How can I set clear expectations, and motivate students, so that they engage in active learning?

posted June 20, 2017 and revised January 12, 2023
by Stephanie Chasteen, University of Colorado Boulder

If you teach using active learning strategies, you may find that students don’t automatically engage. Students may just sit back and listen, waiting for their peers to term. Luckily, open resistance is rare.

You have the power to impact how students engage with the curriculum and the content. How can you support students, so they participate in active-learning activities, and feel that the activities are worthwhile, interesting, and fulfilling?

In this lengthy Expert Recommendation, you will find a summary of the research on student engagement, recommendations for helping students to engage productively in active learning, and concrete examples of how to incorporate these ideas in your classroom.

Interested in more ideas on student engagement? You can see all my articles on helping students engage in active learning, and also download a PDF summary of all recommended engagement strategies.

About student engagement

What is engagement?

Engagement has three primary aspects (Engle and Conant 2002; Fredricks, Blumenfeld, and Paris 2004; Chapman 2003; DeMonbrun et al. 2017; Nguyen et al. 2021):

  • Behavioral engagement: Do students participate in the activity? Or are they off-task and distracted?
  • Emotional engagement: Do students feel good about the activity? Is it fun, fulfilling, interesting? Or do they lack confidence, or feel anxious or bored?
  • Cognitive-emotional engagement: Do students value the activity? Do they recognize that engagement could be beneficial for their major or career?

We want our students to have all three: behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement.

Do students typically resist active learning?

No, students do not usually resist active learning. Course evaluations most commonly increase when active learning is added, because students feel they learn more, and enjoy the class and peer interactions (Andrews et al. 2020; Borrego et al. 2018; Henderson, Khan, and Dancy 2018). Student complaints or resistance are rare (Andrews et al. 2020; Borrego et al. 2018; Henderson, Khan, and Dancy 2018; Nguyen et al. 2021; Nguyen et al. 2016). If this surprises you, you are not alone; instructors often overestimate the likelihood of student resistance to active learning (Andrews et al. 2020; Henderson, Khan, and Dancy 2018).

What is more common is that students only partially engage, work on something else, or are passive (Shekhar et al. 2015; Nguyen et al. 2021). This behavior limits their learning. Thus, we recommend that it is more productive to think about engaging your students productively (pulling them into the active learning) rather than avoiding resistance. If your students are not engaging as you would like them to, try not to see this as resisting; this places blame on students and sees them as lacking in some way. Instead, consider your class from their perspective; what might be missing for them? Below are some things to consider.

What helps students engage?

There is no single “magic bullet” for increasing engagement. Using a constellation of approaches will help, ranging from how activities are planned and facilitated, to grading policies, to how you communicate to students about the class. Recent studies emphasize that engagement is improved by communicating your expectations, planning activities carefully and explaining their purpose and value, and active facilitation such as circulating the room (Shekhar et al. 2020; Finelli et al. 2018; Nguyen et al. 2021; Tharayil et al. 2018). For comprehensive reviews of the topic (see Nguyen et al. 2021, and Shekhar et al. 2020).

Below are key factors in student engagement in active learning classrooms:

  1. Expectations: Students need to understand what is expected of them.
  2. Value: Students need to believe that engagement is valuable.
  3. Motivation: Students need to feel motivated to engage.
  4. Guidance: Students need scaffolding and guidance to engage.
  5. Environment: Students need a supportive class environment.

In this section we will summarize the literature supporting each of these statements, as well as that what you do as an instructor can shape each of these outcomes. In the next section we will outline the specific actions you can take.

1. Expectations: Students need to understand what is expected of them

Students need to know how to be successful in your course. They may feel anxious in an active learning course if this is unfamiliar and fear that their grades will suffer. Such anxiety has a negative impact on student course performance, and how well students engage in an activity (Ellis 2013; Moreno 2009; Nguyen et al. 2021). In particular,

  • Student expectations need to be calibrated early.
  • Students need to feel that they will be graded fairly.
  • Students need to know how to succeed in the course.

Student expectations need to be calibrated early. Students may enter the classroom with a range of expectations based on prior experiences. Making it clear what this course will be like, what participation will be expected (preferably by jumping into active investigations), and how students will be evaluated, will help to set clear norms for engagement (Gaffney, Gaffney, and Beichner 2010; Gaffney and Whitaker 2015). Some student pushbacks to active learning could be interpreted in a cultural light: when the patterns and norms of interaction change, students may be uncomfortable having to readjust their expectations (Penuel, Abrahamson, and Roschelle 2006). Setting clear norms for participation (including group work), and setting them early, helps calibrate student expectations.
Students need to feel that they will be graded fairly. Students want to know how grades will be calculated, and that their grade will reflect their own work (rather that of their classmates; Ellis 2013). They also need to know how to avoid unfair situations, such as where a group member is not pulling their weight (Seidel et al. 2015). Thus, communicating clearly how students will be evaluated is critical. Students also need to have a certain amount of faith that you are fair and honest; this kind of credibility can be built over time by being open to questions, building rapport with students, responding to their concerns, and transparently discussing your decisions (Witt and Kerssen-Griep 2011; Gaffney and Whitaker 2015).
Students need to know how to succeed in the course. Students are more likely to work hard on something if they feel that it will lead to success (“outcome expectancy”; Moreno 2009; Boekaerts 2010). Students must believe that engagement in active learning will directly improve their performance in the course, as well as have accurate expectations about how to earn good grades. Additionally, clarity of instructions is important in active learning classrooms: What is the purpose of the task? Why will students be working together? Without this clarity of intention, students may feel bewildered and a lack of direction. Lastly, students can be overconfident in their abilities, leading them to minimize the benefit they can get from active learning. Often, overconfidence is strongest among weaker students (Karatjas 2013). Regular, clear feedback on student performance (using some low-stakes assessments) is thus critical for students to develop clear expectations and avoid overconfidence (Pintrich 2003). It can be very useful to discuss the types of student behaviors that typically lead to success (Moore and Jensen 2007).
2. Value: Students need to believe that engagement is valuable

Students must see value in the activity (cognitive-emotional engagement) to be convinced of the benefit of participation. Active learning can require more time and effort from students (Ellis 2013) and this time and effort is one of the most common student complaints (Tharayil et al. 2018). If students are not aware of the advantage of active learning or have unproductive ideas about learning, they may not want to do this extra work (Seidel and Tanner 2013; Finelli et al. 2018; Nguyen et al. 2021; Tharayil et al. 2018). Thus, students’ ability to think about their own learning (called “metacognition”) is critical to the success of an active learning classroom. There is much more on this topic in the related Expert Recommendation “How can I help students become more expert learners? Metacognitive strategies for the classroom.” In particular:

  • Students need to see the value of active learning
  • Students need to have productive ideas about learning.
  • Students learn better when they can monitor and plan their own learning (“self-regulation”).

