Enhancing the Lecture

“Some people talk in their sleep. Lecturers talk while other people sleep”

Albert Camus

"College is a place where a professor's lecture notes go straight to the students lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either."

Mark Twain

The university lecture has been the subject of exhaustive debate concerning its value and effectiveness as a pedagogy. In it’s traditional form, it mirrors ancient oral traditions and cultures and emphasizes presentation of information. It has been described as the “transmission” model of education. Diana Laurillard describes this “classical” method thus:

"Only the teacher is able to articulate their conception. It therefore puts a tremendous burden on the students...They must do the work to render the implicit structure explicit to themselves, must reflect on the relationship between between what the lecturer is saying and what they previously understood, and decide if it is different and how the difference is to be resolved. They must then check that this is compatible with everything else the lecturer said, initiating their own reflective activities, restrospectively, using their notes of the lecture. Their personal redescriptions are then articulated in discussions or essays which later elicit feedback from the teacher to complete the 'discursive' loop. It can be done, but opportunities for breakdown or failure are numerous."

Laurillard, p.92

Others have suggested that it can be a highly effective pedagogy, precisely for the above reason – i.e. the mental effort required to effectively process the information in a lecture “actively” engages the listener.  While research shows that the “traditional” lecture is not as effective as other methods of instruction, there are ways to make lectures more engaging for students and thus improve learning.

Start the Lecture:

  • Arrive early, engage students in conversation; 
  • Use the minutes before class creatively
  • Put up an outline of the lecture and keep it visible throughout the meeting; highlight the 3-5 major ideas of the lecture.
  • Show students the big picture overview- how do this lecture’s topics fit within the overall goals and themes of the course
  • Pose a question or problem
  • Have students do a short pretest or survey to self-asses their understanding a topic that will be discussed, or give them a short quiz on a topic from several weeks ago.
  • Reactivate their past learning; e.g. ask a student to do a topic synthesis of the last lecture
  • Create wonder: find an interesting picture and make it your first slide, visible as students enter the classroom. Be creative!

During the Lecture:

  • Design the body of the lecture in 10-15 minute blocks – punctuated by “active learning” or “pause procedure” episodes, such as
    • short reflective writes,
    • think-pair-share activities,
    • “clicker” questions,
    • topic synthesis writing
  • Structure a few class meetings in a style different from lecture – e.g.
    • one or more group debates
    • a “public hearing”
    • a case study
    • team-based learning and small group work at whiteboards
  • Create a participatory and conversational atmosphere by moving about the room and being conscious of your body language, position, and eye contact; connect with the students; tell stories and share your enthusiasm!
  • Invite challenges to your ideas – present different points of view and defend one of them; model the critical thinking of your discipline
  • Ask students to answer the questions posed by other students
  • Provide students a note taking framework with outlines or skeletal notes.
  • Be provocative.
  • Give clear, attention-getting signals: “This is important”; “This point is critical to understanding the topic”.  Characterize points throughout the lecture as “global”, “local”, “aside”, “example”, “metareview”, etc.
  • Use media and visual aids – images, video clips, audio tracks, etc. Display provocative quotes.
  • Check for understanding –  ask questions throughout the lecture – e.g. use clickers DON’T ASK “Are there any questions?”
  • If you have assigned readings, refer to them to help students understand their relevance
  • Use “signposts” and periodic summaries throughout the lecture
  • Tap into students’ prior knowledge: connect new information with previous content of this course or others. 

End the Lecture:

  • Administer a low-stakes one-question quiz at end of lecture – “What stood out in today’s lecture?”; “What confused you?”
  • On last class of the week, assign a short problem on entire week’s work.
  • Have students reflect on their learning – e.g. “the minute paper




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Enhancing the Lecture – a Graphic. Lecture_Enhancements


Laurillard, D. (2002) Rethinking University Teaching, 2nd Edition. Oxon: RoutledgeFalmer.

Raver & Maydosz (2010) on Guided Notetaking

The Death of the Lecture,” a blog post about why lectures are still so popular by Anamaria Dutceac Segesten

The Twilight of the Lecture“, by Eric Mazur who popularized “Peer Instruction”

Are College Lectures Unfair?” from NYTims (2015)

Designing and Delivering Effective Lectures” from the National Teaching and Learning Forum

In Defense of Continuous Exposition by the Teacher“, by Derek Bruff

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Long Live the Lecture (2017),
In Defense of the Lecture (2014), 

Delivering an Effective College Lecture Through a Student’s Lens” (2017) by Stephen Brookfield

Flipping the Flipped Classroom (2017) by Berlin Fang