If you want to crate a culture of activation, it is important to try to activate as many students as possible. The following suggestions are based on three important barriers that students often experience with regard to activation:

  • Not being able/willing to give answers without preparation
  • Hesitating to answer in a large group
  • Being insufficiently on board with the learning content

Not being able/willing to give answers without preparation

Students are often unable to speak or give answers without preparation. This can be resolved simply by allowing students preparation time. This is easy to improvise. If a deafening silence falls after a question, suggest that students start by taking a minute to think about the question. The preparation time could also be part of an activation. Zoom sessions or one-minute papers are examples of activating teaching methods with built-in preparation time.

Hesitating to answer in a large group

Students sometimes feel hesitant to pitch their answers into the group (e.g. during a plenary debriefing). In this case, the problem is not so much the actual activation, but the manner in which its results are communicated.
Methods for breaking through this second barrier can be broken down into two options.

The first option involves giving students the opportunity to address the assignment or question in a small group first:

  • Many students are likely to feel more comfortable communicating about activation or the answer to an activation (e.g. stating an opinion on a proposition) in a small group.
  • This will lower the hurdle to answering in the larger student group. This is because it is now a group answer, which they have been able to consider together for a time.
  • A dose of peer pressure plays a role as well: the group is responsible for bringing an answer to the debriefing. This effect can be reinforced by designating a reporter (or having one designated) in the small group. This person is in charge of communicating the group’s answer to the large group during the debriefing, and will therefore be sure to try to motivate the members of the group to answer during the small-group discussion.

In the second option, we introduce elements of ‘gamification’, which could make students motivated to answer. In this way, some form of competition is used to bring around some students (or groups). For example, a reward (e.g. for the best, most surprising, most refreshing or most creative answer) can work wonders. Do not consider assigning points in this regard. A pat on the shoulder or even a small treat would be more in line with the intention. 

The barrier of ‘hesitating to answer’ is related to the fact that some students are likely to raise their hands spontaneously, while others consistently refuse to do so. Should you let the ‘hand raisers’ be the only ones to answer? Or should you call on students who do not wish to answer? You are obviously free to decide in this regard. You should nevertheless keep a few considerations in mind:

  • Calling on students ensures that everyone will think about the question/activating assignment. This is particularly the case if you announce that you will be calling on students ‘at random’. This means that everyone runs a ‘risk’ of having to answer. If you call only on ‘hand raisers’, other students can easily adopt a passive stance. If they do this, they will not be activated. Within the context of trying to activate as many students as possible, this would obviously not be ideal.
  • Keep in mind that there will sometimes be a group of students between these two extremes: students who do not raise their hands, but who would like to answer, albeit with some encouragement. For these students, it is often enough just to look at them. The strategic use of eye contact can help to convince students.

If you have decided to call on students, try to minimise the negative atmosphere that is often associated with this practice.

You can do this by using a ‘soft’ manner of calling on students. Find an accessible way of calling on students that fits your own style. The following are a few strategies that we have experienced or tried:

  • Battleship. Assign a letter (a, b, c...) to each row and a number to each desk. Ask the students to state a combination of one letter and one number (cf. Battleship). This combination will determine the student who will have to answer. 
  • Playing catch. Throw a soft ball into the audience. The person catching the ball must give the answer. There are systems in which a microphone has been encased in the ball, thereby solving any problems of unintelligible students. One example is the ‘catchbox’ system (the University of Antwerp has access to several of them).
  • Using external characteristics. Start by making statements like, ‘Today, everyone wearing something red will have to answer’. After several activations, changing to, ‘Now we’ll switch to everyone wearing something black’ to inject enthusiasm into the classroom. 

It is also important to treat answers positively, even if they are wrong. There are several options for doing this:

  • Try to support students who make mistakes by giving hints or tips (instead of immediately turning to other students for the answer).
  • Respond to students who have given incorrect answers with a motivating pat on the shoulder and statements like, ‘not exactly what we’re looking for, but interesting’ or ‘it’s okay to make mistakes now, but preferably not on the exam’.
  • Highlight any parts of the answer that are correct.
  • Submit an incorrect answer to the other students: to what extent do they think that the stated answer is or is not correct, and why.
  • Always thank students for attempting to answer.

Being insufficiently on board with the learning content

Not every student is a model student. It is not uncommon for a student not to be prepared and not to have studied the material. Such students are simply not equipped to answer.

As was the case with the first barrier, there is an obvious remedy for this third barrier – dealing with students who are not prepared. Encourage your students to come to the lecture prepared. There are several techniques that can be used to this end, ranging from largely voluntary to strongly obligatory.

Want to know more?

Idea paper 53: Active learning strategies in face-to-face courses.

Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, ca: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Deslauries, L., Schelew, E. , & Wiesman, C. (2011). Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science, 332, (862-864).

European University Association (2019). Promoting active learning in universities Thematic Peer Group Report (Learning & Teaching Paper #5). Retrieved from EUA website: https://eua.eu/101-projects/540-learning-teaching-thematic-peer-groups.html

For staff members of the University of Antwerp         

On the infocenter education you can find some good practices of activating educational practices at the University of Antwerp.

On the infocenter education you can also find some tips and tricks concerning activating students.

The (dutch) book 50 onderwijstips is fully available online (after logging in to Pintra). Tips 1 till  1O deal with activating education.