Students need to see the value of active learning. Students may not know the value of active learning (Seidel and Tanner 2013). Let your students know why you’re using the approaches that you’re using and help them see the value in them. Explaining the value of active learning can go a long way towards promoting student engagement (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, and Paris 2004; Finelli et al. 2018; Nguyen et al. 2021; Tharayil et al. 2018). In one study, when instructors explained the purpose of active learning activities, students placed higher value on those activities, reacted to them more positively, and evaluated the course more favorably (Nguyen et al. 2021). Use active learning strategies to introduce these ideas to your students, instead of lecturing about how them. Telling students to do what you want them to because it is good for them has sometimes been associated with student resistance (e.g., Smith 2008), likely because students feel that they are being told what to do (Reeve 2009).
Students need to have productive ideas about learning. Unproductive ideas about learning can negatively affect a student’s engagement. For example, a student who believes that she learns best by listening to a clear explanation may not readily engage in active learning strategies, thinking that this time is wasted and inefficient (Yadav et al. 2010; Lake 2001). A student who is focused only on getting a good grade rather than deep understanding, or who worries that they don’t belong in physics, might turn away from challenge and effort (Ertmer, Newby, and MacDougall 1996; Smith et al. 2013; Dweck 2006; Good, Rattan, and Dweck 2012; Anderman and Dawson 2010; Dweck and Leggett 1988; Ames 1991; Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck 2007). This is called a “performance” versus “mastery” orientation (related to “fixed” vs. “growth” mindset). This orientation is particularly important for underrepresented students.
Students learn better when they can monitor and plan their own learning (“self-regulation”). Self-regulation, or the ability to monitor and plan your own learning, and adjust accordingly, is a key ingredient in learning (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000; Moreno 2009). Student buy-in has been strongly connected to self-regulated learning behaviors (Cavanagh et al. 2016). For example, a student might review questions to self-evaluate their progress; if he does not do well, then he goes back and reviews again (Moreno 2009). Students with high levels of self-regulation have been found to maintain positive responses to interactive class techniques over time, but those with lower self-regulation lose their motivation and confidence by the end of the term as pressures from other courses mounted (Ertmer, Newby, and MacDougall 1996).
3. Motivation: Students need to feel motivated to engage.

Motivation is probably the most important ingredient of learning (Pintrich 2003; Ambrose et al. 2010). Learning is hard work, and a motivated student is more likely to engage deeply with the material and push past difficulties. Students have busy and complicated lives, and the demands of your course are competing with multiple obligations.

There are two major categories of motivation. “Extrinsic motivation” is driven by external factors, such as rewards or grades. “Intrinsic motivation,” arises from within the individual. Intrinsic motivation is more powerful than extrinsic motivation in empowering students to learn, but both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have their role. The major components of intrinsic motivation are interest, a sense of ownership, and confidence in one’s ability. Motivation is a vast topic, but here are some major themes:

  • Accountability enhances motivation.
  • Grades can backfire as incentives.
  • Students are more motivated if material feels personally relevant and interesting.
  • Students feel more motivated when they have ownership and choice.
  • Students are more motivated if they feel capable and competent.
  • Students are motivated by challenging, authentic activities.

Accountability enhances motivation. Students must feel accountable as individuals and within a group. When using collaborative learning, it is critical to include accountability for working together and learning well as a group (Moreno 2009; Slavin 2010) – such as working collaboratively towards a group goal or complete an assessment of their group process. Student engagement hinges on such accountability (Engle and Conant 2002; Svoboda and Passmore 2010; Fredricks, Blumenfeld, and Paris 2004; Slavin 1995; Moreno 2009). If students feel a sense of “positive interdependence,” or a sense that the group cannot succeed unless all members of the group succeed, they are more likely to participate, work together, and take each other’s learning seriously (Moreno 2009; Slavin 1995). Indeed, when there is no group accountability, cooperative learning may be no more effective than traditional instruction (Klein and Schnackenberg 2000). Students also need individual accountability (e.g., assessment of individual learning, such as a clicker question on the group activity content, or an individual test of learning), so that all students contribute.

Calling on students at random (“random call”) can help with accountability. There are two kinds of random call, individual and group. Some studies find that individual random call generates a sense of responsibility for speaking up and increases students’ comfort with participating in class discussions (Dallimore, Hertenstein, and Platt 2012), including female students (Eddy, Brownell, and Wenderoth 2014), but also has drawbacks. Individual random call has been found to increase students’ anxiety because of fear of negative evaluation (Cooper, Downing, and Brownell 2018). Another study found that group random call (calling on a small group of students instead of an individual) also had a positive influence on the quality of certain aspects of the groups’ conversations in anticipation of the random calling of their group (Knight, Wise, and Sieke 2016). If you want to use random call to help with accountability, consider calling on small groups of students (instead of individuals) to mitigate student anxiety, and ensure that you have a healthy classroom culture where students are respected and their ideas are valued (see How can I create a classroom community, so that students feel encouraged to engage?).

Grades can backfire as incentives. Don’t rely on grades alone to incentivize students. Several studies have shown that grading acts as a negative motivator -- students are motivated to avoid bad grades, rather than to engage in learning. Grades dampen students' intrinsic motivation, make them more externally motivated, decrease their enjoyment of the learning process, increase their anxiety, and increase competitiveness between students; particularly for students who are struggling (Moreno 2009; Fredricks, Blumenfeld, and Paris 2004; Ames 1991). And even if grades initially boost student engagement, once the grading incentive ends, student engagement tends to end (Moreno 2009). Grading trumps feedback: Students are demotivated by grades even when they are accompanied by positive written feedback (Schinske and Tanner 2014, and references within.)

