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Student activation – Why and how?

We ought to strive to activate the students in lectures. Not because it is more fun, or because it helps motivate them, but because it is an effective learning strategy. 

Student-active teaching methods

Everyone wants good teaching. And when we ask what we can do to make teaching better, the answer is often “more”. More resources, more teaching. Since teaching resources are finite, we ought perhaps to focus on how can we teach as effectively as possible. And this is where student activation comes in.

A large number of studies have shown that active learning methods are more effective than lecturing (i.e. a monologue) when it comes to

  • Remembering
  • Being able to transfer knowledge to new situations
  • Problem solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Motivation for learning

This does not mean that we should drop the lecture entirely in favour of, say, seminars. Lecturing is a highly effective form of teaching in some areas. McKeachie mentions, among other things, that lecturing works well for

  • providing up-to-date information. New information may have appeared after the books on the reading list were written 
  • summarising information from many different sources (typically, articles)
  • adapting the material to a specific group and a specific time and place
  • helping the students become more efficient by helping them orient themselves in the material and providing them with a framework
  • focusing on key concepts, principles and ideas; i.e. extracting the essence
  • getting students engaged and involved

But why is it that we learn better when we are active?

Our two analytical systems

Perhaps we can find an answer in Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between the human mind’s two analytical systems.

  • System 1 is our automatic or subconscious system. It is intuitive, fast, and not under our voluntary control, and we are completely dependent on it. Based on input from the senses, it responds to situations automatically.
  • System 2 is our conscious thinking. It is slower, but analytical, reasoning and under our voluntary control. This is the system we use to assess situations and exercise self-control. 

System 1 is automatic and steers much of what we do, but it can also make mistakes. We use system 2 to take control of our actions.

System 1 creates illusions about our own learning. These kinds of illusions make us bad at judging when we learn best and when we do not. By activating the students, they will have to use their system 2 to a greater extent, because they have to actively make decisions. They have to reason. They have to assess.

Among other things, illusions about learning make students choose learning strategies that are comfortable, but not the most effective. For example, a very common study strategy for students is to re-read the syllabus, even though it is a highly ineffective way to learn. Re-reading gives us the illusion that we are learning, and it is comfortable, but the knowledge doesn’t stick.

Another illusion is when you test yourself, for example, by answering the questions at the end of a textbook, and do not come up with the answer. Then, when you look up the answer and think “Oh of course, I knew that”, and simply move on to the next question, you are under the illusion that you are learning. It feels like you knew the answer, because you recognised it; but in reality, you weren’t actually able to retrieve that information from your memory.

The same can apply to lectures. We can think that we are learning a lot as we sit there. What is being said makes sense. You feel like you are managing to follow. It feels comfortable. But I think everyone has been in the situation that when you have to recount what you learned afterwards, you find you have forgotten a lot, or you struggle to put it into words yourself. After a week or a month, as much as 90% has probably been forgotten. 

It may be more comfortable to sit still and listen, but you will not learn as effectively. This is linked to the processes involved in learning.

The three processes of learning

Learning consists of at least three processes.

  1. First, you encode something in your working memory (i.e. your short-term memory)
  2. Then you consolidate the representation of knowledge in your long-term memory. When you consolidate information, you organise and stabilise the pathways to this knowledge, give it meaning, and link it to other knowledge you have.
  3. Finally, it is the ability to retrieve information that makes it possible to use the knowledge. When you retrieve information, you also update the memory. If you retrieve the knowledge several times, you also reconsolidate your knowledge.

Beating a path to your knowledge

Brain with one pathwayIllustration: colourbox

Imagine that your brain is full of pathways to different pieces of knowledge. You have to walk along a path many times to be able to recognise it. After a while, however, it becomes automatic. It’s a bit like driving somewhere new. The first time you do it, the entire route is unfamiliar; but the next time you do it, you find you recognise some street corners, and eventually you recognise the entire route.

The ability to retrieve knowledge requires repeated use of the knowledge and good “hooks”, i.e. something that triggers the brain to retrieve it. You have to remember that a particular street corner indicates that you are heading towards a specific place.

Activating students means that they have to beat this path themselves, and repetition allows them to reconsolidate their memory. In other words, we need to get students to actively access their knowledge. We can help them on their way by providing them with good memory hooks; for example, keywords, visual hooks, related concepts, and by linking it to what they know from before. 

