A great lecture can inspire and empower. Unfortunately, what many lectures do is bore and pacify (Mann & Robinson, 2009). It has been long held that the role of the lecturer is to deliver material, in other words, lecture. It is up to students to engage with content. Lecturers are not there to entertain. Similarly, university instructors are often advised against ‘hand-holding’ – again, meaning the lecturer should leave it up to the students to make sense of what comes out of their mouths. Such a position places the bulk of the burden for learning on the backs of the students and is the justification for many a tedious lecture. To be sure, not every effective lecture may inspire and empower, but to say that our position as lecturers is to simply convey information to students is to commit a great disservice. All of this does not mean we have to throw out our lecture notes and radically alter our teaching. There are a number of simple strategies available to improve the effectiveness of our lectures that take very little time (see The Methods and Simple Ideas below).
Over the past three decades, numerous modes of teaching at the post-secondary level have been shown to be more effective than the lecture, especially if what we want is a deeper engagement with the skills and knowledge of our disciplines. Despite the convincing evidence that the lecture is an ineffective way to support both foundational thinking (knowledge retrieval) and higher-level thought (critical thinking, analysis, creative work), the lecture will continue to represent a significant part of the teaching that goes on at the post-secondary level. Why this is the case is a matter of speculation. Perhaps lecturing is so wound up in what many post-secondary teachers see as part of their identity as an instructor. Many faculty members are charged with teaching large classes of 100 students or more, which lends itself to the lecture mode. There is also a powerful ‘peer pressure’ among many instructors to conform to a certain mode of teaching in what are called ‘content-heavy’ courses. This context requires a mode in which a great deal of material is ‘covered’, with little enduring learning taking place. In any case, it is safe to say that the lecture is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Within these constraints, how can we design lectures that are most effective?
Effective, dynamic lectures generally follow a common set of elements, including:
A dynamic lecture begins with something that grabs the students’ attention. Why is this important? How does it relate to: work in the field, challenging problems, civic engagement, or ethical questions? A dynamic lecture may begin with a compelling story. Not all lectures easily lend themselves to compelling stories, but if you can find one, this above almost anything else will grab your students and hold their attention. While you may not see yourself as a story-teller, if you are a lecturer, you may want to develop this capacity. Story-telling is effective because people remember stories. They provide context for the ideas that you present. A good story can also neatly tie theory to practice. It should also be noted that humans have story-telling in their blood – it’s arguably the oldest form of lecture. Through most of our human history it’s how we have communicated and received ideas about the world. However you grab their attention, once you have ‘hooked’ them, your task as a lecturer becomes easier.
Identify the Purpose of your Lecture
What do you want your students to be able to know or do by the end of your lecture? By sharing your objectives with students, you make the purpose of your lecture more explicit. You may also want to provide a framework for your lecture and activities. Skeleton notes can be effective in keeping students focused.
Use a Variety of Methods to Compliment your Lecture
Research strongly indicates that human attention span begins to evaporate somewhere between 10-15 minutes (Bligh, 2000; Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Middendorf & Kalish, 1996). It follows that an effective lecture is one that is divided into a series of mini-lectures – 20 minutes at the most – with short (2-5 minutes) exercises in between that support student learning. Incidentally, this is the reasoning behind the 18 minute TED Talk format.
If the thought of removing twenty minutes from your ninety-minute lecture puts you off, know that if your lecture is that long, no matter how great an orator you may be, most of your students are tuning in and out for the majority of the time that you are speaking. Many of your words are simply floating over their heads as your students struggle to refocus their attention.
Short and simple exercises in between mini-lectures can provide both a ‘brain break’, allowing students to reset, and an opportunity to self or peer-check their comprehension. Here are some examples from Linda Nilson’s excellent book*, Teaching at its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors (2016, pp. 147-149).
Pair and Compare
Students pair off with their neighbor and compare lecture notes, filling in what they have have missed. This activity makes students review and mentally process your mini-lecture content. Time: 2 minutes.
Pair, Compare, and Ask
This is the same as pair and compare but with the addition that students jot down questions on your mini-lecture content. Students answer one another’s questions; then you field the remaining ones. Time: 3 minutes, plus 1 to 2 minutes to answer questions.