Students are more motivated if material feels personally relevant and interesting. Students must, on some level, care about the course content or activity if they are to be motivated (Kerssen-Griep 2001; Pintrich 2003). If the activity feels interesting and worthwhile, connected to everyday life or to students’ professional goals, students will be more likely to genuinely engage in it. Students are also motivated by interest: if a task feels stimulating, fun, relevant, authentic, and novel, this will draw students in.

Students feel more motivated when they have ownership and choice. Student ownership and control are critical ingredients for engagement. Ellis (2013) found that students who resist active learning are often influenced by feeling forced to engage in a learning environment that they don’t like. If students feel that they have control over their learning, are engaging for their own reasons, and they have a say in classroom decision-making, they are more likely to engage (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, and Paris 2004; Ames 1991; Pintrich 2003; Moreno 2009), enjoy learning (Hall and Webb 2014) and to learn effectively (Piaget 1954). Autonomy is critical; even if other aspects of intrinsic motivation (see below) are adequately attended to, students may not be motivated if they don’t feel that they are in control of their educational outcomes (Lim and Bowers 1991) Thus, teachers need to give students some control and choice in their learning (such as choice in assignment topics, voting on office hours, ability to choose group members, or opportunities to give feedback to the instructor), and minimize external pressures (such as grades and deadlines (Kerssen-Griep 2001; Ames 1991; Ferlazzo 2015; Stefanou et al. 2004). Of course, there are many places where you, the expert, should be making choices about how to proceed, but even modest amounts of student control or choice can make a large difference in motivation.

Deeper types of choices (such as how to solve a problem) can promote deeper engagement than more superficial choices (such as seating arrangements; Stefanou et al. 2004), but both are valuable. Consider – where are decision-points equal for you as the instructor, but may make a large difference for students? Those are the places to give students control.

Controlling behavior is quite common in the classroom: Many instructors use external rewards (like points), use language that puts pressure on students, are impatient for students to come up with the right answer, asserts power in the face of student complaints, takes the marker out of the student’s hand, or tells a student that he/she must do something without explaining why it will be beneficial (Reeve 2009). Unfortunately, our culture tends to value a controlling classroom structure, and our natural tendency in the face of a student who is disengaged is often to fall back on these controlling behaviors (Reeve 2009; Ambrose et al. 2010). You can become more aware of your own controlling behaviors if you ask yourself the following question: Do you focus on students’ internal motivations, or do you try to get students to think, act and feel in a certain way?

Students are more motivated to engage if they feel capable and competent. Students’ sense of competence and confidence, or “self-efficacy,” is key to their engagement and persistence (Boekaerts 2010; Moreno 2009; Pintrich 2003; Bandura 1997; Cervone and Peake 1986). Women in male dominated fields typically have low self-efficacy (Betz and Hackett 1981). Your challenge is to tap into students’ internal confidence through what you say and do in the class. Framing tasks as helping students improve, rather than to evaluate their performance, can increase engagement for all students, especially those who chronically struggle (Ames 1991).

Students are also less motivated to engage if they feel “dumb”. When we find ourselves in an embarrassing situation, we struggle to “save face.” Such embarrassing situations are said to be “face threatening” (Witt and Kerssen-Griep 2011; Kerssen-Griep 2001; Lim and Bowers 1991; Gaffney, Gaffney, and Beichner 2010; Gaffney and Whitaker 2015). In active learning classrooms, there are plenty of opportunities for such “face threats” to occur, when students will be in situations where they feel unsure about their abilities. Supportive feedback, and tactful correction of errors, can lessen this threat (Witt and Kerssen-Griep 2011).

Students are motivated by challenging, authentic activities. A task that is useful, important, and challenging with high benefit and few costs will engage students (Pintrich 2003; Boekaerts 2010; Engle and Conant 2002; Moreno 2009). Avoid tasks that can be completed using superficial memorization or without involving any collaboration, or that is so structured to be restrictive. Design authentic, collaborative, and fun tasks with the goal of sparking pleasure, pride, and satisfaction in students. Variety in group tasks is very motivating and tends to keep students engaged (Shekhar et al. 2015).

4. Guidance: Students need scaffolding and guidance to engage.

A key part of effective learning is “scaffolding,” or supporting student development as they move through the learning process (Vygotsky 1978). Guidance, encouragement, and structure (such as breaking activities into smaller pieces) help students accomplish something that is currently beyond their capability. Frequent low-stakes assessment that gives feedback to students (“formative assessment”) is valuable for helping students gauge their progress towards mastery (Ellis 2013).

Thus, to learn how to engage productively:

  • Students need initial guidance and structure to learn.
  • Students need formative assessment that gives them feedback on their progress.

Students need initial guidance and structure to learn. Scaffolding provides students guidance as they move through the learning process, supporting them in achieving the next level of mastery (Vygotsky 1978). Examples of scaffolding include breaking an activity into smaller pieces, making early activities highly structured, and circulating the room during an activity to provide guidance and feedback. Instructor facilitation and guidance has been demonstrated to be an important element of creating student engagement (Finelli et al. 2018; Shekhar et al. 2020; Nguyen et al. 2021; Tharayil et al. 2018). Facilitation can help address the common student complaints of activities being too difficult, time consuming, or lacking guidance (Shekhar et al. 2020).

Students need formative assessment that gives them feedback on their progress. Assessment is also part of scaffolding. Formative assessment gives students feedback to enhance their metacognition, or their learning about their own learning. Formative assessment also helps reduce student over-confidence in their ability (Karatjas 2013) and sets clear expectations for student learning. By helping students gauge their progress and adjust their approach, formative assessment supports continued engagement and an expert approach to learning. These assessments do not need to contribute to the formal grade; having them be completed for participation credit can help avoid the demotivating aspect of grades (Schinske and Tanner 2014). You may want to avoid open-book exams, which may falsely inflate students’ confidence (Moore and Jensen 2007; Jensen and Moore 2008).
5. Environment: Students need a supportive class environment.

While the interactivity inherent in active learning techniques can be motivating (Moreno 2009; Deci, Ryan, and Williams 1996), the classroom environment must also be supportive. May studies have demonstrated the importance of a respectful, supportive atmosphere, where the instructor builds rapport with students, tries to be encouraging and approachable, and values student voices (Nguyen et al. 2021; Tharayil et al. 2018; Fredricks, Blumenfeld, and Paris 2004; Moreno 2009) One component of supporting students is having high expectations of them, using class time efficiently, and letting students’ know you believe they can do high quality work. Attending to the student experience is crucial to making active learning work in the long term (Moreno 2009). For example, you can learn student names, respond positively to student ideas, praise success, be tactful when critiquing work, and help students feel that “we’re all in this together” (Lim and Bowers 1991; Kerssen-Griep 2001). Key factors include:

  • Students need to experience a collaborative class culture.
  • Students need to feel safe, and that they won’t lose face by sharing their ideas.
  • Students need to feel that the instructor is on their side.
  • Students need to feel that they belong in the class.

