Long Live the Lecture: At Least Some of the Time

harrington_christineChristine Harrington
Middlesex County College


zakrajsek_toddTodd Zakrajsek
Associate Professor
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

If poor teaching was a criminal offense, could you be convicted solely on the basis of lecturing?  We don’t think so.  Of concern seems to be exactly where we are headed in higher education. Individuals not being promoted, failing to be granted tenure, or even dismissed, for using a “tainted approach” while teaching: the lecture.

If you still lecture, you are certainly not alone. In fact, you are among the majority of faculty.  Lecturing continues to be one of the most commonly used teaching approaches (Berrett, 2012). Despite its’ prevalence and potential, lecturing has unfortunately become a “bad word” in higher education. Some colleges and universities strongly discourage faculty from using this teaching approach, arguing at times that all students always learn better when active learning approaches are used. Over the course of the last 25 years or so, there has been a huge push for faculty to abandon the lecture and instead use active learning. One of the initial calls for this action came back in 1993 when King encouraged faculty to move away from being the “sage on the stage” and toward the “guide on the side,” noting that the lecture is a technique where students are in a passive role. Around this same time, Barr and Tagg (1995) called for a paradigm shift away from teaching and instruction and toward students and learning. This increased focus on learning is worthwhile and meaningful, but how this shift has translated into abandoning the lecture is a bit of a mystery. Where’s the evidence that lectures don’t work at all? Why hasn’t the shift been away from disengaged lectures, poor lectures, or nonstop lecturing? In this blog, we argue that the key to effective lecturing is, much like Boice (2000) argued long ago regarding effective teaching and learning in general….”everything in moderation.”

What Works Best:  Lecture or Active Learning?

So many individuals seem quick to pit the lecture against active learning.  Unfortunately, the best path when presented with these two options is not entirely clear.  A variety of teaching methods, including the lecture, can lead to significant learning. Research has shown that lectures can lead to higher levels of learning than group activities (Clark, Kirschner, & Sweller, 2012; Baeten, Dochy, & Struyven, 2013). Research also demonstrates that  active learning approaches can be more effective than lecturing  (Baepler, Walker, & Driessen, 2014; Hake, 1998; Springer, Stanne & Donovan, 1999). One large confound is that comparisons in the literature are rarely cleanly differentiated between active learning and lecturing. Typically, as was done by Hake (1998), traditional lecturing (no interaction at all) was compared to a mixture of lecture/group work. Eric Mazur (2009) has garnered much attention through his promotion of concept tests, in which one “lectures” for a period of time and then engages students in the learning process by having them work with one another for short segments of time. This technique does not abandon the lecture, but rather augments it.

The mixed findings are probably best explained by the complexity of the teaching and learning process and the comingling of lecture with interactive techniques. There is no body of evidence that suggests that one single teaching approach leads to higher learning overall for all students.  However, some studies are demonstrating that certain approaches may work better with different groups of students or for different areas of content. One important factor seems to be the level of background knowledge students have about the subject matter.  Clark, Kirschner, and Sweller (2012), for instance, found that novice learners did best with lecturing or direct instruction, suggesting this approach would work best with first-year undergraduate students who have limited background knowledge in the subjects.  Lee and Anderson (2013), on the other hand, found that the opposite was true for expert learners. This expertise reversal effect means that learners with stronger backgrounds in a subject will perform better when given active learning opportunities.  Thus, the lecture may be more effective with first and second year undergraduates as compared to upper level undergraduate and graduate students, who will probably learn best with teaching approaches that require significant small group discussion and activities. This makes sense because these learners are better equipped to participate in active learning exercises that require strong background knowledge. We’ve all seen students flounder in group work or other active learning approaches when they didn’t know enough about the subject to fully participate.  In some cases, participating in group work can even result in students becoming quite frustrated and even learning inaccurate information.

Perhaps the most important factor in determining which approach results in the most learning is cognitive engagement, a point that was made by Mayer (2009). We often think of engagement as being interpersonally engaged. However, being engaged with the course content is more critical. Students can be totally cognitively engaged in a dynamic lecture or in group work for a period of time, depending on learner’s interest and the instructor’s presentation of material or structure of the activity. Students can also be disengaged in either of these situations.  It’s not the teaching method itself, but rather the effectiveness and appropriateness of the teaching strategy used.  We’ve all seen amazing presentations and poorly executed lectures.  Likewise, we have all probably participated in both very productive group activities and group activities that were a complete waste of time. The primary factors are the effectiveness of the teacher or leader and whether or not the participants have been well prepared for the learning task at hand.

The Power of Expertise and Storytelling

While advocates of constructivism will argue that students need to create or construct knowledge, there is no denying that the faculty member is an important resource in this process. The faculty member is the expert.  Experts are able to see connections that novices do not yet see. During lectures, faculty use their expertise to explicitly share these connections and emphasize the most important concepts, making it easier for students to learn the content. Novice learners are simply not able to easily differentiate the important from the less important or identify the connections between concepts (Hrepic, Zollman, & Rebello, 2003). These individuals benefit from the direct instruction provided by the professor. As Small (2014) pointed out, the lecture is a powerful tool not only because of the content expertise but also because of the expert-way in which problem-solving is approached. Students learn from watching our processes in addition to hearing what we say.

Consider for a moment the power of the story. For centuries, we have been learning through stories.  Faculty share the story of their discipline through carefully crafted lectures.  Stories give meaning to the content (Eagan, 1985). This leads to increased motivation and learning among students (Wlodkowski, 2008). There is little discussion in higher education about the power of a story.  Stories typically involve one person talking to another individual, or a small group of individuals. The line is a bit blurry between a storyteller and a lecturer. That may well be the more important concept when thinking about the value of lectures. If one tells a structured story with valuable lessons to a large group, how is that individual NOT lecturing? Skillful lecturers use the art of storytelling to capture and maintain the attention of their audience. The numerous examples provided throughout the lecture help the content make sense and come alive for students. TED talks are a perfect example of lectures being turned into stories. Few seem to be flailing about stating that you can’t learn from a TED talk because it is lecturing. It seems wise to not denounce lectures, but rather denounce bad lecturing. Actually, it might be wise to eradicate bad story telling as well.

Incorporating Active Learning into Lectures

As noted above, moderation is often the key. The human brain tires of constant stimuli, and when that happens, attention wanes. Lecturing doesn’t have to be defined as one-way communication all the time. It can and often should include opportunities for students to reflect and discuss content. Incorporating brief, active learning opportunities into lectures can increase learning. For example, studies have shown that short pauses where students are asked to write a summary of the lecture so far or to compare and share notes with a classmate increase learning (Ruhl, Hughes, & Schloss, 1987; Davis & Hult, 1997; Drabick, Weisberg, Paul, & Bubier, 2007). After you engage your students with a dynamic lecture, provide them with an opportunity to reflect on what was just learned. Small and large group discussions can also be used for this purpose. You may even want to encourage peers to ask one another questions about the content as this approach has also been shown to increase learning (King, 1995).


Let’s not condemn the lecture; a teaching technique that has been working well for centuries.  Instead, let’s carefully think about our learning goals and how we can best help our students to learn. While the lecture method shouldn’t be the only teaching approach we use, it still has an important place in the learning process for students. The key is to critically reflect on our teaching practices and constantly evaluate what is and isn’t working with our students. That would make a good story to tell.

If you’d like to learn more about dynamic lecturing, you’ll find an hour long video on this topic at http://www.scholarlyteaching.org/#!presentations-at-your-college-/c24vq.


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