The lecture is a commonplace in many academic disciplines; also commonplace, however, are concerns that lectures can be unengaging, unproductive, a haven for uncreative teaching, even unfair (e.g., to women, students of color, first-generation students, etc.) or unethical. Proponents, on the other hand, note that the lecture is simply a tool—a tool that, like most others, can be used poorly or, with some knowledge and forethought, effectively.
As we say on our Active Learning page, “Active learning is an approach to education that does not consider students the passive recipients of knowledge transmitted from an expert, but rather, active agents in their own learning,” and we know from considerable research that active learning techniques improve student learning. On the other hand, professors are, ideally, experts, and do have crucial information and experience to share, particularly in courses where one of the primary objectives is helping students absorb a critical mass of accumulated knowledge. But there’s no reason to consider these ideas mutually exclusive. The question is not “How can we replace lectures?”—in some large classes, lectures are downright unavoidable—but “How can we make lectures more active?”
There are many ways. Pauses in the midst of a lecture can refresh attention spans, break up material before it becomes overwhelming, and offer opportunities to get students involved. You can solicit participation from students in a variety of ways—asking for a show of hands supporting one conclusion or another, collecting opinions and responses from students via electronic clickers or Poll Everywhere, inviting questions when you see confusion on several faces—and allowing plenty of silent time, as necessary, for people to figure out how to articulate their questions. You can also uses pauses to ask students to actively process the material, whether via small group (or pair) discussion; a quick jotting down of ideas/questions; a brief, ungraded quiz; a quiet moment to think things through; or any of a variety of other possibilities. See our page on Active Learning for ideas, or see below for additional resources.
These techniques break down the wall between professor and students, which shifts the dynamic from a performance that students passively attend to a learning experience in which students participate. This new dynamic makes it more likely that students will see you as an approachable resource, and it helps to build classroom community. You can support this shift by learning student names when possible, by paying close attention to student reactions as you lecture, by soliciting student feedback—by recognizing, as Georgetown Professor Heidi Elmendorf advises, that a professor’s job is to teach not material but students.
Instead of starting with the idea of material that has to be covered, you can prepare effective lectures by first asking yourself the same questions that should apply to any class session:
Once you’ve answered these questions, design your lecture not to simply cover material but so that it will take the class where you want it to go. We explore this further on our Planning and Leading Class page. And consider sharing your goals explicitly with students—it’ll help focus their attention on what matters.
Georgetown professor Heidi Elmendorf on lecturing as story-telling
When we start thinking of the lecture as more than a one-way dissemination of information, we necessarily have to start thinking of the role of the student in making the experiences effective. There are skills involved in identifying, noting, and assimilating the crucial points in a lecture—not to mention demonstrating one’s understanding on a test, or in a paper or other assessment—and we aren’t born with these skills; we have to learn them. Unfortunately, many students arrive in our classrooms with insufficient training in these skills. (See this article by Annie Murphy Paul for the ways that this disparity breaks down along demographic lines.) One solution is active learning, which, as discussed above, brings benefits to all students, and particularly those who tend to be underserved by lectures. But we can also help our students develop the ability to engage and learn when teaching is less interactive.
A good first step is to explicitly acknowledge the fact that learning skills and study skills are themselves the result of learning and practice, so that students don’t attribute their sometimes-painful growth curve to inborn (and unchangeable) limitations. Discussing this in class can be enormously helpful, and you can go over things like note-taking, highlighting, identifying key points, and more, with the full group in front of you. Beyond class, encourage students to meet with you in office hours to discuss class lectures, so that they can learn to see—and shrink—the gap between what they think you were teaching and what you actually intended to teach. (Of course, sometimes the gap is the result of your own not-fully-successful methods, which means that these office hours meetings can help you, too.) These meetings are also a great place to look at the student’s note-taking and to discuss study habits when papers and tests are coming up. Meetings between students and teaching assistants can be similarly helpful.
Technology can support clarity. Slides can, if used properly, help students identify the main points of a lecture, and you can be explicit in identifying those as you go. Lecture capture allows students to access lectures outside of class as many times as they need, at whatever pace and with however many pauses the students need.
To the extent that a lecture does involve the transmission or sharing of knowledge, it’s obviously important to make sure that the knowledge is coming through clearly. A few tips:
Please reach out to us at email@example.com if you'd like to have a conversation with someone at CNDLS about these or other teaching issues.