How to make your lectures more active for students

This topic seems particularly pertinent as the traditional lecture is being challenged by alternative modes for educational delivery. For example the University of Adelaide is phasing out lectures for  a flipped mode delivery. Some argue that lectures can still be a valid form of instruction we just need to make them more engaging and collaborative.

Recently I wrote about how some lecturers at Macquarie are using an in-class polling tool Socrative to make their lectures more engaging and interactive for their students. In-class polling tools can be a useful learning technology for lecturers to include in their repertoire.  There are also a range of different approaches you can use in lectures to make them more engaging for students.

“Lecture theatre” by Tony Dwyer ©2011 Macquarie University
“Lecture theatre” by Tony Dwyer ©2011 Macquarie University

In a recent project my colleagues (Danny Liu and Iain McAlpine)  and I were working with physics lecturers to instil more interactivity during their lectures. We recommended a range of options that they may want to try: inspiring wonder, activating prior knowledge, interactive demonstrations, building student voice, addressing misconceptions and peer instruction. These can be implemented without using in-class polling tools, however most of them can benefit from the affordances of this technology.

What are your thoughts on the following strategies? Do you have any others?


Strategy/technique Example
Inspire wonder, humor, conflict or shock Trigger interest in students using something relevant to their lives/experience, or cause an internal cognitive conflict that they then look forward to resolving. You can create MCQ or T/FQ that students can answer during the lectures.

Activate prior knowledge to help students make sense of new knowledge

Trigger some prior, existing knowledge that can then be built upon with new information. Students learn best when new information is built upon existing constructs. This can involve a number of other strategies/techniques.

  • Misconceptions: For example ask a question that brings out a potential misconception (i.e. an incorrect existing conception)
  • Mind mapping: For example ask students to write down (or post on student response system, etc) everything they know about a certain topic, and using their suggestions, build a map that highlights existing conceptions and how it fits into the lecture

Interactive demonstrations or simulations

Take the subject from the abstract to the tangible, encouraging inquiry. It is best if the demonstrations/simulations are coupled (either before, afterwards, or both) with prompts/questions that students need to think about; e.g. ask students to predict, do the demonstration, then revisit.

Build understanding together using student voice

Give students ownership over their own learning, and give them confidence by acknowledging and accepting their voice in the lecture.

  • Encourage comments during the lecture: For example allow students to ask questions using in-class polling tools suring the lecture.

Ask a question that gets students to become aware of their misconceptions. Use to generate discussion about this misconception and misconceptions in general.

 The point of this is not to make students disillusioned about what they know (or don’t know), but to highlight that misconceptions are very pervasive and often deep, and trigger a curiosity to find out the reality behind the misconception.

Use a question to create opportunity for Peer Instruction

Try to have students applying their existing understanding to a problem (can be preexisting understanding, or understanding gained during the class). If there is a mixed bag of understanding in the lecture, the varied understandings can be leveraged to have students teach each other (instruct their peers), which can be more effective since students see things in a different way to lecturers and may be able to explain it in a more accessible way. For an example see the video: https://youtu.be/wont2v_LZ1E?t=50s

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