October 1st, 2014

When Should We Lecture?


There are purists among us who would say that we should never lecture, but I don’t think that’s terribly realistic, and I’m still not ready to totally rule out lectures. As faculty, we bring expertise to learners and having an expert around when you don’t know something can be very helpful. Do most teachers still talk too much? They do. Are lectures fraught with well-established impediments to learning? They are.

What’s missing from the conversation are guidelines that teachers might use to determine when they should lecture. And that’s what I’d like to propose in this post. Please consider the questions posed here as an initial exploration, which can be deepened and made more meaningful with your ideas, insights, and experiences.

Should the decision of whether to lecture be influenced by what we are teaching in class that day? Are some kinds of content better explained by the teacher than discovered by the students? Is it complex content that you know from previous experience often causes students to struggle? Can the teacher’s explanation lay the foundation, set the parameters, or provide the context so that students can start dealing with content from a place that expedites understanding? Is a lecture the best way to clarify what students find confusing?

Should we use lecture to present threshold concepts, those building blocks in the discipline which, if understood correctly from the start, provide stability for the knowledge structures built upon them? If we do, we should test how effectively the lecture established those foundations. We should collect data from students and use it to ascertain the level of their understanding as compared with their learning via other methods.

Can you determine when a lecture might be needed by watching the learning experiences of students? If they are attempting something that is challenging, if they are working hard, but still not getting it, if levels of frustration are rising, is that the time for a teacher to step in? Most of us know firsthand that sometimes learning can be so frustrating, emotions so strong and raw, that insight and understanding escape us. This is what some call just-in-time teaching. When students experience a learning impasse, the teacher steps in to provide the answer or additional information – or tells students where they should look for it.

Sometimes lecturing is simply the most efficient way to share information. We don’t give student blank copies of the periodic table and let them try to fill it in. We don’t let them try to set the basic principles of accounting.

Maybe we know when to lecture by ascertaining what will best convey the content. Does it need to be: explained clearly, maybe from different perspectives; illustrated, with examples or visually represented; structured with main and supporting points differentiated; or positioned to connect to what’s come before and linked to what will come after? What the content doesn’t need is to be transferred—passed from teacher to student. “Don’t be a mother robin—chewing up the text for the students and putting it into their beaks through lecture,” Richard Paul and Linda Elder admonish.

Should we use lecture when students don’t think they care about the content, don’t think it’s interesting, or don’t think there’s any need to know it? A lecture where the teacher peppers the content with spicy facts, intriguing questions, colorful anecdotes, and relevant details can cultivate student interest. Teachers talking about how they connect to and with the content, why they love it, and why they think everyone else ought to also can be very motivational.

So we still have lots of questions when it comes to lectures, but we do know that we shouldn’t use lecture as the default instructional method. We need to decide when lecturing makes sense so that it’s a conscious, purposeful choice. And then there’s the matter of length for any given segment of teacher talk. As I review these possible justifications for lecture, I’m hearing a call for mini-lectures, not lengthy expositions that take all or most of a class session.

Now it’s your turn. How do you decide when a lecture is in order? Or, taken from the opposite direction, how do you know when what’s needed to promote learning is not a lecture?

© Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

  • gbrand

    I prefer to think of (online or campus) teaching as a more fluid experience. I may flip the classroom and ask students to attend our LearnLab (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBYpE4OB_Ek) for an application/hands-on activity. If the activity reveals they are not getting the concept, I might show them an example or give them a short lecture.

  • Nicholas Marshall

    As a pretty enthusiastic new convert to a flipped-class / POGIL hybrid model with no lecture, I'd say that my main cue to lecture on something is when the students ask me to. I have one day of the three set aside for this job.