A lecture that does not activate students can be compared to following a car when you are driving somewhere. Because you are blindly following the car in front of you, you forget to notice and keep track of the surroundings, making it harder to recognise the route later on. 

What are the benefits of student activation?

Deslauriers, Schelew and Wiemann conducted a very interesting study on student activation. In a large introductory course on physics, they conducted an experiment where one group of students was taught by a popular professor who held traditional lectures, while another was taught by two postdoctoral fellows.

The postdoctoral fellows used a mix of reading assignments and quizzes ahead of the lectures, and used group assignments and problem-solving tasks in the lectures, where the students responded via clickers. They did not hold lectures, but rather gave feedback on the students’ responses and listened in on what the students talked about in the groups.

When they tested these students afterwards, they got the following results:


One very interesting aspect of this study is that it was not only some of the students who did better, but the whole group. In addition, attendance increased by 20%.

I would argue that, even if you do not cover the entire syllabus or get to say everything that you would like to say to the students, this kind of activation is far more effective. Precisely because knowledge imparted in this way sticks. The students have to use their system 2 to a far greater extent. In addition, they are forced to read the syllabus themselves, because they do not get a summary of the syllabus in slide format. And they have to apply this knowledge.  

How to make it stick

So, the question is: how can you activate students? The possibilities are almost endless. In the book Make it Stick, the authors present a number of different tips and strategies for increasing learning, and I will dwell briefly on four concepts they highlight: calibration, elaboration, generation and reflection.


Calibration in this context means using an objective goal to judge one’s own learning.

As mentioned, we are quite bad at judging when we learn best and when we do not. Testing is an effective way to practise retrieving knowledge and using skills. When you test your knowledge, you get a reality check. It makes it harder to fall for the illusion that you know something, which tends to happen when you reread something. Again, it may be uncomfortable; but because you will have to actively beat a path to the knowledge you are seeking, it will be more recognisable next time round. 

Testing can sound a little ominous, but if you focus on the fact that the goal is not to test for the sake of testing or judging, but that it is being used as an effective learning tool, it can seem a little less daunting. Retrieving knowledge is a far more effective learning strategy than re-reading or simply being told something.

Test several times. Test at intervals.

If you’re going to retrieve knowledge effectively, the authors of Make it Stick point out that you need “spaced practice”.

Spaced practice means allowing some time to pass between learning and testing. There is nothing wrong with testing immediately after a topic has been introduced, but then the information will be retrieved from the working memory and will not stick as well, because the knowledge has not been consolidated in the long-term memory. If time passes, you have to retrieve the information from the long-term memory, causing this knowledge to be reconsolidated.

Moreover, if you test regularly, the path will be beaten several times over, and the memory will stick better. In addition, this knowledge can be linked to new knowledge that has been acquired in the meantime. 


Elaboration means finding multiple layers of meaning in new material.

For example, elaboration may involve giving new material meaning by linking it to existing knowledge, explaining it to others using one’s own words, or explaining how it relates to life outside the classroom. Another example is associating it with an image or metaphor, which is one reason why visualisation is important. 

Brain, several pathwaysIllustration: colourbox

All new learning requires a foundation made up of previous knowledge. If the teacher is able to relate the new material to things the students know from before, they will have a series of memory hooks that they can “hang” the new knowledge on. The more you manage to link new information to previous knowledge, the stronger and more numerous the neural pathways to the new knowledge become, and the easier it will be to recover later. It is therefore useful to use examples that students are already familiar with. Then the neural pathway to the knowledge you are conveying is not completely unfamiliar. They will recognise a few “street corners” from before.

Get the students to activate their prior knowledge before introducing a new topic, and then link the new topic to metaphors, images, and examples they will recognise. For example, this can be done by having them answer questions, write down a few points, jot down everything they know on a topic, etc.


Generation means giving students a problem to solve before they get the answer. 

When students have to look for a solution themselves, they strengthen the pathways in their brains to the knowledge gap they are trying to close. When they are finally given the answer, the new information is therefore more firmly linked to the previous knowledge, because this background knowledge is fresh in their memory, due to their initial attempts.

