom requires you to rethink your teaching and plan sessions very differently, interactive lecturing can also be as simple as encouraging students to make meaningful notes for example through having them fill out a pro and con grid of the topic you are talking about. I was also very interested to hear more about student response systems which make it possible to pose all kinds of questions to your students. They answer online and these answers are collectively (and anonymously) displayed on your screen. This can be a good way to assess the knowledge of the students and keep them engaged during a lecture. Possible systems to use are and

“The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage”
In the end, education is all about getting students to understand what they have been taught. Yet many students don’t really understand most of what they’ve been taught, according to Howard Gardner, an AmericanKnowledge (by Ian Muttoo) developmental psychologist (3). They are not able to apply the knowledge that they learned to a different setting. One of his famous quotes is “The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage”. His advice is not to try to cover everything but to engage the students more deeply in one topic so that they can think about in many different ways and apply it in different settings. He also suggests that teachers should offer ‘multiple entry points’ to the topic, because not everyone learns in the same way or finds the same thing interesting. Enough food for thought when preparing my classes!


(1) Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93 (3), 223-231

(2) Sander, P., Stevenson, K., King, M., and Coates, D. (2000). University students’ expectations and teaching. Studies in Higher Education, 25 (3), 309-323

(3) Brandt, Ron (1993). On Teaching for Understanding: A Conversation with Howard Gardner, 50 (7), 4-7

Photo of a classroom by andresmh and photo of a detail of the Pool of Knowledge at Living Arts Park, Mississauga, Canada, by Ian Muttoo, via Flickr.

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