  • I still have troubles trying to determine when students really need me to step in and explain something or when students are simply disengaged. My students are such good poker players – I can never tell from their faces what their needs are! Also, I find that my students, particularly in first year are too shy to ask questions when they need clarification. Or, students, again particularly in first year, simply do not know what they do not know. I'll ask if they know something, they will all nod their heads, so I move on only to find out from a subsequent exam that really, they did not understand. So for me, the best guide are the pre-class quizzes and my own past experience guide me in deciding when lecturing is needed or not. But it really is hit and miss for me. It improves hugely in the more advanced courses – I think students become comfortable in acknowledging when they need help. But in first year and also in second year, I believe students are too afraid to show naivete about a subject perhaps because they think it conveys weakness. I need to do a better job of designing a learning environment in which students feel comfortable and safe in acknowledging ignorance and thus need help. 20+ years at this and I am still trying to figure out how to read my students – again particularly in first year.

    • Barbara Hampton

      I am quite interested in the point you raise — trying to read the difference between not understanding and disengagement. I agree that during that first year, this is a particularly difficult issue. I do find, however, that the difficulty disappears as the semester progresses. I don't know, however, if it is because students get used to asking, are more engaged or I get better better at reading them.

    • Noreen Ayres

      Neil, I couldn't be happier after reading your words here. "Poker faces." Yes. I'm so glad to realize through your post that this reluctance to reveal themselves is common among first and second year students. I thought I was failing! The class I teach is English Comp, a requirement, not a choice. Some of these — correction: most of these — students will never be stars in writing. So, I impress upon them the need for "conversation" in written form in a variety of job niches and even for job applications. Your revelations here console me. Thanks!

  • cognitioneducation

    In the cognitive- developmental/educational psychology literature, there's a rich set of studies examining the differential effects of "direct instruction" v. "discovery learning" in school-aged science classrooms. The results show that for long-term retention the best model is what they call "guided discovery," which, in the terms of this discussion is the interleaving of lecture and discovery/active learning. Ground-work is laid in lecture, then students dig-in to lab work. The model transcends the age of learners; but the way it's put into practice of course should differ with age/expertise and with content. In my own undergraduate psychology classrooms, I mix up lecture with application activities to get students engaged; the activities vary with content. I regularly check-in with no-stakes quizzes to see where they are at, since as a reader notes above, many students hold their cards close to their chests. Regular no-stakes quizzes are a great tool: they serve the purpose of "retrieval practice" for students (retrieval practice enhances long-term retention over read-and-review) and it lets me see where they are at with their mastery. Knowing when to lecture and when to engage via "discovery" comes with experience; after a while you learn to anticipate where students struggle, Choosing the right engagement format, then can be guided by your awareness of the challenges inherent in learning the material and by your learning outcomes; what do you want students to be able to do with the knowledge gained, after the class is over? Your activities in class then should model the answer to that question: if you want them to apply knowledge to a particular "real life" challenge, then have them practice that in class; if you want them to take their knowledge and build a series of experiments to test it further, then have them do that in class, and so on.

    • Roxanne

      I really appreciate your clearly articulated ideas for how to integrate lecture with active learning strategies in the classroom. Thank you!

    • cbelchez

      In our nursing program, we have initiated a hybrid classroom with our students involve in active learning environment, with Team Based Learning approach. Although we provide short lecture in the beginning of the class, much of the time is spent on group work activity where they use Google Doc and Facebook in their product development during class. I really like your insight on applying knowledge to "real life" challenge. In our microsystem course, we introduced the concept of healthy work environment to our nursing students. Conincidentally, some of the concepts they learned from the course are being practice in the classroom, where they learn the value of time management, accountability, team work and collaboration in an active based learning environment.

    • Miren Ivankovic

      Very good post; I try not to lecture what students can read and understand. I teach economics and finance. I feel, that there are topics that very few of them will get without a good lecture. However, many students can not follow the long lectures, so I do a lot of active learning, like solving the problems related to chapter's topics. It seems that then the engagement goes up and learning really takes place (I can feel it).

  • jdslagoski

    I just started collecting literature related to this issue, and it seems some disciplines require/use more lecture than others. However, a given discipline does not benefit from lectures at all levels. The disciplines that do not need more appear to be classified as part of the humanities. I wish I could report more, but my review is in its infancy. It seems common sense to me, but I'm looking forward to learning beyond common sense or assumption.