As long as students get the right answer in the end, they will avoid mis-learning. From a memory perspective, failed attempts are better than no attempts. And not least, it is better to solve the problem than remember the solution.

Learning by failing

This method involves accepting that it is OK to fail. We live in a society where making mistakes has traditionally been seen as indicating that you are less clever. This makes failing embarrassing, uncomfortable, and a reason to put oneself down.

However learning by failing results in a much greater learning effect than succeeding straight away. A common teaching method involves feeding the students small snippets of correct information and then testing it immediately. This may result in them answering correctly, but they will have only activated their short-term memory, not their long-term memory. Their learning will not be as long lasting as if they had tried and failed, or if they are tested after an interval.

Reflection (consolidation)

Reflection, or consolidation, is a form of meta-learning. It means thinking over what you have learned and what you can do differently.

For example, when encountering new knowledge, learners can ask themselves the following questions:

  • what are the main ideas?
  • what are some examples?
  • how does this relate to my previous knowledge?

Or in connection with learning new skills:

  • what did I do well?
  • what could have been done differently?
  • what should I change next time so that I will do it better?

Getting students to perform this exercise themselves, rather than simply telling them, makes them both understand and remember the new information better. So instead of summing up for the students, let them do the summary themselves, or do it with them. Micro-writing is one way of doing this. The Academic Unit for University Teaching (FUP) holds courses on this.

Mentimeter – a great tool for student activation

You may be thinking that everything above sounds all well and good, but how can you put it into practice in a large auditorium?

Various devices have been used in the past, including clickers. The Mentimeter solution is a modern form of clicker, with a wide range of options for different types of questions, including multiple choice, open-ended questions, and matrices. The program is easy to use, and you can create many different types of presentation. You can duplicate them, modify them, reuse them, and make changes in real time.

The students respond by logging on to a webpage using a code. It is a highly efficient tool, especially among today’s technology-savvy students.

The pros of Mentimeter

Mentimeter has a number of obvious advantages. In addition to creating engagement, it provides a way to involve the whole audience. The answers are anonymous, and the students can respond from a mobile phone or PC. In other words, the only obstacles to responding are technological, as opposed to the courage it takes to raise your hand and speak in a large (or small) gathering. If it is common, as was found in the introductory lecture in comparative politics in Bergen, that only 12% of the students who raised their hand were female, Mentimeter can also be a useful tool for activating women.

In addition, Mentimeter can be used to gather questions to ask digitally. Then, you as the lecturer, can assess which questions are worth discussing in plenary sessions.

Another clear advantage is that you can test the students and get feedback on what the students do and don’t know. In other words, you can learn about your audience and adjust your teaching accordingly. Few students dare to speak up and admit that they do not understand, even when you ask directly “is that clear?”. This kind of feedback is a good indicator of how well your message is getting through.

Mentimeter also allows you to store the results and use them to adjust your teaching next time round. You can share your findings with others, such as the students or colleagues.

Mentimeter has a plug-in for PowerPoint, which is still under development. The plug-in means that you do not need to keep switching between Mentimeter and your PowerPoint slides, but can build Mentimeter in to your presentation. It is not entirely seamless yet, but I’m sure they will get there in the end.

You can also change the layout in Mentimeter and design your own, to ensure they comply with Tarald Laudal Berge’s tips on using PowerPoint.

If you only want to use a few slides, you can create them in Mentimeter.


If you think this sounds brilliant (which of course it is) and want to use it, please contact Houston by e-mail on to get a licence.


Another tool you can use is Padlet. Padlet is a digital interactive board where students can write and comment. You can embed images, video, audio files, etc. 

Whereas Mentimeter has a character limit on open-ended questions, one advantage of Padlet is that you can write freely. For example, if you want to get the students to reflect on what they have learned, they can enter it here.

You can also use it as a tool to receive questions. Simply share the link to the “board” at the start of the class and check it periodically. Or, just before the break, ask the students if anything was unclear, then you can go over this again after the break.  

There is a multitude of possibilities, and digital tools open up amazing new ways to get the students to test their knowledge, ask questions, or reflect. This can make learning effective.


Tags: Student activation By Eirin Kristiansen
Published Feb. 18, 2021 6:10 PM - Last modified Feb. 18, 2021 6:10 PM