Teaching Tip #4: Better Lectures?

The lecture method of instruction may be the original pedagogical strategy.  Before information was readily available in print form (and now online), a lecture was the most efficient way to transmit expert knowledge to novice learners.  Now, rather than being the primary source of information, faculty experts need to help students learn to find, select, use and evaluate ideas and information from the constant high-speed flow that surrounds us.  How effective is lecturing compared to other teaching methods for today’s learners, and how can we maximize the effectiveness of our lectures?

McKeachie et al. (1990) analyzed a large body of evidence and concluded that lecture is not a particularly effective method of instruction when compared to more active approaches. Discussion methods result in superior student retention of information, transfer of knowledge, problem solving, critical thinking, attitude change and motivation.  Print sources of information are superior to lecture since students can read faster than lecturers can talk and can review printed materials easily and at their own time and pace.  Despite these findings, lecture does continue to have a place in the pedagogical toolbox.  The trick lies in understanding how and when they are most useful.

Lectures can be an effective and efficient method of instruction by:

  • Providing information that is more current than written materials
  • Summarizing or adapting material from multiple sources
  • Helping students learn by providing conceptual frameworks, key concepts, principles and ideas
  • Motivating students to consider a different point of view, a new problem or a challenge
  • Modeling how to approach a problem or question; providing examples of a “scholar in action”

Making the best use of lectures:

  • Cognitive theory shows us that lasting learning depends on mental activity – thinking about, elaborating and using information makes it more likely to be retained.  Knowledge is stored in linked networks of concepts, principles and facts.  Effective lectures help to bridge the students’ existing networks and the structures of the discipline.
  • Watch out for “conclusion oriented” lectures – lectures that strive to summarize the knowledge “covered” in the day’s readings.  Aim instead to use demonstrations, metaphors, problems, and examples that allow you to help students learn how to read and understand their assignments.
  • Break up lectures into 10 – 20 minute segments.  Research indicates that listeners have trouble maintaining attention after this amount of time and without attention, there can be no retention!  The most effective lecture breaks require students to apply or use the material just covered.
  • Some sample lecture breaks include
    • minute papers (give students one minute to write about the main points of the lecture so far)
    • muddiest point papers (write down the most confusing part of the lecture so far)
    • think-pair-share (pose a visual, a question or problem and ask students to respond, then turn to a partner and share)
    • applying the lecture content to a case study or example (individually or with a partner or small group)
    • Using multiple choice clicker questions to quickly assess student understanding of points just made

You may be thinking that taking notes is enough activity to promote learning during lectures.  The research suggests that the answer is – not usually.  The usefulness of note taking depends on several factors, including the students’ ability to maintain attention, understand what was said, and hold onto it in short term memory (not to mention fast and accurate fine motor skills).  Studies suggest that students aren’t able to write down most of what was said in lectures, and that they get some things wrong.  This is because listeners have limited information processing capability, and if the material is complex or unfamiliar, the effort of note taking can detract from the effort required to comprehend and organize the material.   The bottom line?  When material is new and/or particularly complex, students do better when you limit the number of concepts presented, and provide multiple opportunities to understand the material.  Providing extra support such as organizers (outlines, concept maps, headings, etc.) that students can use to help them begin to process information more deeply is also helpful.

Do you lecture?  Why or why not?  What do you do to make lectures more effective?

McKeachie, W.J., Pintrich, P.R., Lin, Y-G., Smith, D.A. F., & Sharma, R. (1990). Teaching and learning in the college classroom: A review of the literature (2nd Ed.). Ann Arbor: NCRIPTAL, University of Michigan.

McKeachie, W.J. & Svinicki, M. (2006).  McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. Boston, MA:Houghton Mifflin.

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