For more detail about creating a supportive classroom community, see the article “How can I create a classroom community, so that students feel encouraged to engage?”

Instructors can help.

There is much you can do to help your students. A wealth of research shows that instructors have a strong influence on student approaches to learning (Pintrich 2003; Elby 2001; Redish and Hammer 2009; Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000). Student engagement is much more strongly connected to what an instructor does and says than many other factors, including the type of activity, students' expected grades, or students' prior experiences with active learning (Nguyen et al. 2021). Your approach may vary over the course of the term; student perceptions and class norms shift over time (e.g., Breslow 2010; Koretsky and Brooks 2012), and different messages are salient at different times (Ellis 2013) as fatigue sets in (Ertmer, Newby, and MacDougall 1996). You might look at some advice from instructors we have compiled, to learn from the collective wisdom of master teachers, and start thinking about your own preferred approaches!

1. Address engagement early and often.

Address issues of engagement from the first day and revisit these issues periodically through the course. Students will become fatigued over the term and feel pressure from other courses.

2. Show (rather than just telling) students why interactive engagement is helpful for their learning.

Don’t rely only on explanations about the benefits of active learning. Use active-learning activities such as direct experience and discussion to help students reflect on their learning and the class structure. This approach is more self-consistent and likely to work.

3. Adopt the perspective of your students.

Be student-centered in your reflection on student engagement and look at their experience from the other side of the podium. How do they experience their course, what do they think about the subject, what is the group work like for them?

4. Be consistent.

Build trust by being consistent in the messages you send students. For example, don’t talk about the importance of effort and collaboration, but then grade on a curve. Be consistent in the goals, instruction, and assessment of student learning, so that students feel that the activities are aligned. Adopting a backwards design framework is an effective way to achieve such an alignment.

In the rest of this article are strategies that you can use to positively influence student engagement in each of the 5 areas listed earlier in this section: Expectations, value, motivation, guidance, and environment. Don’t try to do them all! You might focus on areas that seem particularly relevant for your course. Or you might try one strategy from within each area. We also have example activities linked throughout.

Expectations: Setting clear expectations for students

Mitigate student anxiety, and set them up for success, by setting clear expectations. Let them know why you are teaching this way, how they will be graded, and set productive norms and structures for collaboration.

You can download a PDF summary of all recommended engagement strategies.

To set clear expectations for students’ engagement:

Establish expectations for the course in the first week

From the first day, you can communicate norms for collaboration, and have students engage in the types of interaction that you will be expecting during the rest of the term. For more first-day ideas see “What are some strategies for the first day of class, to set the stage for student engagement?” Some ideas include:

  • Assert your expectations. Make it clear how the course will be organized and what you expect in their behavior. Examples: See our sample slides explaining active learning in pdf and PPT. See also Seidel et al. (2015) for many useful examples of how to share your choices in a positive and respectful manner.
  • Do an icebreaker to help students get acquainted and demonstrate productive discussion styles. Examples at What are some strategies for the first day of class, to set the stage for student engagement?
  • Jump into active learning. Engage in a group activity on day 1 and discuss appropriate behaviors and why this approach is useful. Examples: Appropriate first-day activities include reflection on learning, activities about the nature of science, and team-building exercises. You can also build a class contract to define rules and norms of engagement (Sieber 2010).
  • Ask students what they expect in the course. This strategy surfaces prior ideas, establishes realistic expectations, and establishes your credibility. Examples: Solicit rumors about the course or pre-existing ideas about the content or fears of math or science (see the activity Rumors).
  • Discuss the course approach or goals. Discuss why the course is relevant for student lives and careers. Such activities serve the dual purpose of discussing the reason and rationale for the course and jumping into active learning early. Examples: See several examples in the Why Study [Your Course] activity.
  • Establish a routine. With a clear, consistent routine, students will know what is expected of them and feel more comfortable (Tharayil et al. 2018). For example, you might start each day with a clicker question related to the last class, go over student comments to the pre-class preparation activity, lecture for a short time, and then begin an active learning exercise.

Explain expectations for each activity

Even though you’ve established expectations for the whole course, it is important that students know what they are doing (and why) throughout.

  • Explain how to do the activity. Make sure students understand how to complete the activity and what is expected of their behavior.
  • Explain the purpose of the activity. Explain why a particular activity is being used, and why it is important to participate. You might share information about the effectiveness of a particular activity, even if you did so at the start of the term.

Make sure students know how to get a good grade

Students are often anxious about grades. Ensuring they know how to be successful in the course will help improve confidence, thus enhancing engagement.

  • Share learning goals and grading rubrics. Show your learning goals for students at the beginning of the course, include them on the syllabus, and show them and at the start of each lecture. Align your assessments to these goals, and make sure students understand how assessments will be graded. To communicate expectations on a particular task, you might use a simple grading rubric. You might give students examples of good and bad academic work, and then ask them to grade the examples based on that same rubric. You can gradually wean students from such rubrics over time once these expectations are established.
  • Show grade distributions from the past. This can allow students to properly manage their grade expectations and mitigate overconfidence. However, realize that many students will (incorrectly) place themselves in the top part of the distribution.
  • Share success strategies from past students. If suggestions for course strategies and success come from their peers, rather than the instructor, students may be more receptive. These suggestions can include the type of active engagement you desire. If you use Learning Assistants, those LAs can also provide such advice as undergraduate peers. Example: See Advice to Future Students.

Value: Helping students see value in active engagement

The most common student complaints are that active learning is not valuable and they are not learning (Henderson, Khan, and Dancy 2018; Shekhar et al. 2020). To help them see the value in active learning, students need to be able to reflect upon their own learning. For more information on what helps metacognition, see our separate article, “How can I help students become more expert learners?You can download a PDF summary of all recommended engagement strategies.

To help students see the value in active learning and engagement:

Be explicit about your pedagogical choices

Let your students know why you’re using the approaches that you’re using, and help them see the value in them, and how it aligns with research on learning.

