Let’s get physical! Ways to introduce active learning into your lectures

What is Active Learning?

Active learning is about engaging students in more activities than just listening. It places an emphasis of responsibility onto the learners as they must actively engage with the process for it to be a success, they are no longer sitting and waiting for us to fill their heads with knowledge.

Within higher education the emphasis of active learning has been on transforming the lecture model. It is a movement away from ‘sage on the stage’ and puts the lecturer into the role of expert guide and facilitator. We are there to help students to synthesize, construct and develop their own knowledge and understanding, rather than to try and transmit knowledge, unadulterated, from our heads into theirs.

The traditional lecture model is still the dominant teaching approach in UK HEIs and has changed very little in 600 years (See: Twilight of the lecture). Active learning aims to challenge that.

Why should I make my lectures more active?

Consider how you best learn. What have been your most positive memories? What do you remember after an hour or two hour lecture?

There has been an awful lot of research that points to lecturing as a fairly ineffective way of teaching. Students remember 70% of the first 10 minutes and 20% of the last 10 minutes of a lecture (Hartley and Davies, 1978).  By reducing the amount of time you spend lecturing, you are greatly improving the students’ chances of understanding and retaining that information.

Research has also shown that how much new information students can retain from a lecture is also limited (Russell, Hendrieson and Herbert, 1984).  Students who attended a “low density” lecture (containing 50% new information), retained more than those who had attended a “high density” lecture (containing 90% new information).  When new information wasn’t being presented, the lecturers spent time reinforcing old information, contextualising and providing examples.  This research implies that trying to give students too much new information in a lecture is actually counter-productive and that the time would be better spent in activities designed to reinforce selected key new concepts and giving students space to explore these thoroughly.

OK I’m sold! What can I do to make my lectures more active?

One of the most important aspects of active learning is to carefully design your activities around your learning outcomes and to encourage the students to think about what it is they are learning (Prince, 2004).

Studies have shown that introducing 1-3 minute pauses throughout the lecture dramatically increases recall and performance. This is also known as the pause procedure . This pause can be used to ask the students to discuss a key concept in pairs, to reflect on and answer a question, to explain their notes to a peer. A research project  by Ruhl et al used the pause procedure to break up a 45 minute lecture into three sections.  After each section he introduced a two minute break where the students were asked to work in pairs to consolidate their notes. This produced a marked improvement in student grades (see: Ruhl, et al, 1987).

Another popular method is the flipped classroom. When you flip the classroom the “lecture” element is given to students as homework and then the time in the lecture is used to discuss and explore the key concepts and work on activities that assist students in developing their own understanding.

For example, you could provide a key reading or video that you want them to read or watch in advance of your session in your Moodle area – check out BoB , which contains a huge video archive, TEDTalks, which has some  excellent lectures on a variety of topics or MIT Open Courseware, which is the open area of the University of Massachusetts and also contains lectures on a wide variety of topics that are freely shared with other educators.

If you like you could also try recording your lectures, or part of your lectures, in advance.  Tools like BB flashback (on standard build on all MMU machines), Voice over powerpoint, Audacity or even using a SWIVL, are all easy ways to record your lecture to provide to students in advance.

If you’d like some more advice on flipped classrooms, check out this excellent (and honest!) blog by Carolyn Fruin: What to do when your flipped classroom flops

Ready to give it a go? These tools might help!

Tools for quizzes:

Use in lecture quizzes to create refresher points or spark discussions. An simple Yes/No or multiple choice question can be used to gauge the mood of group. If there is not a consensus then ask the students to buddy up with someone with a different opinion to them, and to discuss. Ask the question again and see how the opinions have changed (See: http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/03/twilight-of-the-lecture).

Below is a list of different software that can be used in lectures to ask questions to the group. Students can use their mobiles, tablets or laptops to post an answer. Each of these systems has a ‘free to use’ element, although most also have a paid option with more features.

Tools for free-text responses:

Encourage students to confer and reflect in pairs, why not ask them to submit their reflections online so you can check their understanding and share with the group?

Tools for pre-recording:

If you’d like to have a go at providing your lectures in advance, have a look at these tools to help get you started.

Tools for providing pre-session resources in Moodle

If you have clips for them to watch or a reading for them to complete, putting it into your Moodle area lets the students complete this in advance of the class.


Prince, Michael. “Does active learning work? A review of the research.”JOURNAL OF ENGINEERING EDUCATION-WASHINGTON- 93 (2004): 223-232.

Ruhl, K., C. Hughes, and P. Schloss, “Using the Pause Procedure to Enhance Lecture Recall,” Teacher Education and Special Education, Vol. 10, Winter 1987, pp. 14–18

Russell, I. Jon, William D. Hendricson, and Robert J. Herbert. “Effects of lecture information density on medical student achievement.” Academic Medicine 59.11 (1984): 881-9.