Lecturing Strategies

Tips for Running Effective Lectures

Lecture-style learning can work well for communicating course goals and content. If you are to use a lecture as a way to communicate information to your students, consider implementing the following tips:

1. Establish learning goals

Once you and your students know where you’re going, the trip is easier and more efficient. 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

Trying to cover too much material is a common problem for most higher education instructors. Unfortunately, when too much content is covered, students tend to struggle to absorb the material. To maximize your students’ engagement with the content you’ve spent time preparing, be judicious about what you include and focus on the core pieces of material that are absolutely essential for each lesson.

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 (i.e. not covered in a textbook chapter, article, or other source)

  • examples and illustrations

  • material of high interest/relevance to students

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. To do this approach, turn a general topic into a question. For example, instead of focusing a lecture on “the ways lodgepole pines propagate,” consider revising the topic to: “Why do lodgepole pines need fire to propagate?” Alternatively, instead of giving a lecture on “The Rise of the Middle Class in Postwar America,” consider a revision to:  “What factors were the major drivers in the rise of the middle class?” 

You can ask for ideas at the beginning of class where students can anticipate the responses to the question. That way, students are already considering the possible answers that will be discussed in class.

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

It’s difficult for anyone to sit for 50 or 80 minutes and simply listen. Consider breaking up the lecture with some moments for pauses, questions, and interactions. For example:

  • 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 request for volunteers to share their group discussions or have students share an aggregated response in a Google Doc or through a poll. 

  • Hand out index cards and ask students to jot down a question they have after a 20-minute segment of time has passed. Have them pass the cards three or four people to the left. Then, have the individuals who have received the cards write down a possible response and pass the card back to the original question-asker. Then, request students to volunteer their questions and the answers and offer feedback as needed.

  • Stop the lecture with a group discussion question that could be engaged with verbally or via a poll or group Google Doc.

  • Show a short, relevant video clip.

  • Connect the topic to a recent news story and invite students to follow a link or story on social media for a few minutes.

For an in-person course, 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 opportunities for assess their understanding during the lecture

Quick, frequent, formative assessments help students to focus on areas they need work on, while also breaking up lectures and increasing student engagement. 

For example, you could try the following approaches:

1) Hand out 3 x 5 cards at the end of the class and ask students to identify the major points covered. Collect them, skim them, and begin the next class by talking about their responses. 

2) Begin the lecture by soliciting questions (on cards or not) based on their reading for the day. Then, be sure to address these questions during the class time.

6. Take the temperature with polls

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.