Tips for student-activating teaching

Students have to work actively during the lecture in order to learn. In this interview Associate Professor Ole Lauridsen provides tips for activating university students.

Article originally published in Cultivate magazine ed. 05, June 2014

By Line Hassall Thomsen

Imagine that you want to call a friend. You find the friend’s number but are unable to write it down, so you memorize it. Then you call the friend, but after the phone conversation you can no longer remember the phone number — you have entirely forgotten what you just knew off by heart. This is due to the fact that the phone number only reached your short time memory and was not actively worked with.

According to Ole Lauridsen, Associate Professor at the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL), Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University, the same principle is at work when students do not get to work with what they are being taught — like anyone who does not consciously keep hold of information, they forget it.

”That old idea that you can turn up to the lecture to sit passively and get filled up with knowledge, just does not stand the test: You have to work actively in order to learn anything…”

To Ole Lauridsen good teaching is all about how best to get the students to work with what they are being taught, and to understand it so that it can be stored in the long term memory. Put in other words: Lauridsen focuses on how students can best process the information given by the teachers. He is particularly concerned with what happens during lessons; activating the students between lessons is another and very crucial field which can be supported by for instance blended learning.

”Generally, it is important that the students are activated in order to aid instant understanding,”

From passive receiver to active student

”That old idea that you can turn up to the lecture to sit passively and get filled up with knowledge, just does not stand the test: You have to work actively in order to learn anything — both pedagogic and neurobiological research show that. In order to understand and remember what is being said in a lecture it is crucial that the students are made to use that new knowledge during the lecture. Students should constantly be made to reflect and relate to questions — they should constantly have the feeling of being ‘on’,” says Ole Lauridsen. And this principle, adds Ole Lauridsen, counts for all kinds of teaching — not just the kind of teaching that takes place at universities.

”Generally, it is important that the students are activated in order to aid instant understanding,” says Ole Lauridsen. “But student-activating teaching has another goal; to keep the attention of the students at a high — and these two goals are of course linked, for how can you understand anything without being attentive? Research shows that when students enter an auditorium their attention increases significantly. But sadly, after ten minutes the attention rapidly lowers again. And if nothing is done, the attention will stay at a rather low level until the last 10–15 minutes of the lecture; then the attention begins to increase, but never to the same level as previously”.

What to do?

Fortunately, according to Ole Lauridsen the teacher does not have to change anything drastically in order to activate the students: The student-activating techniques are not too hard to handle. And, when you ask Ole Lauridsen or other teachers who have implemented activating teaching, they say that when you see the techniques work, teaching becomes more enjoyable.

Some students do not seem keen on being activated during a lecture. In fact, many students say they prefer the more traditional sit-down lectures. However, when the lecturer explains the reasons behind student-activating teaching the students are less skeptic.

Activating the students during lectures first and foremost means making the students think and reflect over what has been said. They need time to do this — but in fact only a few minutes are needed for each activating break in the lecture.

Tips for student-activating teaching

During one 45-minute lesson, the teacher can aid student-activating teaching by making at least three breaks in the lecture, using one or more of these techniques:

  1. Time-out. Give a break of one or two minutes for the students to look at their notes, consider what the lecturer has said so far and maybe exchange a few words with a fellow student.
  2. Think, pair, share. Give a question and ask the students to first consider an answer for maximum one minute. Then, each student should discuss the answer to the question with the student they sit next to. After these two steps, the teacher takes in answers from the entire class. These few steps do not take long and aid student learning at many levels. Further, it gives an opportunity for engaging the students who are not keen on spontaneous involvement.
  3. Make a vote. If you would like to engage 250 students during a lecture you can use laptops, tablets, smartphones or clickers for making the students vote on a specific question. You take replies to the vote in and ask students to discuss with any students sitting near them who have given a different reply to theirs. Then you take another vote, and in most cases the rate of correct answers has increased dramatically. In practice, this technique easily instigates discussions among hundreds of students in an auditorium at one time.

To create student-activating teaching may mean making more changes to the course structure than what has been described above. But starting with those techniques will give a good foundation for creating teaching which activates the students — and at the same time makes teaching more enjoyable.

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Centre for Teaching and Learning is an educational research and development unit at Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University, Denmark.