Crafting Effective Lectures

Decorative: A medieval miniature image of a (medieval) lecture from Bologna


A. "Do Students Really Learn Nothing From a Lecture" (post) and "Is It Ever Okay to Lecture?" (post) engage what some view as a fundamental incompatibility between lecturing and "active learning."

  • Yet, lecturing as telling has intrinsic value.
  • So also does lecturing that engages active listening.

1. "Is It Ever Okay to Lecture?" rightly points out the following:

  • "Telling is a time-tested and efficient way to communicate information."
  • "Just try to keep the strengths and weaknesses of lecturing in mind."
  • "The most effective teaching involves looking to communicate information in inefficient ways — that is, in ways that make students work to understand the information, and not just listen passively."

2. Also pro-(effective)-lecture, "Do Students Really Learn Nothing From a Lecture" notes the following basic reality: 

  • "If we care, if we are entertained, if it matters to us, we pay attention to what we are watching and listening to in a way that helps the material stick."

3. Both posts then offer useful suggestions on how to make lectures effective:

  • To move away from "continuous exposition by the teacher" and
  • To move towards lecturing that engages students and produces long-lasting learning.

B. Lecturing as Telling: Pros and Cons ("Is It Ever Okay to Lecture?")

1. "Telling is an excellent method of communicating specific information."

"[T]here are plenty of occasions when our students need specific information ... [when] you can take the easiest route from A to B and just tell (i.e., lecture) your students."

  • "To communicate important facts"
  • "[T]o illustrate a concept with a story of its application"
  • "[T]o explain the historical origins of a conflict"

2. "What telling is not good for":

  • "[T]eaching students complex ideas, conceptual knowledge, or difficult skills."

C. Going Beyond Telling: Shaping Effective Lectures (from "Do Students Really Learn Nothing From a Lecture")

1. Consider "faculty mind-set."

"What matters more than the particular teaching techniques you use ... is the spirit in which you use them."

  • "[I]f instructors ha[ve] a 'growth mind-set' — that is, if they believe that intelligence is something that can be developed — their students ten[d] to do well."
  • "The mind-set that you bring to the college classroom is far more important than your lesson plans."

2. "[T]hin[k] about how students learn as you prepare [your lecture]."

  • "Learning works through active engagement by the learner."
  • "Only students can do the work of learning."
  • "[A]ll the instructor can do is try to create the conditions within which students are more likely to do that work."
  • "[O]ur role" is basically "as facilitators of learning."

3. "[L]ecture ... [j]ust not continuously."

  • "A well-timed explanation can be very effective at promoting student learning."
  • "[E]ntic[e] students to see a difficult subject in a new light."
  • Break up a lecture "with opportunities for students to respond, collaborate, and apply and practice skills."

4. Other Options to Enrich the Lecture Experience (from "Is It Ever Okay to Lecture?")

a. "Supplement periods of telling with activities in which students can then put to use the information we tell them."

  • "Design activities that allow students to integrate the new information into their prior knowledge and make new concepts."
  • "Think about how to prime students to receive a lecture [i.e. 'to listen actively'], by creating activities that reveal to them the gaps in their own knowledge."

b. Employ "naive tasks."

  • "[A]s[k] students to complete a challenge for which they don’t yet have enough knowledge" -- then provide "[a] short lecture on those very topics ... after students first try to solve the puzzle on their own."
  • "Naïve tasks work well because they reveal to students the gaps in their knowledge — gaps that your lecture can fill."

c. "Another way to reveal those knowledge gaps to students is through testing."

  • "[H]an[d] out a 10-question, multiple-choice quiz at the beginning of class, and ha[ve] students fill it out during the class ... [with] [a]ll of the answers ... revealed at some point during that day’s lecture and discussion."
  • Or, "have students attempt the quiz before the lecture, thus revealing to them all that they don’t know. Then give students a chance to change their answers as they learn from your lecture."

D. See also

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