  • Explain to students why you have chosen to teach this way. You might give a mini lecture on active learning and how people learn. It may be best to partner such explanatory approaches with active learning or as a reflection after an activity, to avoid students feeling lectured to. Examples: Here are sample slides explaining active learning in pdf and PPT, and a video of an instructor discussing his use of clickers with the class, and a Tutorial and Clicker FAQs handout from CU Boulder. See also Seidel et al. (2015) for many useful examples of how to share your choices in a positive and respectful manner.
  • Highlight the shortcomings of traditional lecture. Hold a reflective discussion about how unsatisfying the traditional course structure can be, and what you and students can do to avoid such an outcome. Example: For a humorous approach, see our activity Traxoline and Dancealot.
  • Jump into active learning from day 1. There are several ways to jump into course content without requiring prior knowledge, such as discussing the nature of science. Then, engage in reflective discussion about how this approach helped their learning. Examples: You might ask students to solve an estimation problem in a group (see example activity Fermi Questions), or use an activity on the nature of science (examples: Nature of Science activities, Make a Paper Airplane, or several geoscience examples that could be adapted for other disciplines).
  • Revisit these ideas throughout the course. One explanation will not be sufficient (Tosh et al. 2005) – remind students about why you have chosen to do certain activities at key points throughout the term (such as when introducing a new activity or returning exams).

Help students think about their approach to learning

One way to help students reflect upon and realize the benefit of active learning is to help students think about their own ideas and experiences about teaching and learning, and how your teaching approaches align with those beliefs and experiences.

  • Probe their ideas about learning. Facilitate a discussion about how your students think they learn best, and their experiences as a learner. Examples: Ask students to reflect on the first day of class, and again after the first exam, “What is the most effective study strategy? The least effective?” You can also use a validated assessment; see our article on “How can I assess the level of student engagement in my class? for ideas.
  • Have students reflect on their learning. Prompt students to think about their own thinking (“metacognition”) throughout the class by asking them to think about what they know or would like to know. Tie the results back to the value of engaging actively in the course. You can also model self-reflection by thinking out loud through problem solving. Examples: At the end of class, ask students to write down what they are most curious about or having the most difficulty with in a “one minute paper”. Have students complete a self-reflection rubric (see Self-Assessment Worksheets).

Use formative assessment to guide students’ approach to learning

Formative assessment is low-stakes feedback that helps students monitor and adjust their approach to learning. Formative assessment helps guide students and encourages them to take advantage of the active engagement opportunities to improve their performance.

  • Use frequent, low-stakes assessments. Have the first homework or mini-quiz count for a smaller portion of their grade. This will give valuable feedback and demonstrate how future work will be assessed. Throughout the course, clicker questions, one-minute papers, group work, quick in-class sketches, and other classroom assessment techniques (CATs) also give students valuable feedback.
  • Give students the opportunity to revise and resubmit. Give students the opportunity to revise and resubmit their quizzes, exams, and homework, along with a reflection of what their error was and how they could avoid that error in the future.
  • Give regular, clear feedback. Clear, specific, feedback is one of the most essential ingredients to student learning (Pintrich 2003; Moreno 2009). Feedback should also include recommendations on how to improve in the future. This can be done on individual work, or in feedback to the whole class.
  • Emphasize learning as a process. Emphasize the purpose of active learning tasks as learning exercises, not a means to achieving a final grade, and focus on improvement. For example, with an upcoming assignment, "I just want to see you striving to perform better. Everything is a step in the right direction; you all have already improved tremendously" (Kerssen-Griep 2001). “You gave it a good try, but it didn’t work, do you have any idea why? Or “Could you think of another way to do this next time?” (Boekaerts 2010).

Motivation: Helping students feel motivated to engage

You can motivate students to engage productively in active learning classrooms using various internal and external rewards.

To motivate students to engage:

Use grading to hold students accountable and encourage participation

Grading is an important element of holding students accountable, which can generate extrinsic motivation. Be aware that this can backfire; grades tend to dampen students’ intrinsic motivation, increase anxiety, and increase competitiveness, and once the grading incentive ends, students disengage again. Below are some strategies for using grades to motivate engagement.

  • Avoid curving or competitive grading. Grading on a curve sets students up against each other. Instead, use grades that focus on individual performance and growth. Eliminate the scores for confusing questions rather than curving them.
  • Offer small external incentives for participation that contribute to the course grade. Assign a portion of the overall course grade to effort and participation. To avoid dampening students’ intrinsic motivation for engagement, don’t grade heavily on participation. Instead, offer small external incentives that show the value you place on engagement, and that are directly linked to the behavior you desire. You might gradually fade away these supports as students become habituated to classroom expectations. Examples: Give extra credit, candy, stickers, or other participation credit for speaking up in class. Give credit for each clicker question answered, pre-class assignment completed, or one-minute paper turned in. Try Sticky Participation Points where students receive a token to be exchanged for participation points.
  • Hold groups and individuals accountable for working in a group. Assess both individual learning and effort through clicker questions, one-minute papers, assessment questions, and/or peer ratings of effort. Require groups to work together well by giving students group goals, asking them to hand in group work, and using achievement awards. See How can I help students work well in small groups? for suggestions on how to support this in your classroom.
  • Hold students accountable for pre-class preparation. In many active learning classrooms, pre-class preparation is required so that students arrive to class ready to engage. Give students a small number of points for this work. Make sure not to cover the material from the preparation task in class so the preparation feels more necessary and important. See Just in Time Teaching for more ideas about pre-class preparation.
  • Hold students accountable for sharing their ideas in whole class discussions. One way to do this is to call on students at random. Random call increases participation in group activities. Tell students in advance that you will be doing this, but that you will give students a chance to reflect and prepare their answers in advance. Examples: You can use a randomized class list, dice, a deck of cards with student names on them, or phone applications such as Names in a Hat.
  • Use group or two-stage exams. In a group exam, students complete the exam individually, and then again as a group, with both portions contributing to their grades. Group exams align well with an active learning classroom and provide students immediate feedback.See Group Exams for detail.

