It can be challenging to deliver a really good lecture that engages students, makes them think, and leads to significant and lasting learning – but scholarship on teaching and learning suggests when and how to lecture to support student learning. Much of the advice offered here pertains to any kind of lecture, but there are some special considerations for teaching online. Jump to the bottom of the page if you’re eager to see those.
Limitations of lectures
The attention of an average adult flags after fifteen or twenty minutes, and the quality of note taking diminishes even faster (Barkley and Major, 8-9; Major, et al., 8-10). In an unorganized lecture, understanding and retention are worse, even for students who have effective note-taking strategies. Students don’t remember much from lectures – not just because human beings are easily distracted, but because the brain needs time to process information (Nilson, 141-3).
In a traditional lecture, information flows in one direction, with the instructor doing most of the work, and many students become passive. It can be tricky to stimulate critical thinking in the format. In addition, even if a few students ask questions at the end, often instructors don’t know whether most of the students understood the lecture content.
Based on these constraints, it’s more useful to think about when a lecture is a good method and how to lecture in ways that increase our chances of engaging students, making sure they understand the content, and are successfully performing the skills and ways of thinking that meet our learning goals.
When to lecture
If done well, lectures can effectively convey information, enliven facts and ideas, and ensure that students have access to a common core of content. They can also provide an opportunity to demonstrate how an expert works in a discipline or field – that is, how to approach and solve problems, build arguments, or analyze or texts, images, data, or ideas. Appropriate “times for telling” include times when students need to know things that are not present in other courses materials. Lectures can supplement readings or other materials by offering context, alternative perspectives, examples, or problems.
Lectures are best when they have a clear purpose. In their book on lecturing, Barkley and Major encourage instructors to think carefully about “the big why” (why they’re using a lecture instead of another method or medium for specific content) and “the little why” (how a specific lecture will support their learning goals for today’s class session).
What to do about challenges related to attention
Give shorter, targeted lectures
“Lecturettes” of 15-20 minutes are easier for learners to handle, and even shorter chunks are recommended when recording for an online course. If necessary, you can deliver a couple of short lectures during a class period or give one lecturette and add in a mini or micro lecture of just a few minutes explanation.
Shorter lectures not only help students, but force instructors to be laser-focused on their learning goals. You can consider the many other ways students can learn material, inside or outside of class time, and be sure to hold them responsible for doing it. That might include listening to lectures given by you or others outside of class.
Be an engaging lecturer
Instructors don’t have to be entertainers, but if you’ve ever sat through a boring meeting or lecture, you know that presentation style does matter. Instructors can spur curiosity at the beginning of a lecture with a provocative question, problem, or video clip. Lecturers can connect the content to students’ emotions, which is helpful because emotions spur motivation to work and contribute to information being remembered.
Projecting enthusiasm, optimism, confidence, and passion for the content makes a difference – whether lecturing remotely or in person. So does occasionally using dramatic pauses or changes in volume, gestures, relevant stories, carefully chosen humor, thought-provoking images, audio visuals, music, or props. When giving a lecture in a face-to-face class, moving around the room and making eye contact with many students can help focus attention (as well as conveying warmth and your concern for students’ understanding).
Build in pauses in longer lectures
During pauses, you can prompt students to organize or refine their notes and give their brains a chance to consolidate their learning. Pauses also offer an opportunity for students to think in ways you’ve prompted – and to do something more active or interactive, too. You control how long the pause is – whether a few minutes or a longer chunk of class time. See “interactive lecturing” below for some options for what to have students do during pauses.
What to do about challenges related to understanding and retention
Build in transparency and organization
Students need to understand the purpose and the organization of the lecture. Good “signposts” include outlines at the beginning (verbally and on slides or the board) and helpful phrases along the way, such as, “The second interpretation…”; “What kind of evidence I have for that? Well, one piece is…”; “If you remember nothing else from this lecture, I hope you’ll remember….”
Slides or other graphic organizers can support students’ understanding if they reinforce what the instructor is saying orally. If using slides, make sure they don’t include too much text on each slide. Too much information can be distracting or confusing if students are trying to both listen and read at the same time. Research shows that slowing down the pace of a lecture can help comprehension (Major, et al., 12).
It’s useful for the instructor or the students to reflect on a lecture’s key points. A “power closing” may connect back to the beginning of the lecture, include a call to action, and/or set students up for the next work they’ll be doing.
Interactive lecturing blends lecture and active learning, intentionally pausing the lecture and building in moments when students do something – on their own or with others – that achieves a learning goal. Active learning reduces the potential problem of student passivity during lecture. As educational consultant Terry Doyle put it, “The one who does the work is the one who does the learning. If students are to learn, then it must be their brains that do the work. We must be the designers and facilitators of that work” (Doyle, 3-4). Active learning can ensure that students think critically about content presented in lecture, and if designed well, this process improves student understanding and retention.
So what exactly should students do in the pauses during lectures? That depends on one’s discipline and specific goals, of course, but below are a few possibilities.
