Lecturing Strategies

When you want your students to remember and understand the material, lecturing with some active learning is the pedagogical strategy for you. 


The lecture has long been a topic of rich debate in the field of education. Questions about should we, or shouldn’t we lecture persist. I’d like to argue that it’s not quite so simple, and a reductionist approach to determining the value and use of lecturing eliminates insight into good pedagogical practice overall, and the real value of the tool itself as a mechanism to promote student learning. 

A strict lecture approach that does not consider integrating other pedagogical methods, and does not seek to customize learning for the students in this iteration of the class, will generally lead to failure on our part and by our students. However, if we trouble the lecture debate by not defining it as an either/or (e.g., either I lecture, or use active learning), and instead as a both/and (e.g., what happens if I couple together a lecture with active learning?) something very different emerges - an understanding and appreciation for the complexity of employing lecture as a teaching tool. The essential component of its success is in recognizing that there is no one way to lecture, and not all lectures need to look alike in form, function, or duration. In fact, there is an entire body of literature on “Interactive Lecturing” that brings together aspects of active learning, formative assessment, and others to move lecture away from a monologue towards a dialogic experience where students actively engage in the lecture component of the course.

Of the several definitions of interactive lecturing, I tend to favor the ones that frame it as student’s involvement with the material or the content of a lecture so that they are no longer passive in the learning process (Snell, 1999; White, 2011). So, how does one do this?

A few quick examples may be: (1) Start class with a small group discussion that will inform the lecture, (2) Use of a response system (like clickers) interspersed throughout the lecture to gather feedback and assess the level of student understanding (ideally at a conceptual level), (3) Position the lecture as a precursor to class debates and reaction panels in which students will need to draw on the content presented.

Ultimately, it’s about keeping the lecture flexible and not pre-programmed. It’s about customizing it for the class, and for these students. It’s about being clear in your objectives, and preparing students for their role in an interactive lecture - meaning, what do they need to do while you’re lecturing in order to be prepared to engage in the interactive pieces. Do they need to pose questions, explain or utilize a concept, synthesize topics and analyze something novel, or even problem solve?

Every pedagogical method or approach has its pros and cons. This is why an integrated approach is ideal. By strategically balancing methods, as in interactive lecturing, we can draw on the pros, and reduce the cons. Lecture can be highly efficient, can draw focus amongst complex ideas, and is helpful in laying a knowledge foundation. But, it can be one-sided, passive, and in no way help skill development in actually doing the work. To help determine the most ideal spaces and places within a class to utilize a lecture, think about the value it can add at any given time. Is the value in laying a knowledge foundation that students can then use to actively build skills and applications? Is the value in explicating and synthesizing insights from an interactive discussion or group work (think mini lecture debrief to pull disparate ideas together cohesively)?

In deciding about the form and function of lecture in your class, situate the kinds of things you want students to do by the end of the course along the content-to-skill continuum. Lecture is great for content coverage, but lacking for skill development (I can tell you how to do the tango via vivid and illuminating lectures, but if my goal is for you to actually tango, the teaching method is a poor choice if it stands alone). In making the decision about when to lecture, what to lecture on, and how to lecture, use the following 6 ways and reasons to lecture as a helpful guide. If a lecture is doing anything else, stop and reflect on whether it’s really the best tool for the job - you wouldn’t use a screwdriver to drive in a nail if there’s a hammer readily available.

Lectures can/should (list adapted from Brawer, Lenner & Chalk, 2012):

  1. Provide focus and emphasis on important points, ideas, issues, etc.

  2. Clarify difficulties or complexities in the readings, or from other course materials and experiences.

  3. Provide an overview or “the big picture”, and help connect the dots.

  4. Expose students to experts (you) who can provide unique perspectives and the latest answers to questions that may stimulate interest, and to allow students to see how a practicing (biologist, chemist, economist, literary critic, etc.) approaches the material.

  5. Encourage structure by explicitly naming, and telling the story of the course, or the narrative arc.

  6. Provide depth and insight through examples not present in other course materials (You have good stories, so tell them. That alone can be a lecture, if you then connect it back to #1, 2, and 3 above.)

Let’s stop blaming the tool for user-error, and start approaching our use of pedagogical methods more deliberately in ways that first determine the desired outcome, and then determine the best tool, or tools, to reach that outcome.