Support students’ ownership over their learning

Students are motivated to engage when they have a sense of autonomy and control. Below are some strategies for ceding appropriate control to students so they feel motivated to engage:

  • Give students choices in their learning. You may allow students to choose their group members, seating assignments, paper or assignment topics, the form of the final project, the formatting of assignments, or develop their own homework problems. Some topics might be put to class vote. Both deep and superficial choices are valuable to students.
  • Welcome student voice and feedback. Ask students for input on activities and the course and give clear mechanisms for them to provide that feedback. This builds trust and helps you iterate your approach. Respond respectively and positively to their ideas even if you do not act on them. Let them know how their opinions have guided your practice. Examples: You can ask for student input through a midterm evaluation (e.g., Stop Go Change), post-activity clicker questions, minute papers, or online reflection questions (Seidel and Tanner 2013).
  • Give students enough time. Don’t (overly) rush students through their work on active learning activities, as this can feel disempowering. You might use challenge questions within activities for students who finish early, to keep them engaged.
  • Use language that supports ownership. Try to avoid telling students what to do and use language that is encouraging and open. You might use the phrase “our” class, give students hints, invite discussion, provide encouragement, and respond to questions. For example, "We only have ten minutes left, how about we spend that time working in small groups on our project?" (versus "We have only ten minutes left, I want to see everyone working on their project.”) Or you might say, “You will now work on some practice problems; you can choose to do the odd or the even ones” (instead of "You need to get through these problems,” Moreno 2009).

Help students feel capable

Help students to feel capable and competent by giving reasonable challenges, and opportunities to feel successful. Be tactful with criticism. Framing tasks as helping students improve, rather than to evaluate their performance, can increase student engagement (Ames 1991).

  • Ramp up the difficulty. Build confidence by giving students early opportunities to feel successful in the course or an activity, and then gradually increase the difficulty level. Don’t use a task that is overly challenging, especially at the start of the course, as it can reinforce student fears of incompetence (Gaffney and Whitaker 2015).
  • Encourage students. Let students know that you believe they can be successful, and that you are on their side (Nguyen et al. 2021). Set high expectations, show you’re confident that students can achieve these expectations if they work hard, and give them accurate and realistic feedback about their progress (see “How can I help students become more expert learners?”)
  • Use sparing, specific praise. Point out student “aha” moments in class. Give positive feedback during class discussions. Praise their effort (e.g., “excellent job,” or “you planned your work well”). Be specific in your praise. Early in the term, you might praise all ideas even if they’re incorrect, so students are reassured that they can succeed. Later, use praise sparingly, to convey that you believe students can perform at a high level (Moreno 2009).

Create motivating group work

Most active learning techniques involve the creation of student groups, but groups do not always work productively, and not all tasks are suited to group work. Poor group dynamics, or ill-suited tasks, can reduce student engagement in active learning. For more information on structuring groups and group tasks see the Expert Recommendation “How can I help students work well in small groups?

  • Decide whether to let students choose their own groups. The research is not clear on the best strategy. It can be motivating for students to choose their own groups but switching up groups can reduce the risk of poorly functioning groups.
  • Vary group learning methods. Using a variety of group learning activities enhances student motivation to engage by maintaining novelty and interest. However, don’t bite off more than you can chew – implement just a few well-designed activities when you’re just getting started with active learning so you can be well-prepared.
  • Create real-world, interesting tasks. Students are more motivated if the activity relates to something they care about and real-world scenarios. Injecting some creativity and whimsy is also a welcome motivational embellishment.
  • Create challenging tasks. Give tasks that are just above student ability so they feel challenged but successful; you might start with easier items and ramp up the difficulty, including bonus challenges at the end. If the problem isn’t difficult enough, students won’t need each other to solve it. Shekhar and Borrego (2016) found that when presented with a sufficiently complex problem, students engaged with their peers even when they had originally resisted doing so.
  • Give students choice in the activities. Let them choose how they will accomplish something, or what topic to explore. A sense of control and autonomy is very motivating.

Guidance: Guiding students to engage productively

Students need help and support as they move through the learning process; a common student complaint about active learning is lack of guidance and learning that is overly self-directed (Shekhar et al. 2020). “Scaffolding” provides guidance, encouragement, and structure to help the students learn how to engage effectively on their own, and is shown to improve engagement (Finelli et al. 2018; Nguyen et al. 2021; Tharayil et al. 2018). Part of effective scaffolding is using formative assessment to guide students; this is discussed earlier in this article under “Helping students see value in active engagement.” You can download a PDF summary of all recommended engagement strategies.

To guide students to engage:

Actively facilitate activities

Be an active coach during interactive activities to help students as they work together (Finelli et al. 2018; Nguyen et al. 2021; Tharayil et al. 2018). For more information about effectively using group work, see the Expert Recommendation “How can I help students work well in small groups?

  • Walk around the room and engage with students. This may be the most effective facilitation technique (Shekhar et al. 2015; Tharayil et al. 2018), especially at the beginning of the term. Listen to their discussions and provide clarification, feedback, or guidance when needed. Model productive discussion techniques through Socratic questioning. Circulating also helps keep students on task and gives you information on their progress.
  • Approach students who are not participating. As you walk around the room you might see a student or group who is not engaging. You might ask what they are thinking, or if they are stuck.
  • Solicit feedback about the activity. Immediately after the activity ask students if there was anything they suggest you change. This might be done as a short survey or one-pager. This will help you improve activities for the future as well as develop trust.

Use incremental steps

When students are learning a new concept or skill, break things down for them.

  • Provide early supports. You might give hints, fill-in-the-blanks, key gaps in the material, or set up the problem for them and then ask them to write down the next step. This can be done within lecture, or structurally within the activities themselves. You might start the term with short (1-2 question) activities, moving gradually up to longer activities. You might interrupt students part way through activities to check in on their answers.
  • Ramp up the difficulty. For example, give early short assignments worth less of their grade and then ramp it up. Within an activity, ramp up the difficulty through the course of the activity, so that all students can easily complete the first questions.
  • Remove supports over time. Gradually remove these supports and structures as students become more adept. For example, you can create longer activities with fewer checkpoints and spend less time reviewing how an activity will be graded.

Structure groups for success

Most active learning techniques involve the creation of student groups, but group structure matters so that students know what to do and can work together well. For more information on structuring groups and group tasks see the Expert Recommendation “How can I help students work well in small groups?

