What Happens (or Doesn’t) When We Lecture

It’s no secret that today’s students, raised on technology and nourished by social media, find the traditional classroom lecture difficult to  sit through attentively. If students prefer texting to email because email takes too long to access and read, imagine how they feel about a 50- or 75-minute lecture (1). You may be thinking, That’s their problem. I’m giving them the information they need to know to pass the course. If they want to pass, they’ll pay attention. All true. However, it’s not just about discipline. It’s also about biology.

The trend toward active and collaborative learning in higher education is supported by substantial research that proves such activities result in better and deeper learning. The same has not been proven for the lecture model. In fact, the reverse has been proven. The chart below shows brainwave activity during several daily activities (2). Notice that the brain is sometimes more active during sleep than during a lecture-based class. A flat-lining brain during a lecture–can the professorial tradition be more insulted?


With content so easily accessible via print and electronic media, lecture has certainly outlived its usefulness as the primary mode of teaching. I stress the qualifier primary because some amount of lecture is necessary in order to explain concepts, theories, etc. However, considering the research (the above chart included), it is pedagogically and professionally responsible to question the effectiveness of lecture as a primary teaching method. The chart below provides alternative methods and their learning effectiveness (3).


  So just who benefits from lecture? We do. According to Dr. Ellen Weber, “teachers retain 90% more through the process of lecturing.” This makes sense, since lecturers are the most active participants in a lecture. Our passive audience, on the other hand, suffers. So what should we do? There’s no need to completely abandon lecture, and it would be unreasonable to think that one could teach without ever needing to lecture. However, we can engage our students and their brains by implementing the active lecture method, in which active and collaborative activities are incorporated before and during the lecture period. Follow the link to see this in action during a physics class: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBYrKPoVFwg

This link will take you to a list of lecture-interrupting activities that are effective and efficient: http://ctl.boisestate.edu/documents/LectureInterruptingActivities.pdf

Here’s how @ag_scheg responded on Twitter:


“Comfort zone.” “Uphill battle.” Indeed, some of our students may find the lack of lecture unappealing and uncomfortable–and some may even push against our efforts to provide an experience more conducive to deep learning and critical and creative thinking. It’s worth it to find out why and then to share with our students the research on the value of a more active educational experience before implementing such a major paradigm and pedagogical shift in our classes. Our students may be able to shed light on when, for them, lecture is most effective and when it’s not. They may even admit to being a tad bit lazy in the classroom!  Such sharing and negotiation can only enhance the democratic quality, reciprocity, and tone of mutual respect in our classes.

What are your thoughts? Please share them in the comments section. 

Happy teaching!


1. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/21/technology/21email.html?_r=0

2. “A Wearable Sensor for Unobtrusive, Long-term Assessment of Electrodermal Activity.”  http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=5415607

3. http://www.brainbasedbusiness.com/2007/04/better_to_teach_a_dog_than_lis.html

For more on the negative effects of lecturing on the brain, read http://www.brainbasedbusiness.com/2006/10/lectures_work_against_the_brai.html

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