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How do you promote real learning during the lecture?

Last updated on 13 February 2024
A lecture can quickly develop into one-way traffic: the lecturer sends information and the student receives it passively. This results in less effective learning because the information is not actively processed. This can easily be improved, for example, by teaching students how to take meaningful notes. In this didactic tip, you will find four new practical ways to get your students to actively process the material during the lecture.

As you could read in a previous tip, lectures have an important function in active learning. But apart from enthusing, giving an overview of the subject and course planning, or explaining difficult concepts, more is needed to make students actually learn. In this tip, we focus on stimulating real participation during the lecture.

Taking meaningful notes
If students only listen or write along with the teacher, without actively processing the material, they miss an important learning opportunity: taking meaningful notes. This is different from transcribing or just underlining sentences in handouts (which is only an effective learning method in special circumstances anyway (Yue, Storm, Kornell, Bjork, 2015)).

What does it mean to take meaningful notes? For example, writing down:

  • the distinction between the main and minor points;
  • what you do not understand;
  • questions you can ask the teacher or fellow students later;
  • what interesting questions other students come up with;
  • what idea you are slowly beginning to understand;
  • the order of importance of, for example, cause-and-effect relationships;
  • pro and cons in a debate or research result;
  • what sources the teacher thinks are crucial;
  • what you think the teacher considers essential for the understanding of the material and possibly important in an assignment or exam;
  • what the abstract learning objectives of a course actually mean;
  • how the 'linear' story of the lecturer relates to other concepts, or drawing this in a diagram.

There is no need to leave the initiative to the student. Here are four tips to get your students to learn more actively during your lecture.

Tip 1: include self-study questions in your hand-out
Occasionally, include substantive self-study questions in your hand-out. Discuss those questions in your lecture. It’s best not to answer them directly, but rather use an active set-up like a buzz-group or peer instruction.

Tip 2: include open questions in your hand-out
In your hand-out, ask students to formulate questions for themselves. For example: what is the most important sequence in cause-and-effect relationships? What do you not understand? What is the relationship with the learning objectives? What would be important to know for an assignment or test? Pay active attention to these questions in your lecture. See the next tip.

Tip 3: get students to think about their own questions and problems during your lecture
Take a few minutes during or at the end of a lecture and ask students to write down: 

  • what are the three most important topics or concepts covered so far? Then ask students to compare their notes with the student next to them and exchange the best ideas with each other (buzz-groups);
  • what they do not understand so far. Then ask the students to discuss this question with a fellow student. Questions they cannot answer among themselves are discussed collectively (buzz-groups);
  • what is still unclear to them and what you can address at the start of the next topic or the next lecture (exit ticket).

Tip 4: include moments of reflection
With more philosophical and ethical subjects, students learn more actively if they have to think (reflect) about their own position and (unconscious) normative judgements.

You can stimulate reflection on and evaluation of the learning material by:

  • letting students think about a problem from different perspectives (for/against, different stakeholder roles, different social interests);
  • linking educational concepts to examples from their own living environment or current affairs;
  • confronting given answers with challenging, alternative views.

For example, use the buzz-group method to have students:

  • come up with examples to challenge an established theory;
  • name hidden assumptions that play a role in the acceptance of scientific theories; or
  • think about what would change if a different assumption were made.

See Mixed Classroom techniques for use in philosophical, social and ethical subjects.

Digital support
Mentimeter allows you to quickly and anonymously pose open and closed questions to all students in the classroom, and instantly and interactively view the results. As a teacher, you can then respond quickly. This way every student participates!

You can also choose to have students simply raise their hands. This won’t interrupt the pace of your class as much. However, you should bear in mind that not everyone will feel comfortable doing this (for instance women, students from non-Western countries or neuro-diverse students). So make sure the atmosphere remains safe. For more information on this, please see Didactic tip 2: a safe learning environment


  • Brown, S. 1950 F., & Race, P. (2002). Lecturing: A practical guide. Kogan Page.
  • Highlighting and Its Relation to Distributed Study and Students’ Metacognitive Beliefs, Carole L. Yue, Benjamin C. Storm, Nate Kornell, Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, Educational Psychology Review March 2015, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 69-78, DOI 10.1007/s10648-014-9277-z
  • Applying Cognitive Psychology to Education, John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, and Daniel T. Willingham, Psychological Science in the Public Interest January 2013 vol. 14 no. 1 (doi: 10.1177/1529100612454415)

The tips for active blended learning are provided by the VU Centre for Teaching & Learning.