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Effective Lecturing

Lecturing is, perhaps, the mostly commonly used teaching method.  However, lecture has not been shown to be the most effective teaching method in a number of different situations. Lecturing can be effective, when carefully planned and supplemented with other teaching methods. 

When is a lecture beneficial?

McKeachie and Svinicki (2006, pg. 58) believe that lecturing is best used for:

  • Providing up-to-date material that can’t be found in one source.
  • Summarizing material found in a variety of sources.
  • Adapting material to the interests of a particular group.
  • Initially helping students discover key concepts, principles or ideas and model expert thinking.

Lecture is also appropriate for large audiences; however, even with a large audience, a lecture should be supplemented with other teaching techniques. 

What are some of the disadvantages of lecture?

Cognitive function, even the lowest levels such as recalling and remembering, rely on the learner’s mental (and, perhaps, physical) activity.  In order to understand, analyze, apply, and commit information to long-term memory, the learner must actively engage with the material.  Lecture has been shown to be a very passive endeavor.  In order for a lecture to be effective, it must include activities that compel the student to mentally manipulate the information.

What are some essential considerations for a lecture?

  • Enthusiasm: both for the subject and students’ ability to learn it.
  • Expert thinking: Learners look to the teacher for not only content (facts), but an expert’s way to think about the content.  Help them structure their thinking by providing scaffolding, examples, metaphors, and relationships between the material and everyday life.
  • Telling ≠ learning: Consider yourself a ‘teacher of thinking’ not a ‘dispenser of facts.’
  • Thinking takes time: Realize students need time to think about the material and adjust your pace accordingly. Rapid coverage of material results in rapid note-taking from students and little time to process the information.  Most students will only memorize, and not try to understand, large volumes of material that are covered quickly. 
  • Learning needs to be learned: Students need additional time to process and need more structure early in the semester.    As the course progresses, you can shift to activities that ask the student to perform higher level cognitive functions.  Be sure to make the students aware of your plan to change the course format.
  • Engagement: Students must be engaged in order to retain and understand the material.  You can help students gain understanding by:
    • Providing a clear opening and summary of sections of the lecture.  In addition to verbal cues about openings and closures, consider such non-verbal cues as walking from one area to another to signal change.
    • Lecturing for no more than twenty minutes before employing an activity. Some activities could include:
      • Having students share notes with each other and talk about discrepancies in their notes.
      • CPS
      • Thoughtful questions followed by the think-pair-share technique and reporting out of answers
      • One- minute Papers
      • Asking students to put their notepads away for five minutes, and then giving them a few minutes to summarize what you have just said.  This works well for helping students to understand concepts.
      • Using analogy, examples, and metaphors.  Better yet, ask students to provide an analogy.
      • Using classroom assessment techniques
    • Providing a lecture outline only, rather than a complete set of your notes.
  • Cool is not always cool: Resist the temptation to use anything just for its “cool factor.”  Any technique, audiovisual, and/or technology must be used because it fits the goals and objectives of the course, not just because it’s cool.

What is the format of a good lecture?

  • Introduction
    This should include a call for questions from previous material, an overview of today’s class and how today’s class fits into the bigger scheme of the course.  Also consider a brief summary of the previous class, but resist the temptation to completely review old material. The summary serves only to trigger memories.  (As an alternative, have a student or student group briefly summarize the previous class.)
  • Body
    The purpose of the body is to improve students understanding of a few points, not cover material in great depth (students can gain understanding by reading).    Concentrate on your objectives for today’s class, summarize the main points of those objectives, and provide students with examples of your main points.
    Again, if the purpose of your lecture is to cover great amounts of content, do not expect students to understand the material, just to have memorized it.  If you must cover great amounts of material, you must provide students some other activity that provokes student engagement.  This “engaging material” can be homework, online discussions, or written assignments.
  • Checking for understanding
    Remember to leave time for students’ questions, but don’t use students’ head nods and amount or level of questions as your only means of checking for understanding. The use of classroom assessment techniques greatly improves both your and your students’ understanding of what they really know.
  • Conclusion
    This signals a clear ending to the class’ activities.  The conclusion should provide a wrap-up of the day’s activities, major points, how the class fit into the course objectives, and previews upcoming activities.  Consider having students provide a list of the major points as part of your wrap up activity and check for understanding.

Should I use lecture notes?

We all need help in remembering the class’ activities.  However, your lecture notes should serve as only an outline, not a script to be read verbatim.   Here are more hints about lecture notes:

  • Resist the temptation to use PowerPoint as your narrative.  Do not place all information on your slides and proceed to read from your slides.  Your slides should only contain a few bullet points to remind you of the activity/topic and provide your students with an outline.
  • Highlight, in color, the main points of your lecture.  If all else fails, you will be able to quickly recognize your main points.
  • Write cues to yourself in the margin.  Remind yourself to “slow down here,” “have students take a stretch break,” or “have students work in pairs here.”

Other hints

  • Vary your speech pattern, including tone of voice and speed, and gestures.
  • In order to spark interested in your topic, start your lecture with a problem or controversy.  Refer to this problem or controversy during the lecture as you make your main points.  Use the problem or controversy in your wrap up. 
  • Ensure your audience can hear and see you and your AV.
  • Give the students a pre-planner; write the topic and outline of today’s class on the board and go through it as part of your introduction.
  • Stress important points several times and make the most important points part of your active learning/student engagement technique.


Final thoughts

Students are used to lectures that are passive and cover a large amount of material.  If you expect students to read ahead of time and plan to use your lectures to summarize or apply material, you must convince students this is a better use of their time and cognitive abilities.  For hints on how to do this, visit ‘Managing Student Resistance.”

References and Additional Reading

  • Cashin, W. E. Improving Lectures. Center for Faculty Evaluationh and Development, University of Kansis.  Accessed on June 4, 2007 at http://www.theideacenter.org/sites/default/files/Idea_Paper_14.pdf
  • Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. Jossey Bass: San Franscisco
    McKeachie, W. J. & Svinicky, M. (2006). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (12th ed.) Houghton Mifflin: Boston
Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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