  • Use appropriately sized groups. The group size should be well-suited to the task so that each student will be able to contribute (typically 3-6 people). Larger groups take longer to complete tasks and are more likely to be plagued by “social loafing.”
  • Consider assigning roles to students. You might assign roles to each student in the group, such as facilitator, scribe, reporter, data manager, materials manager, time manager, coach, encourager, question monitor, equity monitor, etc. Assigning a reporter ensures that those less likely to volunteer will have opportunities to practice sharing their ideas (Tanner 2013). Use equitable selection techniques, such as whoever has the longest hair.
  • Use clear written instructions in activities. Give clear instructions (written and verbal) about the purpose of the task and what they will be doing, to mitigate any sense of aimlessness; the purpose of learning tasks is often clearer to the instructor than the students!
  • Build in reflection checkpoints. Every few weeks ask students to pause and reflect (e.g. “How are we doing as a group? What is working well?” “What could be changed?”) Examples: See our Group Skill Building activity for more ideas, and the Self-Assessment Worksheets for possible group evaluation worksheets.

Give students the opportunity to process the ideas

You may find that students are not quite ready to share their thinking during class discussions; give them time to process so that they can engage.

  • Use at least 5 seconds of “wait time.” Wait at least 3-5 seconds for a student response after asking a question. This feels like a long time, so actually count quietly to 5. With additional wait time, more students volunteer answers, are willing to share when called on, and give more complete answers (Allen and Tanner 2002).
  • Use Think-Pair-Share. If after adequate wait time you still hear no responses, maybe students need help processing. Have them think on their own for a specified amount of time (e.g., 30 seconds), and then signal them to turn to their neighbor and discuss. This think-pair-share technique gets them ready to share with the whole class.
  • Use student response systems. Electronic response systems (“clickers”) give students a chance to share their answer in a structured format, building in processing and accountability. See “Teaching with Clickers” for more.
  • Have them write down their responses. You might ask students to write out their ideas quietly as in a minute paper. When they pass these up to you, you can scan them for the main ideas, and maybe grade for participation (Tanner 2013). Some polling technologies such as PollEverywhere also allow students to input text responses.

Environment: Creating a supportive environment for learning

It is important to create an environment where students are comfortable engaging with each other and with the instructor. Below are some strategies that can be used to establish a culture of respect and encouragement, even in large classes. These ideas are explored in more depth in the Expert Recommendation “How can I create a classroom community, so that students feel encouraged to engage?” For more ideas on creating an inclusive classroom, see “How can I create an inclusive and equitable classroom with culturally responsive education?

To create a supportive environment for learning:

Show respectful interest in student ideas

The way that you respond to student ideas and contributions sends a powerful message about the classroom norms and your expectations.

  • Invite questions. Encouraging questions shows that you value student ideas. For example, you might say “It’s OK to make mistakes, it’s OK to ask questions, you’re better off asking questions now than getting a bad grade in an exam” or “think of two questions on material you don’t understand” (Tharayil et al. 2018). Be sure to wait long enough for students to formulate their questions.
  • Hear from multiple students. For example, Tanner (2013) suggests saying: “I’m going to pose a question, and I’d like to see at least three hands of colleagues here who would share their ideas. I won't hear from anyone until I’ve got those three volunteers”. Stick to your rule, or students will quickly learn that they can outwait you. You can also use the “whip around”, where each student (or each student in a row) shares a response to the question in 30 seconds or less.
  • Do not judge initial responses. Let students know that you will not be evaluating the merit of their ideas, at least initially; “I’d like to hear from a number of us about our thinking on this, and then we can sort out what we are sure of and what we are confused about.” This can increase the number of students willing to share.
  • Correct errors in a way that is not embarrassing. Build trust and confidence by focusing on the strength of the idea, validating the assumptions they are making, meeting their gaze, and using warmth in your voice (Gaffney and Whitaker 2015; Kerssen-Griep 2001). Be particularly sensitive when students use hedging language (like “I don’t know,”) as it may indicate they are feeling insecure.
  • Train instructional assistants to use productive discourse. If you have Teaching or Learning Assistants, prepare them well to work with students. Help them see their job as supporting discussion, rather than knowing the answer and correcting errors.
  • Reflect on your own process. After an active discussion think about whether you are pleased with your own management of it? Did it have enough time? Did it have the right level of management from you? Did you frame yourself as the guide, rather than the leader, of the conversation?

Create a positive relationship with your students

You can use a variety of verbal and non-verbal techniques to generate trust and social immediacy (Seidel and Tanner 2013).

  • Use nonverbal cues that show you as an ally. Techniques such as humor, informal language, smiling, open body language, eye contact, and coming out from behind the desk increases trust and confidence and show students you’re on their side.
  • Learn students’ names. Even learning just a few names sends a powerful message. Examples: Students might write their names and some information on an index card; you can draw cards from this stack when calling on students during class discussions. Another idea is to use Table Tents for students to introduce themselves to classmates and keep their name visible for you. Both index cards and table tents can be sorted to create small groups (Tanner 2013).
  • Use positive and collaborative language. For example, avoid using the word “just” (e.g., "It's just conservation of energy,") can feel belittling, as it implies that the solution is trivial. Other examples of real-world positive language (from Seidel et al. 2015; p. 7) to establish classroom norms, respect, and collaboration are:
    • “Be a good colleague, help other people if you can. We don’t grade on the curve. There is no reason not to help anybody else.”
    • ”
“[This class] is a course that would not happen if it wasn’t an instructional team, so ... if you are a graduate teaching assistant who is teaching in one of the laboratories, would you stand up? ... Those people are going to be fabulous resources.”

    • “I’m more curious about your approach to how you think about [this assignment], than I am whether you get the answer right or not.”
“It doesn’t matter if you agree ... The norms in this class are that sometimes the people who are holding their ground, and they’re disagreeing with everyone else, they’re the people who have the best ideas.”

    • More examples: See Gavrin 2015 for more unintended negative messages teachers tend to send. See also Seidel et al. 2015 for many useful examples of how instructor talk can demonstrate respect and set the tone for the course.
  • Open the floor for questions.Especiallyon the first day, invite students to ask questions, even crazy questions, about your subject. This establishes your credibility and creates rapport with students. Example: Ask Me Anything activity.
  • Listen to student feedback. If students complain or give you feedback, don’t ignore it. Instead, respond to and acknowledge the feedback to show you understand the student’s position. Example: Consider using a midterm survey like Stop Go Change evaluation to solicit student ideas.

What if students complain about the active engagement?

