To Lecture or Not to Lecture... How About Maybe?

December 12, 2015

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. I’d like to adapt the lyrics of the recently popular Carly Rae Jepsen song “Call Me, Maybe?” to mirror much of the traditional approach to the lecture - and, as an aside in some small way, bring us all a bit closer to the pop culture knowledge and references of today’s student:

Hey I just met you

And this is crazy

But here's my lecture

So learn something, maybe?

It's hard to teach you

But here's my lecture

So learn something ... maybe?

Yes, this would be a very bad thing. 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.