Some activating teaching methods can be applied to small groups of students (fewer than 60 students). We discuss four possible variants below. Practical limitations make these teaching methods more difficult to implement with large groups of students.

Group work
In group work, students work in small groups (ideally, four or five students) on an assignment. The various groups can tell about their work in the debriefing of the group assignment. In parallel group work, all of the student groups do not necessarily need to have a turn to speak. The teacher then formulates a general summary of the findings, filling in gaps as needed. It is important for students to receive the proper information. Group work can come in a variety of forms:

  • Parallel group work: The various groups work on the same assignment.
  • Complementary group work: Each of the various groups works on a different sub-assignment. The findings from these sub-assignments are bundled into a whole during the debriefing. For the debriefing, make sure that the students have received all of the information that they need in the form of a structured whole.
  • Combination of parallel and complementary group work: Another obvious possibility is to divide a group assignment into several phases, in parallel and complementary group work are combined. One example is the jigsaw method, with each group concentrating on a single aspect of the problem in the first phase (i.e. the complementary phase). This is followed by the parallel phase, in which new groups, with each group having a representative from each of the specialised groups from the first phase. This allows the students to pool their expertise and solve the problem.

Socratic method
In a Socratic conversation, the teacher uses a question-and-answer format to guide the students as they construct an argument. The teacher thus does not explain the complete argument to the students. The following tips can be useful for conducting a Socratic conversationi:

  • After posing a question, allow the students sufficient time to think.
  • Make sure that a variety of students have a chance to speak (activate everyone).
  • Ask students about the reasoning underlying their answers and, if appropriate, explain why some answers are not correct.

If the students are unable to answer a question, ask a related question that could steer them in the right direction. Take care to avoid the trap of asking excessively simple questions, thereby leading the students to the right reasoning in tiny steps. Such Socratic conversations s are not sufficiently challenging, as the students need less effort to arrive at the correct answer.

In a discussion, students learn to argue their standpoints, in addition to acquiring debating skills and substantive insight. Tips for proper preparation:

  • Arrange the classroom favourably (e.g. in a U-shape), so that the students can see each other.
  • Base the discussion on shared experiences (e.g. from current events).
  • Ideally, select a controversial statement for which there are proponents and opponents, or assign opinions to the students.

In a demonstration, the teacher performs a particular action at a slow pace. The various steps in the action are explained, and the students watch and listen attentively. The following are several tips for this teaching method:

  • Arrange the classroom favourably (e.g. in a U-shape), so that every student can see the demonstration.
  • Do not make the demonstration too long (no more than 15–20 minutes). This will help to keep the students’ attention.

Include the demonstration at the beginning of a contact moment or after a break, so that you will have enough time to prepare and set up the materials.

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.

European University Association (2019). Promoting active learning in universities Thematic Peer Group Report (Learning & Teaching Paper #5). Retrieved from EUA website:

Griffiths, S. (2003). Teaching and learning in small groups. In H. Fry, S. Ketteridge & S. Marshall (Eds.), A handbook for learning and teaching in higher education (2nd ed., pp. 91-104). London: Kogan Page.

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.