Check students’ understanding – by having them:
- Summarize in their own words or list the main points they just heard
- Check, consolidate, or annotate their notes – or have them trade notes with a nearby student and then discuss or revise them
- Answer a challenging multiple-choice or open-ended question that tests their understanding (perhaps with a classroom response system, perhaps with a paired discussion before or after answering it)
- Submit one question (via paper or an online tool) or to write on the “muddiest point” on the material they heard in the lecture
- Find and correct an error in a statement, equation, visual, premise, etc. that you have intentionally introduced
Use or apply the information
- Analyze or critique something from the lecture
- Analyze or solve a new case, example, or problem using the technique, concept, or information just presented
- Consider the implications of the information
- Brainstorm other situations when the content might be relevant
- Predict the ending to a story or case or form a hypothesis to explain something from the lecture
- Consider an alternative perspective and/or evaluate the merits of different positions or perspectives
Connect or reflect
- Compare or contrast information from the lecture to other situations, texts, works, methods, theories, models, problems, or events
- Draw (in writing, images, words, etc.) connections between the information or concepts from the lecture to other course information or concepts
- Develop their own opinion on the lecture
- Connect the lecture to their own experiences, prior knowledge, or future life or work
- Consider why they’ve done the work (how it relates to course goals, the discipline)
Active learning often involves giving students a chance to practice the ways of thinking or skills that we want them to learn. As you plan, keep in mind that both instructors and students underestimate the amount of practice required for deep learning and retention.
After giving students a chance to practice skills or thinking, it’s useful to take a little time to allow students to share their work with someone else (a partner, small group, or the whole class). As you listen, you get immediate feedback on the degree to which students understand. If necessary, you can provide oral feedback or do some re-explaining, or if students have a good grasp on the material, begin presenting new content.
Remote teaching poses some challenges for lectures and other forms of instruction. Teaching synchronously can be challenging for students who may be grappling with connectivity issues, limited access to computers or software, and distractions – all making it hard to access the lecture at a specific time. In these days of heightened stress and uncertainty due to the pandemic, students’ attention capacity is very likely to be further diminished. Therefore, keeping lectures short and saving them as recordings that students can watch as many times as they like is very helpful for learning.
For longer lectures, in some platforms (such as YouTube and Vimeo), instructors can hyperlink to specific timecodes in the video, in effect adding a “table of contents” to a video.
It’s also more challenging to build collaborative student-student interactions into synchronous lectures than it is during face-to-face teaching. Some videoconferencing tools easily accommodate breakout rooms, but others don’t. If there aren’t breakout rooms, in a synchronous environment you might ask students to use a classroom response tool like Poll Everywhere or Socrative to answer questions you’ve posed, work together in a Google document, or talk via text messaging or an app like GroupMe. Then once they’ve collaborated, you can ask a few students to report their ideas orally, share a document in the conference window, or use the chat feature.
Teaching asynchronously allows instructors to record and post their lectures in a common space like Moodle. It makes it easy to post short, targeted lectures, and to add videos and other materials in an organized fashion that students can view at times that work for them. Recorded lectures may also include closed captioning so that students with hearing limitations or distractions in their workspace understand a lecture’s content.
While student-student interactions lose the real-time give-and-take in an asynchronous class, it is possible to incorporate valuable reflections, worksheets, online quizzes, collaborative documents, and discussion boards.
Use the resources from TLT to learn how to use the technology that meets your learning goals.
Barkley, Elizabeth F. and Claire Howell Major. Interactive Lecturing: A Handbook for College Faculty. Jossey-Bass, 2018.
Bruff, Derek. “Lecturing.” CFT Teaching Guide. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.
Cavanagh, Sarah Rose. The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia University Press, 2016. See especially 40, 95, 100, 212-3.
Doyle, Terry Doyle. Learner-Centered Teaching: Putting the Research on Learning into Practice. Stylus, 2011. Quote is from pp. 3-4.
“Effective Lecturing.” Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning.
Major, Claire Howell, Michael S. Harris, and Todd Zakrajsek. “The Lecture Method.” In Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success. Routledge, 2016.
Middendorf, Joan, and Alan Kadish. “The ‘Change-up’ in Lectures.” Indiana University Teaching Resources Center, 1995.
Nilson, Linda B. “Making the Lecture a Learning Experience.” In Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. 4th ed. Jossey-Bass, 2016.
Barkley, Elizabeth F. Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. Jossey-Bass, 2010.
For tips on how to make your video lectures look good without high-tech tools, explore Jacob Michaels’ series of short videos, “Engaging Students Through Video.”
1. Introduction: https://youtu.be/j_TyfyuXO_Y
2. Shot Composition: https://youtu.be/5o1B3vKOtlY
3. Lighting: https://youtu.be/N7HK4Z8UQGc
4. Audio: https://youtu.be/WD35IDcqntk
5. Finishing: https://youtu.be/4eSVodv9kgk