    Also, I've just read the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, and one takeaway is that lectures should play a part of students varied practice of learning the material. Finding the correct proportion of lecture versus other types of learning depends on the material, learning outcomes, and the context. Personally, I think the context is key. Why lecture if students do not know how to optimize their learning from a lecture?

  • Rich Slatta

    Information transfer can be done via lecture, but well-targeted readings or short videos viewed outside of class should also be considered. If one must lecture, make it interactive and chunk it. This process provides real-time feedback to the instructor on whether students understand the concepts, processes, or whatever is being communicated. Furthermore, precious class time should be devoted in improving student cognitive skills, not merely relaying information. Passive lecture with no interaction accomplished little or nothing.

  • Justin Case

    We make presentations now instead of lecturing at my college.

  • APG Academy of Entrepreneurship

    I prefer to use the flipped classroom style and often I pick my spots when a student is struggling and I can lend a hand. I think it takes the student off the hook and helps him or her to learn. I definitely am wordy as a professor, but I get a chance to have my say and the student can learn from it.

  • Brendan Williams

    I am experimenting with a participant led lecture design. This is an online design I modified for on ground delivery. The content is insurance and risk management with participants holding 7/8 semester status. The course meets once a week (Thirsty Thursday evening). Each week I assign an article from a trade journal. The participants write and deliver an annotated bibliography for their article. My “lecture” duties include applying their summary to a publically traded company (Tootsie Roll) and/or my professional experience. I also weave their comments together. As needed, I will expand on the authors work to provide the content required for their summative project. I generally have multiple volunteers for the next presentation and interaction between the participants demonstrates engagement. Thanks for reading my post and my best to all,

  • perryshaw

    I rarely lecture, as I find it difficult to assess genuine learning as it happens in the context of a lecture. However, I am aware that there remains a place for quality lecture. It can be quite effective as an introduction to the overall contours of a field, followed by whole-class or small-group discussion of the implications of the material. In this regard outstanding lecturers are aware that “less is more” – that is, less material taught well, with time for reflection, discussion and analysis, leads to greater long-term learning than the presentation of vast amounts of material with little opportunity for reflection and discussion. For quality learning to take place through lecture, I have found the following guidelines helpful:
    •In light of its questionable long-term value, only lecture if you have no other choice.
    •Clarify in your own mind why the material being presented might be of value and communicate this value with enthusiasm and passion. Enthusiasm is contagious.
    •Establish a clear main point that is repeated at regular appropriate points throughout the presentation. Other ideas are then connected to this one foundational concept.
    •It is often worthwhile to provide the listeners with relevant reading materials (significant questions, case studies, extracts from texts, annotated bibliographies) prior to the presentation. This encourages a sense of anticipation in the learners and eases the connection between the known and the unknown on the path towards meaningful learning.
    •Break your lecture into “chunks” of ten to fifteen minutes, with interludes of small group discussion, whole-class discussion, reflective silence, the showing of short video clips, or other means of creating space for a new learning episode to begin.
    •Define terms, clarify concepts and regularly ask for student feedback. Be sensitive to what students are actually hearing and learning.
    •Model desired learning behaviours by introducing early in the lecture key questions that you are seeking to answer, deliberately introducing a variety of alternative perspectives that challenge students towards synthetic thinking, incorporating periods in which underlying assumptions are assessed, and concluding with a series of questions that have remained unanswered by the lecture.
    •Use vivid and lively examples and illustrations, and visual resources, but always ensure that these remain a servant and not a master to the learning process.
    •Keep the lecture component as short as you can. Leave students hungry for more rather than bored and longing for you to end.

  • Guest

    Just a side note to Richard Paul and Linda Elder: both "father" and "mother" robins feed their young.

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  • Jack Mac

    Justin Case stated above, "We make presentations now instead of lecturing at my college." I suppose if the presentations are interactive and allow for participant involvement then I see a distinction between a lecture and a presentation. However, if a presentation consists of a one-way communication in which an instructor broadcasts content to a passive audience, then in this context a presentation is a lecture with a more attractive name. In any case, I feel there is absolutely a place for lecture in today's virtual and on-ground classrooms. Short, purposeful, and relevant lectures delivered by engaging presenters (Sir Ken Robinson's speeches on TED come to mind) can spark needed curiosity and enthusiasm in our students. Still, lecture should probably be the exception and certainly not the only teaching modality in our classrooms.

