The joy of simplicity: techniques that motivate, engage and foster learning in lectures

The rise of AI and VR offers educators an array of innovative ways to engage students in lectures, but let’s not forget the simple methods that don’t require any technology, writes Alison Zimmer

Alison Zimmer's avatar
14 Nov 2023
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Teacher in front of a classroom full of students

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What is student engagement?
Head in the clouds. Student engagement is used almost universally in HE, but no one seems to agree on what it actually means.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the world we live and work in?  I certainly do. Being an effective educator during turbulent times requires constant consideration of an ever-growing, shifting and tangled assortment of issues. Even for something as apparently straightforward as lecture design, we have countless decisions to make and factors to consider. Online or on campus? Synchronous or not? Which platform? Which polling software? Should we incorporate AI or VR?

And breathe. We underestimate the importance of using simple methods to motivate, engage and help students learn in lectures. Here are just a few.

The sales pitch

Try to be aware of how much mental baggage students bring to class. Their minds may be on other modules, upcoming assessments or placement applications. They may be thinking about their bank balances, their friends, their families, fitting in and growing up. So how do you subdue all those thoughts and get students to focus on and engage with the fascinating lecture you have planned? It’s all about the sales pitch.

Aim to sell the need to learn and the want to learn by highlighting both the necessity and provoking the desire to learn about the subject at hand. Do this and you’ll hit upon the sweet spot of learner motivation where both extrinsic and intrinsic motivational forces are at play, unique to everyone, but universally powerful.

The need to learn often encompasses the practical points. For example, where does the topic sit in the syllabus, how important is it in terms of syllabus weighting, and how will it be assessed? Ultimately, we need to clearly show that understanding the topic is integral to doing well not only in this but also in future modules. “If you engage today, then this specific outcome will be your reward.”  

The want to learn fits in more with intrinsic motivation theories. We want students to engage because they are interested and because they desire to know about the topic at hand. To provoke this desire to learn, step back and paint a larger picture. Where does this topic sit in terms of career opportunities, in terms of what is happening in the news today, the future of politics, the environment and our world? Placing the topic in its wider context can spark interest and excitement.


Another technique I use at the start of lectures is pre-questioning. Whatever the topic, at whatever level you are teaching, it’s always worth asking the students what they already know. The question can be broad or broken down into more specific areas. It’s almost certain they know something, with students bringing a wealth of prior knowledge and experience into the classroom.

There are several benefits to pre-questioning. Opening the dialogue with students early sets the tone of the lecture, showing them that it’s not going to be a one-way experience but an interaction requiring effort on their part. Pre-questioning can also generate interest, giving a preview of the questions students will be able to answer further down the line. Make it clear that the most basic observations about the topic are welcome.

Encourage students to write down or perhaps turn to their neighbour and explain what they already know. Engage their brains from the start, compelling them to look inward and check what knowledge and skills they already have.

Help students with the production effect

No matter how innovative your lectures may be, the process of transferring knowledge from the front of the class to the students is likely still to be a part of the experience.

The production effect describes how doing something with the material you’re studying helps increase the chances of ingraining it into long-term memory. Students need to start building those pathways in the brain to create a familiar, distinct and easy route through the neurons. They can do this by reading out loud, paraphrasing, drawing mind maps, answering questions, creating flashcards and even singing.

And so, why not bring this into the lecture and start this process straight away? After introducing a new concept, ask the students to do one of the following:

  • Turn to their neighbour and explain their understanding of the new concept in their own words
  • Write down their understanding in their own words
  • Draw an image, flowchart or graph which represents their understanding.

This process gives students time to breathe, go over their notes and start to place the knowledge in the context of their own understanding.

In a big lecture, there is always the fear of losing control of students who use the time to talk about the latest gossip or episode of their favourite show, but there are ways to manage this. First, be physically present, walk the room, listen, smile and be supportive. Second, and this may be the most important tip I have to offer in this piece, learn how to whistle very loudly! When I can feel the room spin out of my control, I place four fingers atop my tongue and, following a very short, sharp whistle, all eyes are back on me and silence reigns! Students quickly get the message that they should stay on topic.

We all want motivated and engaged students who engage and learn during our lectures. Bring on the technology, it’s a marvel! However, don’t forget the simple techniques that can offer huge benefits during any lecture you lead, large or small.

Now, everyone, take a pause and speak out loud your understanding of this article.

Alison Zimmer is a lecturer at the Alliance Manchester Business School.

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