Still hesitant to let go of your grasp on the fully developed lecture course and embrace interactive lecturing? The most common source of trepidation I have heard stems from a very reasonable fear: “I (teacher) know this stuff and they (students) don’t, so why let the students talk, and teach each other? They’ll just end up more confused?” The fact remains, as a seasoned Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) once told me, “If the students aren’t understanding it, or getting it wrong anyway, and all you’re doing is lecturing, then it’s obviously not working. So, what do you have to lose?”


Brawer, J.R., Lener, M., Chalk, C. (2012). Student perspectives on the value of lectures. Medical Science Educator, 19(3).

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

White, G. (2011). Interactive lecturing. The Clinical Teacher, 8(4), 230-235.

Six Ways to Make Lectures in a Large Enrollment Course More Manageable and Effective

1. Establish learning goals

Once you and your students know where you’re going, the trip is easier and more efficient. And often the very act of creating learning goals results in reducing the amount of material to be covered, since you have brought your course into more focus.

2. Cut down on the amount of material you are trying to cover

Content Tyranny is a problem for most college instructors, that is, trying to cover too much material. The result is usually opposite--less material absorbed at a more superficial level--of what we hope for. Be harsh with yourself and cut the material that is not absolutely essential. Lectures, particularly in large enrollment courses, should cover the following kinds of material:

  • key points and general themes

  • especially difficult material

  • material not covered elsewhere

  • examples and illustrations

  • material of high interest/relevance to students

Steps to take: Read through your syllabus and mark every topic as either “essential” or “helpful.” Cut out all the “helpful”—move them to “suggested further reading.” If you’ve marked everything “essential,” ask a colleague to mark your syllabus the same way. If all else fails (and 90% of the time, you’ll be able to cut material), you need to redesign the goals of the class, perhaps in consultation with your department curriculum committee. But this is rarely necessary, if you are honest about what can be cut. Remember, you cannot teach everything in one course: it just doesn’t work. (And if you could, your students wouldn’t remember, anyway).

3. Focus your lecture on analyzing issues or problems, rather than on conveying factual information

Rely on students to get facts from their reading. Devote lectures to more in depth discussion and analysis. For instance, begin each class session with a question that you will devote the session to answering. This also leads to more focus and engagement. Practical Pointers on Preparing and Giving Lectures(link is external) covers these ideas as well as others that will lead to more effective lecture classrooms.

Steps to take: Turn a general topic into a question (the same thing we ask students to do for papers). Instead of “The ways lodgepole pines propagate” make it “Why do lodgepole pines need fire to propagate?” Instead of “The Rise of the Middle Class in Postwar America” make it “What factors were the major drivers in the rise of the middle class?” And you can ask for ideas at the beginning of class, as a way of involving the students in answering the questions.

4. Engage your students through active learning practices and interactive lectures

“What professors do in their class matters far less than what they ask their students to do.” (“Teaching for Long-Term Retention and Transfer,” Halpern and Hakel). It’s difficult for anyone to sit for 50 or 80 minutes and simply listen. Attention span begins to fade after about 20 minutes, so you need to stop every 20 minutes or so and do something new.

Steps to take:

  • Break the class into groups (yes, even in a large class—you can just ask them to turn to the two or three people around them) to investigate a problem or answer a question; after five minutes you can randomly call on groups to respond. Just one of many ways students can collaborate during lectures.

  • Hand out three x five cards and ask students to jot down a question they have as result of the last 20 minutes. Have them pass the cards three or four people to the left. Ask various people if they can answer the question on the card they now have.

  • Stop the lecture for a general discussion.

  • Show a short, relevant video clip.

  • Discuss the topic as it has appeared in the news.

Consider having your students sit in lecture with others from their section, and you can then direct exercises and questions to them by section. Not only will they be more inclined to engage with people they already know, but you will be reinforcing the importance of the sections and making the course seem more of a unified whole.

5. Provide more and shorter feedback to students throughout the semester

Don’t rely just on midterms and finals to let students know how they’re doing. By providing them with frequent feedback on their progress, you ultimately save time (and anguish). Not all assessments need to have grades attached. Quick, frequent, formative assessments help students to focus on areas they need work on, while also breaking up lectures and increasing student engagement. 

Feedback on their learning:

1) Hand out 3 x 5 cards at the end of the class and ask students to identify the major points covered. This can be anonymous or not. Collect them, skim them, and begin the next class by talking about their responses. Ask those students who were off to see you or their GSI, or to review their notes, etc. 2) Ask them to identify the “muddiest point” in the lecture. 3) Begin the lecture by soliciting questions (on cards or not) based on their reading for the day. 4) Stop a lecture at any time after a difficult topic and ask them to explain it to an intelligent high school student who knows nothing about the topic.

