Activation. It seems to be the conditio sine qua non of education (and especially higher education). A great deal has already been written on this point. It may seem that everything that can be said has already been said. We are nevertheless confident in claiming to make a few additions with this tip. For example, did you know that, according to a study reported in Science (Deslauriers, Schelew & Wieman, 2011), activating didactics produce greater learning effects in students than do more ‘traditionally’ arranged lectures (for more details on the study, see the reference below)? Improved teaching effectiveness is one possible reason for starting to work with activation.

It is important to implement a culture of activation in our teaching. What is a culture of activation, and how can it be achieved? We address these questions in this tip.

The culture of activation

A culture of activation is an educational culture that is based on activation and in which students are accustomed to being activated, thinking for themselves and providing answers.
Before addressing several possibilities for implementation within your teaching, we must perform a reality check. In practice, it is often nearly impossible to activate every student while also monitoring such activation. For example, there might be contextual or motivational factors over which we have little or no control, but that do make particular students unwilling or unable to be activated. This nevertheless does not absolve us of the responsibility to do everything that we can to activate our students. The foundation for activation consists of providing proper support, sufficient opportunities and motivation. Ultimately, however, it is up to individual students to buy into the framework that we offer them and within which they can learn.

How to implement a culture of activation

What possibilities do we have? What can we do in order to achieve a culture of activation?

How to start?
It starts at the very beginning: confronting students with activation as quickly as possible, and thus activating them during the very first lecture. In addition, the first activation calls for special attention in the form of an introduction. This is definitely needed for students who have not become accustomed to activation in other lectures or modules. The following aspects could be included:

  • What is the goal of activation? Why do you wish to activate students (e.g. activation ensures the emergence of a variety of opinions)?
  • Why do you consider activation important (e.g. the students’ answers will provide you with a clear image of what they have and have not yet understood)?
  • What are your concrete expectations of activation (e.g. Everyone is expected to cooperate)?
  • How is activation related to examinations (e.g. activation calls for the same level, the same sort of questions)? How will the activation prepare students for this?
  • What are the expected learning (or other) effects of activation (e.g. activation will provide deeper insight into the course material)?

How to get the students on board?
The next step is to consider how to familiarise students with the culture of activation and allow them to gain experience with activation. This can be done in the following ways:

  • Create a certain level of predictability. One way to do this involves always giving instructions for assignments in the same way or always announcing that you will be debriefing the assignment.
  • Start small. At first, it is fine for teachers to accept that only a small group will cooperate. Subsequent efforts should aim to involve increasing numbers of students.
  • Build up activation gradually. Start by introducing simple activating teaching methods, and then gradually proceed to more difficult forms. This will also give you a chance to become familiar with activation. You could also have students practice with activation first by giving them substantively simple assignments and posing simple questions. Once they have become familiar with activation and with particular activating teaching methods, the questions that are posed and the assignments that are given can become more difficult (in terms of content). 
  • Create success stories concerning activation by providing students with positive experiences. One way to do this could be, in the first lecture, to give an assignment on which everyone can work or to keep asking for opinions. This will hopefully result in a positive ‘buzz’ with regard to activation.
  • Make it clear that mistakes are allowed. This notion could also be communicated when activation is being introduced. For example, try to support students who make mistakes by giving hints or tips (instead of immediately turning to other students for the answer) or by continuing to motivate them through such expressions as ‘not exactly what we’re looking for, but interesting’.

Once students have become accustomed to the culture of activation, it will become a matter of keeping them motivated for activation. One important tool in this regard is to build variation into activation. Use variation in activating teaching methods, and experiment with less familiar forms. 

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:

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.