Improving Lectures

Improving Lectures and Learning

Lecturing is the primary teaching technique used by many University faculty.  For centuries professors had to lecture, because of the lack of books and resources.  Today there is much more access to information on all topics, and even so lectures still predominate as the go-to teaching method at Universities.   Some reasons for this could be due to tradition, efficiency, and school infrastructure.  Tradition because we deduce that the method must work, because we were taught by professors who used lectures and we learned from them.  Efficiency because it is assumed that creating a lecture is less time intensive than creating a lesson plan using a variety of other methods, and if more students are admitted into the class there is less time/resources needed to add them.  School infrastructure because Universities throughout the decades have invested in creating classrooms that are best used to deliver lectures (unmovable seats all directed toward the front, etc.) and it is difficult for faculty to work around this.

Lectures do and don’t have their place.  A number of educational research studies on the effectiveness of lectures has been conducted throughout the years and this information is summarized below using Bates (2016), (Bligh, (2000) Freeman, et. al (2014) and Prince (2004).         

  1. Lectures are as effective as other methods for transmitting information (video, reading, independent study- note that these are also just as effective as lecturing).
  2. Lectures aren’t as effective for promoting thought as discussion.
  3. Lectures are ineffective for changing attitudes, values, and perspectives or for inspiring interest in a subject.
  4. Lectures are ineffective for teaching behavioral skills.
  5. Lectures made available in a recorded format increases learning effectiveness, as it allows for greater time on task with students who review or repeat views/listening to the lecture.
  6. Lectures are more effective if the video or audio is chunked into smaller segments and if activities are built in to allow students to interact with the information.  
  7. Lectures may be more effective if they only last 20-30 minutes and are combined with active learning techniques to help students to understand, analyze, apply and commit information into long-term memory.

If you are going to Lecture- then how do you add Active Learning Techniques?

Think about how to chunk your lecture.  Say if you have 50 minutes of time consider 15-20 minutes of lecture to cover a concept or principle and then use one of the Active Learning Techniques listed below for you to understand errors in student thinking (misconceptions), and to help students improve their understanding of the material by keeping them engaged and thinking about and using the concepts or skills presented immediately.  Active learning helps students build neural connections so they can better recall information in the future and transfer it to novel settings.   It also helps them connect better with other students and the instructor increasing their motivation to learn.

 1. Question-Think-Pair-Share-Question:  End your segment with a thought provoking question about the information shared.   Have students answer the question to their ability on a sheet of paper, then get with another student to share each other’s answers. If both students are confused they can ask the instructor to share his/her answer to the Question.   Why do this?  Students can quickly discover their own errors in thinking and correct them.  If both students are confused by the question you posed you can handle the misconception right then and there. 

 2. Problems:  Post a problem on the screen for students to work on individually.  Give them time to work it out and then go through the problem as a group.  A variation may be to have a problem worked out yourself (that is incorrect) and ask students to find out where it is incorrect. Why do this?  First practice with the material is important and doing it during the lecture can help you better know where to focus. 

 3. Lecture Bingo:  create a bingo sheet with major concepts or principles listed in each square.  Pass out the Bingo sheet before class and ask students to mark off each bingo square when they understand the concept listed.  Pause mid-lecture to have students to have students check their own understanding with another student.  Give out a treat at the end of the lecture to all those who say they understand the concept.  Have students who don’t have all the concepts listed to review that night/check with others to get their treat the next day.  Why do this?  The bingo sheet can serve as a way to write down lecture notes; sharing understanding with another student helps to solidify understanding or identify misconceptions; and a treat at the end of the lecture is just a fun way to say the professor cares about your understanding/learning. 

4. Circle the Questions:  pre-make a handout that has a dozen likely questions specific to the lecture.  Ask students to circle the ones they don’t know and turn the paper in.  Why do this?  Questions can get at deeper meaning, this is a way for you to know if your lecture actually helped students understand.  If the instructor reads through what students aren’t understanding they can address this at the next class or what to address during the lab period.

 5. Real-World: Have students discuss in class how a topic or concept relates to a real world application or product. Then have students write about this topic for homework. Variation: ask them to record their answer on index cards.  Why do this?  Transfer is important to the learning process, students who can see application to concepts or skills taught are going to have an easier time using the concept/skill in the future.  Practice doing this is important.

 6. Directed Paraphrasing:  Have students to paraphrase part of the lecture for a specific audience (and a specific purpose- i.e. how would you share this lecture concept to plant breeding industry employees, how would you explain it to a friend or relative, etc.)  Why do this?  This exercise asks students to do a complicated task- sharing with others about complex material in a simple way.  This helps build neural connections and checks their own understanding.

7. Truth Statements – Either to introduce a topic or check comprehension, ask individuals to list out “It is true that...” statements on the topic being discussed. The ensuing discussion might illustrate how ambiguous knowledge is sometimes.  Why do this?  If you do this before you start the lecture, you may discover what they already know about the topic or what they don’t understand.  This also may help with motivating them to seek out why the statement is true or false from the material you share. 

8. Note Clarification- Interrupt your 50 minute lecture three times with 2 minute breaks during which students work in pairs to clarify their notes.  Why do this?  A study by Ruhl et al ( 1987) showed that short-term recall of the material presented in class improved and long-term retention did as well.  It is believed that attention wanes after 15-20 minutes and this exercise can assist with lecture listening fatigue.

Try one adding one or more of these to your lecture and share how it went?  Do you have other Active Learning techniques to spice up your lecture?  Add them in the discussion board.


Bligh, D. (2000) What’s the Use of Lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Freeman, S. Eddy, S., McDonough, M., Smith, M., Okorafor, N. Jordt, H. & Wenderoth, M.  (2014).  Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.  Retrieved from:

Bates, T. (2016).   Why Lectures are dead or soon will be.  Online Learning and distance education resources.  Moderated by Tony Bates, Research Associate.   Retrieved from:

Prince, M.  (2004).  Does Active Research Work?  A Review of the Research.  Retrieved from:

Ruhl, K., Hughes, C & Schloss, P.  (1987). Using the Pause Procedure to Enhance Lecture Recall. Teacher Education and Special Education, 10, pp. 14-18.