How can I create active activities within my lecture theatre sessions?

Traditionally, the purpose of lecture theatre sessions is to provide students with the content materials that they need for the course. As such, lectures tend to focus on content delivery.

Lectures are typically 50 minutes long, keeping students engaged for 50 minutes or longer is challenging. Research suggests that students’ attention drops dramatically after around 10-15 minutes into the class (Bligh, 2000). Even if you are teaching what you consider to be a very interesting topic, audience attention can still wander. Many of us have lost our focus during long conference presentations – if keen specialists can lose focus listening to topic-driven speakers, wouldn’t students lose focus during class time?

As the goal of the lectures is to support students learning the content presented in class, let’s consider how we can keep students engaged in-class, noting that their attention spans are around 10-15 minutes.

Embed purposeful activities in-class

Introducing a purposeful activity during class time can boost students’ attention and support student learning (Bligh, 2000).

Active learning supports student-centred learning. Being active is important for students to learn. Embed activities that involve students in gathering information, thinking, problem solving and reflecting, will keep them actively engaged in their learning in lecture settings. Evidence suggests that students performed better in lectures with active learning components compare to lectures without active components (Freeman et al., 2014).

Five Top Tips

  1. Keep the activity purpose and task instructions clear and simple.

  2. Ensure the activities are linked to support students achieving the intended learning outcome(s).

  3. Design activities that foster peer learning and collaboration.

  4. Have a plan for active activities in class and have a backup plan. Things can take an unexpected turn, especially when trying new techniques and/or new technologies.

  5. Keep it simple; less is more. Purposeful activities will enhance student learning. It is more important for students to engage deeper with key concepts than getting through more content.

Techniques & Tools

  • Think, pair, share is a useful technique in class to give students time to pause, think and work with a peer. This works well regardless of the class size.
  • Use practice questions/problems or apply this concept type activities in a larger class to get students thinking and applying what they have just learned.
  • Note-taking and writing down questions that they have at this point in the lecture. In addition, you can then give them time to ask their neighbours for answers and discussion on their questions when appropriate or practical.
  • There are lots of activity ideas for smaller classes, including small group discussions, role play, micro-learning, debate, peer feedback and more.
  • Use the six learning types from the Conversational Framework to help generate more activity ideas that are appropriate for your content.
  • Online tools such as Padlet, Mentimeter, AnswerGarden or Kahoot can be use in class to check student understanding of course concepts, get students to collaborate and discuss concepts, or to get students to reflect on their learning.

Useful Resources


Biggs, J. B. (2003). Constructing learning by aligning teaching: Constructive alignment. In Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does (2nd ed., pp. 11–33). Open University Press.

Bligh D. A. (2000) Evidence of what lectures achieve. In: What’s the use of lectures? (pp. 3-20) Jossey-Bass.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(23), 8410. JSTOR Journals.

Laurillard, D. (2012). Teaching as a design science: building pedagogical patterns for leaning and technology. Routledge.