Skip to content. Skip to navigation

Faculty Development

You are here: Home / Improve Your Lecturing / Encouraging active learning

Encouraging active learning

As we have seen earlier in the module, lectures are very good for transmitting information, and techniques such as ‘signposting’ and breaking up the lecture can help participants’ concentration and retention of knowledge. However, unless the lecturer pays attention to the processes by which memory functions, they may overwhelm listeners by providing too much information in an unsituated form without context and connections. For information to be meaningful, it must be put into memory, stored and able to be retrieved (recall).

Long and Lock (2008) remind us also that there are physiological limitations on the rate at which information can be processed as well as a finite capacity to the system – too much information and memory will overload. Full engagement of memory lasts for approximately 20 minutes, after which little new information can be recalled (p. 4). Again, this provides a message for lecturing, in that pacing the lecture provides learners with opportunities for inputting and storing knowledge.

Information can be acquired through experiences (where it is stored in episodic memory) or through propositional knowledge (where it is stored in semantic memory). This requires the learner to pay active attention to what is going into memory, as well as being able to make connections with previous knowledge, so that stored information can be restructured in the light of the new information. This contrasts with working memory: the ability to hold pieces of information in your mind and manipulate them over short periods of time (a mental jotting pad). Activities introduced in lectures can help learners utilise various types of memory depending on the lecture’s purpose.

For example, the learning outcome for your lecture might be ‘understanding the concepts underpinning drug actions, dosages and interactions (e.g. analgesics)’. The broad concepts can be applied to a number of different drug categories, so you would want learners to store these in their semantic, long-term memory. You would therefore explain the concepts in a structured way, linking these to earlier knowledge and understanding. If you then provided some short, specific examples for students to work in small groups on calculating dosages for different individuals or considering interactions, because students would be using their working memory to apply the concepts they would not learn the details of the different calculations/situations and put them into their long-term memory.  If a second learning outcome was that you wanted learners to understand the mode of action of opiates, then it would be better to provide detailed, specific examples which all students worked through so that they would store this into their long-term memory. If you wanted to embed learning further through recall, then you could provide an online assessment that all students had to pass. 

The key message is to ensure that activities engage learners actively as well as help them make connections and restructure previous learning.  In line with what we have discussed around scaffolding learning, Bligh (2000) points out that introducing new information without time for consolidation or reflection (for example, in successive lectures on different topics) can result in interference with the processes of memory input and storage, so that learners fail to commit the information to memory. Educators need to ensure structured repetition of topics, which serves to reinforce learning by helping learners to store and retrieve information through different routes. 

The points below provide some ideas for structuring lectures to aid active learning.

Some tips and techniques

  • Start by asking participants to brainstorm problems that remain unresolved from the previous lecture or raise questions from the previous lecture or reading assignment
  • Change the demands made on the audience every 10 to 15 minutes
  • Pause for a few minutes two or three times during an hour-long lecture to allow participants to consolidate notes and develop questions
  • Generate discussion
  • Pause and ask participants to work in pairs to organise their notes and discuss the key points of the lecture. Each group could be asked to develop questions based on what is still unclear, which can then be addressed at the end of the lecture or at the beginning of the next one
  • Give a demonstration, use cases and examples, give illustrations, show a film or recorded segment or use an audio recording
  • Use other types of group work similar to those used for small groups
  • Ask the audience to stop taking notes before the end of the lecture and then ask participants to reconstruct, on a blank piece of paper, as much of the lecture as possible – either in outline form or diagrammatically. This forces participants to review and consolidate key points and discover points for review
  • Encourage participation through:
    • Questions and quizzes
    • Gapped handouts and diagrams
    • Data analysis and interpretation
    • Brainstorms and buzz groups
    • Problems and cases.


See the Small Group Teaching module in this series for more ideas on how to run small group sessions which can be used to encourage participation in large group teaching sessions.

Print module to PDF

Save a PDF of this module, so you can print it and read it in your own time.

Email your comments

Let us know what you think about this module or give us your feedback.

Further information

More information about this module, further reading and a complete list of glossary terms.

Learning activities

Read about the recommended learning activities for this module.