Periodic Free-Recall, with Pair-and-Compare Option
Students put away their lecture notes and write down the most important one, two, or three points of your mini-lecture, as well as any questions they have. The first two times you do this, use a slide, overhead, or the board to give instructions. After that, just telling them will do. Again, this activity makes students review and mentally process your mini-lecture content. Students may work individually, but if they work in pairs or triads, they can answer some of each other’s questions. Time: 3 minutes, plus 1 to 2 minutes to answer students’ questions.
Active Listening Checks
This is the same as the previous activity, except that you have your students hand in their three most important points, and then you reveal what you intended as most important. Lovett (2008), the researcher who devised this activity, uses it to improve her students’ listening and note-taking skills. From the first time she did this in class to the third time, the percentage of students who correctly identified her three most important points rose from 45 to 75 percent. Time: 2 to 3 minutes
Students individually write out their affective reaction to the mini-lecture content (or video or demonstration). Ask a few volunteers to share. Time: 3 to 4 minutes.
Solve a Problem
Students solve an equational or word problem based on your mini-lecture. They can work individually or, better yet, in pairs or triads. Randomly call on a few individuals or groups to sample their answers. Time: 1 to 3 minutes for problem solving, depending on the problem’s complexity, plus 1 to 2 minutes for surveying responses.
Put a multiple-choice item, preferably a conceptual or application type, related to your mini-lecture on the board or a slide, and give four response options. Survey your students’ response options. You can also ask students to rate their confidence level in their answer. Then given them a minute to convince their neighbor of their answer, and resurvey their responses. This activity makes students apply and discuss your mini-lecture content while it’s fresh in their minds, and it immediately informs you how well they have understood the material. You can then clarify misconceptions before proceeding to new material. Time: 3 minutes, plus 1 to 3 minutes to debrief and answer questions.
Multiple-Choice Test Item
In contrast to the previous multiple-choice item task, this one puts students in pairs or small groups to compose multiple-choice items on your mini-lecture for a test you will give in the future. As we know, this is no easy task, so provide your students with some training in good test-item writing. Teach them Bloom’s taxonomy. Tell them the characteristics of possible distractors. Show them examples of well-constructed and poorly constructed items, then lower-order recall and higher-order thinking items. Students will be motivated to write test items you will want to use because they will know the answers to the ones they submitted. And you will never have to write multiple-choice items again. Nor will students ever again blame you for items they find tricky, ambiguous, or too hard. Of course, you should reserve the right to tweak their submissions. Time: 1 to 3 minutes for each item they write.
Listen, Recall, and Ask; Then Pair, Compare, and Answer
Students only listen to your mini-lecture, no more talking allowed. Then they open their notebooks and write down all the major points they can recall, as well as any questions they have. Instruct students to leave generous space between the major points they write down. Finally, they pair off with their neighbor and compare lecture notes, filling in what they may have missed and answering one another’s questions. Again, this activity makes students test themselves, and practice retrieval of your lecture content. Time: 3 to 4 minutes for individual note writing plus 2 to 4 minutes for pair fill-ins and question answering.
Students develop a concept map, mind map, thinking map, graphic organizer, picture, diagram, flow-chart, or matrix of your mini-lecture content in pairs or small groups. What they are actually doing is integrating and reassembling their understanding of the content into a big-picture graphic. It is one of the purest constructivist activities you can have them do, and it yields powerful learning benefits. Because these graphics provide you with deep insight into your students’ interpretation of the material, you may want to collect and peruse them. You may also want to return them with some feedback – at the very least, pointing out any misconceptions and oversimplifications they reveal. Time: 3 to 10 minutes in class.
Quick Case Study
Students debrief a short case study (one to four paragraphs) that requires them to apply your mini-lecture content to a realistic, problematic situation. Display a very brief case on a slide; put longer ones in a handout. You may add specific questions for students to answer or teach your class the standard debriefing formula: What is the problem? What is the remedy? What is the prevention? Instruct students to jot down their answers. Students can work individually or, better yet, in pairs or small groups. Time: 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the case length or complexity, plus 5 to 10 minutes for class exchange and discussion.