While active resistance among students is relatively rare (Nguyen et al. 2021; Nguyen et al. 2016), sometimes students do complain about active learning techniques (Seidel and Tanner 2013; Ellis 2013). Some common complaints include, “the professor isn’t teaching anything,” “the class is too much work,” or “we’re wasting time” (Henderson, Khan, and Dancy 2018). While student complaints may be challenging or even hurtful to hear, they offer valuable opportunities for you to learn from your students, and possibly improve the overall engagement of the class. If students don’t see the value of the active engagement, or aren’t clear about what is expected, the sections of this article “Setting clear expectations” and “Helping students see value in active engagement” are worth revisiting.

To address student complaints:

Don’t get discouraged

Negative feedback from students can sometimes cause an instructor to prematurely give up on the idea of using active learning strategies, saying that students “didn’t like it.” Usually, the problem isn’t so much that students truly don’t like active learning, but that it isn’t quite what they expected, or the instructor isn’t yet a master of the technique. Often, such initial pushback can decrease over time, as the course structure becomes more normative, and initial difficulties are addressed (e.g., Breslow 2010; Koretsky and Brooks 2012). See Richard Felder’s article “Hang in There!” for some more ideas (and reassurance!).

Listen and respond constructively

Listening and responding positively can build trust and a positive relationship with the class, plus help you to better understand the issue. Lack of trust or credibility can lead to student complaints (Goldman, Goodboy, and Bolkan 2004; Witt and Kerssen-Griep 2011). Soliciting and responding to feedback can go a long way towards building that trust.

  • Respond positively. Set aside any defensiveness to respond from your best self. For example, “I hear you. It can be challenging to learn in new ways.” Avoid responding in a controlling, authoritative manner (e.g., “Well, that’s the way it is done in this class, because it’s a better way to learn.”) This undermines the foundation of a cooperative class (Reeve 2009) and is demoralizing to students.
  • Learn more about the problem. Try to understand the problem from the student perspective – are the goals of the activities clear? Are they confused about grading? Once you’ve diagnosed the issue, review appropriate sections of this Expert Recommendation. Examples: You might use clicker questions or an online survey to solicit ideas from the whole class, to see how widespread the issue is. There are some validated assessments available in How can I assess the level of student engagement in my class?
  • Gather mid-term and end-of-term feedback. Use a mid-term survey to find out mid-stream what students don’t like about the course and try to address it. Administering and responding to such surveys raises course ratings (McGowan and Osguthorpe 2011). Examples: Even a simple form such as Stop-Go-Change can provide useful information. Your teaching and learning center may also have feedback mechanisms for you to consider.
  • Answer their concerns and questions. You can make your teaching philosophy clear in response to questions and complaints. You might explain how your approach mirrors what students are likely to find in a professional setting: For a description of this approach, see Richard Felder’s Sermons for Grumpy Campers.
  • Communicate student feedback to the class. Students are often more receptive to hearing from their peers; you can use student feedback strategically as a communication tool. Example: One instructor developed the midterm Stop Go Change evaluations in part due to complaints of students in a vocal minority. She then shares that feedback with the class and those dissatisfied students realize, for example, that “not everybody hates the labs.”

Be open to modifying your teaching approach

Student complaints may be a symptom that you are still learning how to implement active learning. Consider that you may not be attending adequately to the student learning experience (Allen, Wedman, and Folk 2001).

  • Make changes based on your understanding of the issues. Once you’ve gathered feedback from students, consider what changes are reasonable to make, and let students know how you used their feedback. Again administering and responding to midterm surveys raises course ratings (McGowan and Osguthorpe 2011).
  • Get feedback from experienced instructors. Ask another instructor to observe the course, read your activities, and/or review the student feedback you’ve collected.
  • Don’t do too much. A common mistake is to try to do too much at once. If you are overwhelmed and scrambling, students may lose confidence. Roll out active learning in small pieces so you can master each part or pilot the course as a summer session.

Proactively address the possibility of low student evaluations

While student evaluations and perceptions are most generally positive when active learning is added (Andrews et al. 2020; Borrego et al. 2018; Henderson, Khan, and Dancy 2018), there are cases where evaluations go down and/or students complain. Student complaints, when left unchecked, could lead to low student course evaluations. There is some evidence that evaluations may be lower the first time that active learning is implemented (“implementation dips”; Allen, Wedman, and Folk 2001).

  • Use alternative measures of teaching effectiveness. If you need documentation of teaching effectiveness for promotion or tenure (especially as a junior faculty member), gather alternative data on student learning – especially given that student evaluations do not correspond well to student learning gains (Lee et al. 2018). Some of these assessments would be best gathered at the beginning and end of the course (pre/post). Examples: See PhysPort’s Assessment page for concept inventories and attitude assessments. Your teaching and learning center may also have opportunities to collect data on your course (through observations, focus groups, surveys, etc.)
  • Talk to your chair. You might ask your chair in advance not to consider the student evaluations for the term in your portfolio, or to use alternative measures in addition to student evaluations. Invite your chair and/or a senior faculty member to visit your class and provide feedback.

How do I know if my strategies are working?

Learning to implement active learning is a process. Collecting feedback on your course over time will help you become a master of active learning, and of student engagement. You can download a PDF summary of all recommended engagement strategies.

  • Gather mid-term and end-of-term feedback. Use a mid-term survey to find out mid-stream what students don’t like about the course and try to address it. Examples: Even a simple form such as Stop-Go-Change can provide useful information. Your teaching and learning center may also have feedback mechanisms for you to consider.
  • See “How can I assess the level of student engagement in my class?” for more ideas.

Remember, student resistance is rare. Once you become adept at implementation of active learning, and students see the benefit of the activities, you are not likely to see active resistance. Rather, focus on creating an environment where students are motivated to engage, and that motivation is renewed over time.

This article is a product of the Framing the Interactive Engagement Classroom project, led by Stephanie Chasteen (University of Colorado Boulder), with collaboration from Jon Gaffney (Eastern Kentucky University) and Andrew Boudreaux (Western Washington University). Many thanks to University of Colorado reviewers Rebecca Ciancanelli and Jenny Knight, plus undergraduate assistant Maya Fohrman. This work was generously supported by the University of Colorado Science Education Initiative and the University of Colorado Center for STEM Learning, via a Chancellor’s Award. Please contactStephanie Chasteen with any comments or questions.

Image courtesy of University of Colorado Boulder