  • Lynn

    I've begun using a version of the flipped method as well with my undergrad social science education students. I provide short pre-quizzes (3-5 questions that call for analysis and/or synthesis) for reading, viewing, and exploratory assignments BEFORE we address the content/concepts in class. The pre-quizzes are due the day before we meet face-to-face, giving me time to assess both individual and collective learning needs. This has provided the information I use for targeted mini-lectures, and has been well accepted and appreciated (per several emails to this point) by my students 🙂

  • Billy (Psych/Phil)

    I do this activity where the students create a semantic map of of the major topics from the content that I am presenting. This helps solidify the concepts because it uses a visual strategy to define the often difficult vocabulary and it extends their knowledge by categorizing the concepts that are related to each other. I encourage them to build a schema based on their prior knowledge to help them relate the components of the content and help them show relationships among the concepts that are related to what they already know. The process is very interactive, especially when working in groups. Of course, if they are having problems with a particular concept, then I spend about 10-15 minutes on that concept.

  • Steve

    I overheard 2 students talking this week about how much they hated when they had to be active participants in class, requiring them to have read the material/prepared for class ahead of time and how they much preferred being "spoonfed" [my words] even if the lectures were boring. I think this raises a related cultural issue that comes from both students' and instructors' past experiences – something that needs to systemically change if we are going to teach for real understanding and transfer of knowledge rather than recall. This doesn't mean that GOOD lectures/presentations shouldn't play a role in this. I believe that they can and they do. The question is are they the rule or the exception in most students' learning. Many of the ideas shared here are great in terms of facilitating more active knowledge construction.

  • Mohammed

    Some subjects Investment Analysis or Fundamentals of Finance without lecture does not give any direction to students what they should expect in their exams. I can remember a no lecture prof discussed the whole world except what he is expecting us to study for exam. He talked about how to read the Wall Street Journal, but no questions in the exam on that topic. Some subjects may be taught with minimum lectures, but I am not sure Accounting, Finance, Taxes, Payroll, etc. can be taught with short lectures, because over 75% the students will be lost when when they see their exams.

  • Ken Mellendorf

    I find many students expect gain at no expense. Many have experienced the following at some time in their lives:
    1) You tell me what to remember.
    2) You ask me what you wanted me to remember.
    3) I repeat what you asked me to remember.
    4) I get a good grade.

    Lecture works well for this scenario, and students have learned to appreciate this scenario. It is in fact quite similar to computer programming. Unfortunately, many of today's students are very much willing to stop here. Impressing authoritative figures with going beyond what has been requested is seldom viewed by my students as something to be proud of. Some will consider it to be a waste of time.
    Active learning requires that the students put together ideas in ways they cannot memorize. It requires them to go beyond a list of facts or equations. It requires work. From a short-term point of view, it gives nothing in return that straight lecture can provide. When viewed beyond the grade on the next test, however, active learning provides preparation for many things that will happen later in education and in life. I have had students tell me they were happy that I taught them as I did, but seldom less than three years after leaving my class. Most require perhaps five years to appreciate the benefits.

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  • uarktransparency

    We like to scoff at lecturing but in the "flipped" classroom, which is held up as the "innovative" alternative to old-fashioned lecturing, we expect students to retain the content of a youtube video. Why would we expect that to work any better than face-to-face lecturing? My experience so far is that I have to re-explain in class everything students were supposed to take from their videos and readings. I like to give students a lot of exercise time in class (sometimes in groups, sometimes individually) because nothing is ever learned from passive exposure. But if I don't explain what students are expected to learn – by lecturing -, how on earth should they know? Yes they could learn it from readings or videos. But they don't. If they did, there'd be no need for classes. Everything can be learned from books, or now the internet, without us as intermediaries. But that's not how students do learn.

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