Pair/Group and Review
This is the same as the previous activity but with an essay question designed for pre-exam review. Randomly select student pairs or groups to present their answers to the class. Then mock-grade them based on your assessment criteria (explain these before the exercise). You can also have the rest of the class mock-grade these answers to help students learn how to assess their work. Time: 3 to 10 minutes, depending on the question’s complexity, plus 5 to 15 minutes for pair/group presentations.
For more strategies, see page 149 of Linda Nilson’s book, Teaching at its Best.
*Source: Nilson, L. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Copyright 2016 by Copyright Holder. Used with permission.
Assessing Learning at the End of your Lecture
In order to informally and quickly assess the degree to which your students picked up on the objectives of your lecture, consider the following strategies:
Ask your students to take two minutes to write everything they have noted or can remember about the main points of the lecture. Alternatively, you could ask them to focus on writing about a particularly challenging concept in your lecture. In addition to providing you with useful information about the effectiveness lecture, this technique increases attention and encourages careful note-taking. If you have a large class, you may want to collect all the papers, but only review a small, random sample. This strategy, as with all listed here, may be used to provide feedback about your lecture and do not need to be graded.
Short Online or Paper Quizzes
By offering an ungraded quiz at the end of the class, you provide your students with practice in retrieving the information and skills that shared in the lecture. You may choose to have them complete the quiz individually or collectively for discussion.
At the end of the lecture, ask your students to write down the strongest point that sticks out in their minds, and the point that is the least clear.
This can be a note that they submit to you on their way out that is either very open-ended – comments, questions, concerns – or a specific question about your teaching that you have them answer. Again, the point here is to gather information in order to improve teaching and learning.
Time for Questions
Plan for time to respond to questions at the end of the lecture. If you are teaching a large class and your schedule allows for it, stay afterwards to respond to any questions from students who may be too intimidated to speak up in front of the large group. If you have presented yourself as an approachable person, arriving early may also offer a chance for students to talk with you about their questions and concerns.
Wrapping up your Lecture
The summary component of the lecture is often overlooked or rushed through as the clock winds down. However, there is much to be gained by leaving students with a concise wrap-up. By bringing the ideas of the lecture together and linking them to a purpose or application you leave the students with a sense of meaning and perhaps even empowerment.
When preparing your wrap-up, consider whether your comments will encourage students to connect the ideas to their own experiences and values, as well as considering if they will encourage a link to application. When appropriate, locate the ideas of the lecture within the scope of the course, the discipline, and perhaps even beyond, considering how the ideas connect within other relevant disciplines and fields. Adult learners need to know that what they are learning has a purpose. By ending a dynamic lecture with a review of the purpose of your lecture, you send your students out the door with a sense of meaning in what they are learning.
Simple Ideas for Effective Lectures
- Provide students with a framework for each lecture
- Aim for three to five main points in each lecture.
- Begin the lecture with a high-level question that the upcoming information can answer.
- Prepare a handout of the lecture’s main points.
- During lecture, be explicit about what students should focus on.
- Don’t overload students
- Give students short breaks throughout lecture to review their notes and ask questions.
- Include a formal activity or assignment after every 15–20 minutes of presentation.
- Don’t use too many different types of presentation materials at once.
- Don’t give students two conflicting things to attend to at the same time.
- Students are also more likely to remember information that relates to ideas or experiences they are already familiar with.
- Use examples from student life, current events, or popular culture.
- Ask students to generate their own examples from personal experience.
- Tell students how new information relates to previous lectures in your course.
- Show students how specific skills can be applied to real-world problems.
- Create activities and assignments that ask students to fit new information into the overall themes of the course
* Source: How to Create Memorable Lectures. (2005). Newsletter on Teaching, Stanford University. 14 (1). 4. Retrieved from https://web.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/Newsletter/memorable_lectures.pdf
Bligh, D.A. (2000). What’s the use of lectures? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Bonwell, C.C., & Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1). Washington, DC: George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.
Mann, S. and Robinson, A. (2009). Boredom in the lecture theatre: An investigation into the contributors, moderators and outcomes of boredom amongst university students. British Educational Research Journal, 35: 243–258.
Middendorf, J., & Kalish, A. (1996). The “change-up” in lectures. National Teaching and Learning Forum, 5(2), 1-4.
Nilson, L. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.