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25 April 2013 / erikduval

Activating students

We have a bit of a discussion going on how to ‘activate’ students, i.e. how to make them not passively sit and listen in sessions but make them participate in an active way…

Thought I’d share what I mailed earlier today and ask for your feedback…

I think it’s important to realise that activating the students is often a challenge, for all of us. Sometimes, my students can’t get enough and don’t want to stop working. Sometimes, it feels like I’m talking to bags filled with sand. The important thing is to keep trying: falling back in old, safe habits is not a solution – it just hides the problems.

A talk with the students on why they don’t engage can help, but can also turn into a pseudo-psycho-analysis that gets you nowhere.

We train students from age 6 to sit still, be quiet and listen. Those who do well at that in schools end up at the university. And then we wonder why they are not active 😉

My main point: don’t think this is easy or always works for anyone. Keep trying. That’s much better than not even trying…

What do you do to make your students participate actively? Or, if you’re a student, what makes you engage?




Leave a Comment
  1. Thomas Moerman / Apr 25 2013 6:37 pm

    I graduated from KULeuven in 2003, enrolled again last year and noticed I’m still not capable to focus my attention during a lecture. Once I’ve lost attention it’s very difficult to again pick up the thread and follow the teacher. What does work very well for me is listening to recorded lectures, à la the Khan Academy and MIT OpenCourseWare.

    Listen for 10 minutes. Hit pause. Go to the bathroom. Rewind half a minute. Hit play. Listen for 10 minutes. Pause. Get a coffee. Hit Play. Listen for 5 minutes. Didn’t understand a concept. Pause. Look up on Wikipedia. Ok, I get it now. Rewind half a minute. Hit Play. Continue….

    This way of working my way through the material in short bursts of concentration is much more efficient for me personally. Being a student with a job, unable to attend lectures, I used this approach to successfully learn basic chemistry and organic chemistry, starting from scratch (didn’t know what a covalent bond is). It really works!

    Now, to answer the question of how to “activate” the students. Please watch Salman Khan’s video lectures about “inverting the classroom”. He proposes to let students process the material on their own time watching prerecorded videos, and use the lecture time to have an interactive discussion between the professor and the students, who have already having seen (and hopefully understood) the material. I think what makes students engage is actually mastering the subject to a certain degree, and then being able to ask questions to fill up possible holes in their understanding.

    Hope this was useful.



  2. Kiryl Samartsau / Apr 27 2013 12:11 am

    The idea of the pre-session activities and tasks for students is very good – this is a full-fledged education process. Although, when the batteries are low and self-motivation is at the plinth level self-preparation wont work effectively.The teacher then might find him or herself in an ackward situation of a broken communication as no questions are prepared. Lecturing is not an efficient way of sharing knowledge and developing skills, but a good one to establish trust, authority among teachers and students, raising interest in the subject and seeding motivation. Lecturing requires drama skills from the teacher as well as strong public speaking and leader’s skills.
    Here in Belarus we very often have majors of 100 hours of lecturing (apart from practice lessons) and there are over a 100 students present. With very little technical support, comfortable classrooms and very strict curricullum regulations Belarusian teachers have to solve the problem of students’ activation with bare enthusiasm and leading (or should i say interpersonal) skills.
    It’s useful to provoke the audience for discussion. Try reverse provoking, by coming out with false examples or questions. Go intensive in provoking. Provoke the leader of the audience. Sting them to the quick. Give examples from your own experience, establish authority. Run personal. Summarize, leave questions at the end. Navigate students to resources. Be creative. When explaining trees and chains, for example, mimic a tree, let them guess the topic. Divide the audience in small groups and give a case-study. Identify the problem of passivity. Reverse it to examples and provoking. (After a long winter spring is a perfect time for anything else but studing (at least in Belarus): boys experience the influx of testosterone, ladies run mad of new tights and dresses (which teases boys). Winter drives everybody bored and depressive, which is the lack of vitamin D). Be spontaneous. Move the classes out to the campus park if these are the first warm spring days and the sun is shining.
    I’m not doing a lot of lecturing. But when it comes to, even with good outcomes, I’m dead tired, both phisically and emotionally.

  3. Freda Vasse / Apr 27 2013 2:48 pm

    Hi Erik,
    You point out a complex topic with no single answer or solution. So, I will not try so ;). In this topic I would like to share the following. At first I think it’s about the learning objective to be meaningfull for students to learn and that, on this point, they understand this well/be aware of. In my opinion the whole picture of the learning objective/whole task is not always clear to students. Do they really understand why working on that objective as part of the whole picture (i.e. top down thinking instead of bottum up and then get a clue). ‘What do I as a student need to know and work on to achieve the goal in which I’m enrolled/involved?’ The educational design is about the elements you put into the learning environment. Within this learning environment it’ s the question do you strive as a teacher to create on one end of a line a more regulated learning climat, or do you like to create on the other end of the line a more or complete explorative learning climate (regulated climate……………………..explorative climate) or something in between as stated in Baars-van Moorsel about learning climate in corporate, but in my opinion in this case it’s the same in school as beyond. In an explorative learning climate you’ll get more active students than in comparison with a more regulated design and learning climate. In the more regulated environment (offline/online) you’ll get more passive students, who don’ t have the whole picture for learning and they have not been asked to know this. As you stated we train student from age 6 to sit still, be quiet and listen in often the so called more regulative learning environment and climate (I think in a lot of primary and secondary schools it’s like this). This makes them more passive, so in this timeslot they don’ t learn to be active learners. After this first part of their learning life they suddenly have to switch to be more active in learning they haven’t learnt before (i.e. they dont’ have the skills/experience to do so). This cost a lot of time. If studenst are used to participate in a regulated learning climate, you can’t completely expect that they suddenly will be active when they are participating in a more explorative learning climate. They have to learn how to be active, critical creative thinkers and to be problem solvers learners. That they are allowed to be/to do so from teachers perspective. Accoding to Baars van Moorsel in corporate setting it will take a long time to change employees behaviour. Do you think this is in line with youngsters: If they have not learnt to be active, because this wasn’t the teacher expectation and the consequently the learning climate, you can’t expect them to do so and make them full responsible for this, when suddenly the teacher expectation and learning design and climat changed. I think we’ve to start early to create more explorative environments from age 6. For now you can question yourself if the learning/educational design in line with the desired kind of climated you want to strive to create/to invite student to be active learners?
    Hoop this was useful.

  4. ujobsco / Dec 11 2015 6:24 pm

    Thanks Erik, this post was useful in researching my latest post about activating online students for the first time ( To answer your question, I believe it starts with the educator themselves being engaging and persistent. Whether that be in the classroom or online.


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