Adopting some simple strategies can improve the effectiveness of our lectures and increase student engagement – and they don't need to take very much time to implement.
Though the lecture has been a part of teaching for thousands of years, the benefits of lecturing have been debated for a good chunk of those years. There is no denying that a great lecture can inspire and empower. A moving and exciting orator can ignite in their listeners a passion and desire to learn more. However, what many lectures do is bore and pacify (Mann & Robinson, 2009), and this doesn’t have to be the case. Some feel that the role of the instructor is to deliver material – in other words, lecture – and it is up to students to engage with content. 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. But the reality is that most of us feel the pressure to convey a lot of information to students in not a lot of time and, therefore, often need to lecture to convey that information to students. Thankfully, we do not have to throw out our lecture notes and radically alter our teaching to help students better engage with and learn lecture content. There are a number of simple strategies available to improve the effectiveness of our lectures that take very little time (see the suggestions 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 not always a very effective way to support both foundational thinking (knowledge retrieval) and higher-level thinking (critical thinking, analysis, creative work, etc.), 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 faculty members see as part of their identity as an instructor. Many instructors are charged with teaching very large classes, which lends itself to the lecture mode. There may also be some pressure among instructors to conform to a certain mode of teaching in what are called ‘content-heavy’ courses in which a great deal of material is ‘covered’. 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 dynamic and effective? The following sections will offer some suggestions.
A dynamic lecture begins with something that grabs the students’ attention. Students have busy lives with a lot of demands on their time. Even though a student may have made it to your class, this does not mean you may have their full attention. Beginning with a hook, such as a real-world, relevant example from the news, a problem to consider/solve, a funny cartoon or thought-provoking quotation, or a compelling anecdote or story, can engage your students and make them want to know more. Sharing a story or anecdote is particularly powerful because people remember stories. A good story can provide context for the ideas that you present and can also neatly tie theory to practice. It should also be noted that humans have story-telling in their blood – it is arguably the oldest form of lecture. Through most of our human history it’s how we have communicated and received ideas about the world. Regardless of which type of hook use prefer to use, the most effective hooks are ones that connect the course content in real and practical ways to the students’ own world and make them think and reflect – be it on past course concepts or on concepts still to be explored. With an effective hook, you can get students ready to see why a particular topic is interesting and important. Thankfully, the hook does not need to take much time from the lecture, and the types of hooks you can use are nearly endless. However you grab students’ attention, once you have ‘hooked’ them, your task as a lecturer becomes easier.
Identify the purpose of your lecture
When preparing for a class, consider what you want your students to be able to know or do by the end of your lecture. It is not uncommon for students to leave a lecture wondering what the point of that lecture was. As experts in our fields, we easily see the connections between ideas and the respective relevance of topics. Students, however, sometimes grapple with being able to extract the key points from a lecture and their relevance to the larger course goals. By sharing your objectives with students, you make the purpose of your lecture more explicit and help students focus on the main take-aways from your lecture. Sharing the objectives can be as simple as displaying them on a presentation slide or the classroom whiteboard. It is good practice to refer to the specific objectives as they are addressed during the lecture and again at the end of the lecture in summary. Helping students understand what a lecture is going to be about will aid with student engagement, which is essential to effective lecturing.
Use a variety of methods to complement your lecture
Research strongly indicates that human attention span begins to evaporate somewhere between 10 to 15 minutes (Bligh, 2000; Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Middendorf & Kalish, 1996).
So, during a ninety-minute lecture, most of your students are likely tuning in and out for much of the time, no matter how great an orator you may be. Many of your words may simply be floating over their heads as your students struggle to focus their attention. However, maintaining students’ attention does not mean that the lecture has to be abandoned. To make your lecture more effective, divide it 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.)
Short and simple exercises in between mini-lectures can serve as opportunities:
• For students to have a ‘brain break’, allowing students to reset.
• For students to self- or peer-check their comprehension.
• For you to gauge students’ level of comprehension and identify any concepts that may need to be readdressed.
Examples from Linda Nilson
Below are some examples from Linda Nilson’s (2016) excellent book, Teaching at its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors (p. 147-149).
Pair and compare
Students pair off with their neighbor and compare lecture notes, filling in what they 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.
Please visit our Active Learning webpage for some additional examples of short, active learning strategies. (The strategies listed increase in length of time required.)
Assessing learning at the end of your lecture
In order to assess informally and quickly 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 can remember about the main points of the lecture. If you have a large class, you may want to collect all the papers, but only review a small, random sample.
By offering an ungraded quiz at the end of the class (paper or via Mentimeter or iClicker, for example), you provide your students with a chance to demonstrate what they’ve learned during the lecture and an opportunity to see what concepts you think are most important to remember.
At the end of the lecture, ask your students to write down the concept of idea from the lecture that is the least clear to them. Students can submit paper copies or through UM Learn. Review the muddiest points and be sure to address students concerns during the next class.
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, particularly if you have not had much time to do so during the lecture. If your schedule allows it, stay afterwards to respond to any questions from students who may feel uncomfortable speaking up in class. Arriving early to class may also offer a chance for students to talk with you about their questions and concerns.
This information gleaned from these quick activities also helps you identify students’ understanding of the lecture content and shows students that you care about their learning. Be sure to review these exit slips and make time to address any points raised when you next see students.
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 can leave students with a sense of meaning and 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 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.
University students 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.
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Centre for Teaching Excellence. (n.d.) Lecturing effectively. University of Waterloo.
Centre for Teaching Excellence. (n.d.) Nine alternatives to lecturing. University of Waterloo.
Finley, T. (2014, January 28). Are you not entertained? How to build a dynamic lecture. Edutopia.
Harrington, C., & Zakrajsek, T. D. (2017). Dynamic lecturing: Research-based strategies to enhance lecture effectiveness. Stylus Publishing.
Bligh, D. A. (2000). What’s the use of lectures? Jossey-Bass.
Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom.
ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, Washington DC: School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University.
Mann, S., & 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(2), 243-258.
Middendorf, J., & Kalish, A. (1996). The “change-up” in lectures. The National Teaching & Learning Forum, 5(2), 1-5.
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