Many of us can recall lectures that made indelible impacts on our intellectual pursuits. Even if the presenter did little to make the lecture engaging or dynamic, the delivery of meaningful content can alter our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. Imagine, then, the potential for every lecture if the instructor implements strategies to make the audience active subjects of participation rather than passive receivers of information. As instructors, we need to figure out how to combine content delivery with active learning. This page will tackle the problem of the lecture format by pointing out its strengths, its weaknesses, and, most importantly, how students understand courses that are predominately structured as lectures.

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Creating meaningful lectures

In “Improving Lectures,” William E. Cashin provides several suggestions for effective lecturing and presenting of material. First, it is important to remember that the appropriateness of the lecture format is dependent on the goals of the course. This means that as instructors we must evaluate our course goals before determining whether a lecture-style course will most effectively achieve those goals. We should always consider the potential benefits and limitations of presenting course material through lecture. For example, one strength of the lecture is that it “can communicate the intrinsic interest of the subject matter, and it can present the newest developments” (Walker & McKeachie, 1967).

Another strength of the lecture format is its ability to restructure information in a unique manner, relevant to the course directions. Lectures are also useful in that they provide a large amount of material to many students at the same time. Finally, they can also be used as examples for how professionals approach an intellectual question.

The negative aspects of lecturing include the lack of feedback that students and instructors receive, the presumption that all students are learning the material at the same pace, and the problem that lectures are not well suited for higher levels of thinking, such as those involved in synthesis and application. 

To overcome these hurdles, Cashin offers several recommendations for increasing the effectiveness of lectures:

  • Fit your lecture to your audience by gathering information about your students early in the semester—beginning with the first day of class.
  • Prepare an organized outline with 5–9 major points, and decide which minor points you will include. Present this outline at the beginning of class.
  • Present multiple sides to an issue to make your audience aware of various viewpoints, or to help strengthen an argument you are making.
  • Repeat the points you are making in two or three different ways, and stress the points you deem most important.
  • Look at your audience, include discussions, and solicit questions.

Another way to enhance your lecture is with whiteboards. Students’ notes are often an exact copy of what appeared on a whiteboard, with only some additional points or connections. Effective board work highlights and emphasizes the organization required in problem-solving or presenting the evolution of an argument. Remember that even the best students will occasionally lose the thread of a lesson or forget the original objective of a discussion. The whiteboard is their major, and often their only, resource for reentering the lesson. Therefore, be organized, use headings, write clearly, and when solving problems on the board, show each step in a logical sequence. If at the end of a lecture, you can stand back, look at the board, and reconstruct the lecture using what is written, then you are developing good board skills.

Another word of advice on using a whiteboard: write down student responses on the board, not just your own ideas. When students see their ideas reflected back at them, when their own words become an integral component of the course, they will feel more involved with the material. Quote them, ask them to repeat themselves, and encourage them to see how their contributions to the course can provide the basis for collaborative learning.

Lectures can also serve as a mechanism for encouraging higher levels of thinking in your students. In What’s the Use of Lectures?, Donald A. Bligh addresses how to promote critical thinking using lecture. He recommends the following: Make sure your lectures encourage application and discovery of the material as opposed to only serving as a platform for the presentation of material. In this way, students learn how to use the information provided to analyze novel situations. Second, ask questions throughout the lecture, focusing on questions that promote critical thought, not rote memorization.

In order to assist student thought, provide a visual display of the presented material, include handouts so that students can focus on thought rather than note taking, recommend that students pre-read the material so that lecture is not their first exposure to it, and watch the speed of your lecture. Bligh (2000) found that students performed best with thought-provoking questions when the lecture material was presented at a slow speed, as compared to when the lecture was presented at a faster pace, because a slower pace allows students time to think about the material itself. For more information related to the promotion of critical thinking, see Active Learning.

In Lecturing: A Practical Guide, Sally Brown and Phil Race provide a wide range of student responses to the question, Why Have Lectures?

One student responded by saying:

“I go to lectures because that way I feel I’m on top of my learning. Put it the other way: when I miss a lecture, I feel disadvantaged. True I can copy someone else’s notes and photocopy the handout stuff, but it’s not the same when I’ve not actually been there. I don’t feel the same about it if I haven’t made my own notes as well. Even though there are some lectures where I don’t feel I’ve learned anything, I tend to go to them all just in case I might miss something that’s important.” 

Another student said the following:

“I suppose I’m a bit of a conformist. I go to lectures because I guess I’m expected to be there. Even though I might not be missed, I don’t like to take any risks. I don’t want to be noticed in the wrong sort of way.”

What do these responses tell us about how students perceive lecture? The student in the second example feels as though her absence might carry more significance than her presence; attending lecture might not get her noticed in the “right way,” but her absence will certainly draw the instructor’s attention in the “wrong way.” This student attends lecture, then, not to learn, but out of a sense of obligation.

The first student understands that she can obtain the information she had missed by not attending lecture (copying someone else’s notes, photocopying the handouts). Although she can acquire these resources, she maintains that the essence of the lecture will remain lost to her. The student believes not attending class negates her ability to fully comprehend the course material, even if, as she says, some lectures provide no new knowledge at all.

Both of these examples speak to one of the main criticisms of lectures: they function too often as a form of content delivery, and the students are motived not to learn, but to “keep up” with the pace at which the course content is delivered. These student responses should make us wary about adhering to a strict lecture format. Students can easily feel out of touch with the material or excluded from the course if they are presented with consistently impersonal models of teaching. Students shouldn’t just “be expected” to attend class, they should want to.