Feedback on your teaching:
Using the same techniques, ask them about the pace of lectures, use of presentation tools, clarity of examples/explanations, flow of the course or anything else you would like to know about.

6. Make optimum use of the tools in bCourses

Use a student response system (e.g., iClicker Cloud or Poll Everywhere) to get instant feedback on your students' comprehension of a concept:

If your class is too big to track how individuals are doing between exams, have your students take a quick anonymous poll to gauge whether or not a concept was understood. With a student response system, you can poll students on the fly and adjust your content appropriately. This saves time spent unnecessarily on concepts that are already understood and allows you to follow-up only where needed. Keep students engaged by asking thoughtful questions they can answer individually, and then asking the class to respond to the collective results.

Asking and Answering Questions

At a campus colloquium a number of years ago, a faculty member (no longer at Berkeley) was speaking. A very sincere graduate student asked a question. The professor talked for a few minutes, then turned back to the student and said, "I'm sorry I'm not answering your question, but it's not very interesting." Below are some tips for making engagement with students more productive than this one.

In every class there should be interaction between the faculty and students, and at the core of student engagement is how questions are asked of students and by students, and how questions from students are answered. Few things can encourage or discourage student engagement more than simply how questions are handled in a class.

1. Asking Questions:

At the very least, asking questions of the class is one way to make sure that students are with you, are understanding where you are at a given point.

At their best, questions you ask, even in a large class, are a way of testing how things are going and of involving students.

You can always ask a question of the entire class, then have students discuss it with those sitting near them, and ask for reports from various clumps of students around the room. You can ask a question and have students jot down the answer on a piece of scratch paper. They pass their answers to their neighbors, and you call on someone to read the answer on the sheet they have. That way, students who are afraid of providing their own answers are relieved of the burden.

Remember that questions don't always have to be directed at individuals: you can also poll the class from time to time on issues, e.g., "Who believes that there is a time and a place for the use of sentence fragments in writing?" Then you can follow up by asking individuals to explain their reasoning.

Cold-calling. There is no right or wrong here. Some faculty find it productive to call on students who haven't volunteered while others find that it can create too much tension in the classroom. This is really faculty-class-personality dependent; however, if it's something you're interested in trying, it's best to announce it in advance, and set some guidelines, e.g., students can simply "pass" if they don't feel prepared to answer. And have a backup plan: if you call on someone who doesn't know the answer, you immediately throw out the question to the class.

Sometimes simple questions are fine, such as the final step in a formula, but most often the best questions are those for which the answer isn't a number or a date or a figure. For that reason, think about asking "how" or "why" questions.

One interesting technique: one faculty member at Berkeley would ask a question to her very large class, and students would raise their hands to answer. But the faculty member wouldn't call on anyone until she was satisfied that enough people had raised their hands.

2. Soliciting students' questions and answering them:

The most common-and-very-worst-way to solicit questions is to look at the class and say, "Any questions?" or the truncated "Questions?" or "Ok?" or "Is that clear?" These often have a deadening effect, as if you are really just pausing, or asking just pro forma. Whether or not you intend it, the subtext can be "You shouldn't have questions." Try out a variety of other formulations: "I'm sure at this point you'll have some questions, so let me try to answer them." "This is a complex point, so please ask me questions about it." Or any other formulation that indicates you are actually interested in answering student questions.

When you answer a question, answer it directly first, then go off on any tangents that come to you. Try not to mix tangents in, so that the actual answer is hard to discern. And when you're done, ask if you've answered the question.

Repeat a student's question before you answer it. Be aware of the acoustics and that students sitting behind someone who asks a question might not hear it. In addition, by repeating it, you give the student a chance to indicate whether that was indeed the question he or she intended.

If the question is a good one, say so.

If the question is tangential, develop a nice way to say that. Often something like, "That's interesting, but a little off our point here. However, I'd be happy to talk about that after class/in office hours." If you have a plan in advance for these questions, you'll be happier. And you'll be less tentative to solicit questions from the class.

Consider turning some questions back to the class to answer. Don't feel that you need to be responsible for answering them all. Get all the students involved in this process.

Finally, when you answer questions, don't focus all your attention on the student who asked, but look at the whole class, so that it doesn't become a conversation between you and a single student.