Effective Lecturing

“Good teachers do not merely ‘deliver content’ to students, but wake them up, throw them on their feet, and pull the chair away.”   –Wendy Brown, Heller Professor of Political Science, UC Berkeley

Why Lecture

Today, there are many teaching methods at our disposal. Educational innovations and research continue to provide new approaches to teaching and new strategies to help students learn. While robust evidence exists for the efficacy of alternative pedagogies, the lecture continues to be the preferred classroom method for many teachers.

There are several purposes for which the lecture is well suited:

  • Presenting information otherwise unavailable to students. The lecture is a perfect way to share your personal research and inquiry trends of your discipline
  • Synthesizing information from a variety of sources. In addition to reading scholarly work, a lecture can explicitly demonstrate how knowledge is created by many researchers working on different aspects of a problem or topic.
  • Engaging students through storytelling. Sharing a personal experience, a researcher’s journey, or how the “sticky” problems are addressed in your discipline can pique curiosity and bolster students’ intrinsic motivation.  
  • Providing context. Conveying how course content relates to other areas or how it is relevant to students’ experiences clarifies why content is worth learning. This is especially critical for novices in a field.
  • Presenting up-to-date material. A lecture can effectively inform students of evolving knowledge and points of view while text-books become outdated quickly.  
  • Modeling thought processes. A good lecture makes transparent the ways of thinking/habits of mind of the disciplinary expert.  It can model:
    • How problems are approached 
    • How information is organized and synthesized
    • The logic structures and frameworks commonly used in the field
    • How new knowledge can be integrated with what one learned previously
  • Clarifying confusing concepts, principles, and ideas. When a lecture is given in response to questions from students, or after quiz/test results reveal misconceptions, lecture can be a powerful way of improving student comprehension, especially if the lecture is interactive.

Designing An Effective Lecture

Barkley and Major (2018) suggest that the debate over lecture versus active learning maintains a false dichotomy of one or the other, while most faculty employ both lecture and engagement strategies to varying degrees in their teaching. When students are actively engaged with the material during a lecture, their focus and attention increase (Ernst & Colthrope 2007). The two most important variables when planning an effective lecture are duration and interactivity. How long will you talk? How will students engage with the material, with each other, and with you?

In his book What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain reports on interviews with dozens of exemplary college teachers that, “[p]erhaps the most significant skill the teachers in our study displayed in the classroom, laboratory, studio, or wherever they met with students was the ability to communicate orally in ways that stimulated thought” (Bain, 2004, p. 117). Designing a lecture to intentionally stimulate students thinking, rather than just deliver content, requires a student-centered focus. 

Research finds that student learning is enhanced by chunking lecture material into 5-15-minute segments, and interspersing with short, active learning exercises. These activities give students opportunities to engage with the material and to process it more deeply. Regardless of your lecture duration and interactivity, answering the following questions can help:

  1. What is the purpose of your lecture? Include learning outcome(s)—what do you hope students will gain from your lecture? What will they be able to do with that knowledge?
  2. How will you give students a way of organizing their listening and/or note taking? An outline, visual, some kind of “advance organizer” (see Additional Resources below)?
  3. How will you start? What will you do to gain attention? Share a story, problem, question, scenario/vignette?
  4. What are the main “chunks” of your lecture? How could these chunks help students see the organization/structure of your material?
  5. For each chunk: What is the core idea? What examples, illustrations, stories, metaphors, or visuals will you use to convey the core idea?
  6. Pauses. At what points will you pause? What will you ask students to do during those pauses? How can these pauses help them process/think about what they have just heard?

Addressing Resistance

Choosing to lecture more interactively may raise concerns, for both you and your students.

Common Faculty Concerns 

  • Will it take more time? Yes, it does take time to design and learn new teaching strategies. Starting small helps; you can break up a lecture with a couple of simple “think/pair/share” exercises (see Peer Instruction below), and then build gradually on what you find works.  
  • Must I sacrifice content? If you take time from a lecture to have students engage, you may have to remove material from your lecture. Rethinking what content needs to be in the course, and how first exposure to that content needs to occur, is critical. Consider alternate ways to deliver content to make room in your lecture for interaction.

Student Resistance

In disciplines where large lecture classes are the norm, students may resent and resist the expectation to actively engage. While more students now enter college having experienced active learning, there may be some who expect and enjoy the passivity of a traditional lecture format. If students must engage with peers, gaps in preparation and knowledge could be exposed, while the passive lecture format “offers the comfort of anonymity” (Benvenuto, 2002). Faculty can counter student resistance by being explicit about their teaching methods and the rationale for their use. Gary Smith (2008) suggests an exercise on the first day of class to help students understand how the course pedagogy will help them learn (see resource on The First Day of Class).

Additional Resources

Effective Lecturing. This 4-page resource from the Center for Faculty Excellence at UNC Chapel Hill provides in-depth suggestions for keeping students engaged and tailoring lectures to student’s existing knowledge. 

How to Create Memorable Lectures is an article from Stanford’s “Tomorrow’s Professor” newsletter. By framing the lecture in the context of what we know about learning and short-term memory, it provides strong rationales for lecture practices that mirror how students learn.

Advance Organizers is a list of resources and references. An advance organizer is a visual organizational tool assist students during a lecture to integrate new knowledge with what they already know.

Peer Instruction is a simple way to engage students actively during a lecture without sacrificing course content.


Bain, K. Barkley, E. F., & Major, C. H. (2018). Interactive Lecturing: A Handbook for College Faculty. John Wiley & Sons.

Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. John Wiley & Sons.

Benvenuto, M. (2002). Educational reform: Why the academy doesn’t change. Thought & Action, 18(1/2), 63-74.

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.

Chilwant, K. S. (2012). Comparison of two teaching methods, structured interactive lectures and conventional lectures. Biomedical Research, 23(3).

Ernst, H., & Colthorpe, K. (2007). The efficacy of interactive lecturing for students with diverse science backgrounds. Advances in Physiology Education, 31(1), 41-44.

Jones, J.E. (2007). Reflections on the lecture: Outmoded medium or instrument of inspiration? In Journal of Further and Higher Education. 31/4, 397-406.

Meguid, E. A., & Collins, M. (2017). Students’ perceptions of lecturing approaches: traditional versus interactive teaching. Advances in medical education and practice, 8, 229.

Smith, G. A. (2008, September). First-day questions for the learner-centered classroom. In Natl Teach Learn Forum (Vol. 17, No. 5, pp. 1-4).

Snell, Y. S. L. S. (1999). Interactive lecturing: strategies for increasing participation in large group presentations. Medical Teacher, 21(1), 37-42.

Tolman, A.O. & Kremling, J. (2017). Why Students Resist Learning: A Practical Model for Understanding and Helping Students.  Sterling, VA: Stylus Publications.

White, G. (2011). Interactive lecturing. The clinical teacher, 8(4), 230-235.