On Lectures

Picture a classroom in which class is underway in your mind and you probably imagine a lecture is underway. Students sit quietly, all facing the teacher who stands in the front or center and talks to the students. The central assumption of lecturing is that the teacher has information that must be transmitted to the students.

Lectures, of course are difficult to reconcile. Students are bored by them (or they want them); teachers want to replace them (or keep them). Teachers think they are terrific lecturers, they students disagree. Great lectures are available on video but no one watches them. We love them and hate them… hate to love them… love to hate them… you get the idea.

The question of “Are they effective?” seems to be consistently answered with “it depends.” The dependencies are numerous, and what comes clear when a teacher considers lecture and its role in any classroom is that like any teaching method:

  • Use it only when it is appropriate
  • Don’t conclude it is always appropriate
  • Be accurate in your self-assessment of your skills

I like a good lecture. Heck, I’ve been known to attend them (in-person or in video) for recreation. What makes a good lecture? How can teachers integrate effective lectures into their classrooms? (Notice the language of this last question. Integration implies there are other activities central to the learning that happens. Effective connotes one can make judgements about lectures; some are better than others.)

Here are some strategies for making sure your lectures are effective:

  • Avoid repeating information available otherwise
    • Clarify, illustrate, contextualize, challenge, extend, apply… avoid simply repeating.
    • This includes the information on slides!
  • Break the lecture into chunks
    • Use discussion questions or short quizzes to separate it
    • Take “review your notes” breaks, and clarify before starting anew
  • Add demonstrations
    • Physical demonstrations
    • Illustrations (try “no words” lecture slides)
    • Brief cases and examples
  • Encourage discussion
    • Look at the words used to avoid repeating information… use those frame discussion questions
  • Summarize and conclude and set the stage for the next topic
  • Be expressive
    • Varying tones and patterns speech, appropriate eye contact, and illustrative gestures all improve attention during lectures

Rarely is a lecture effective when it is the only type of teaching students experience. Lecture is rarely effective if it focuses on details. Lecture is rarely effective if it is the teachers talking with no chance for the students to stop and think and to think and talk.