How Do I Improve My Lectures

How Can I Best Organize My Lectures?

We discovered that the most highly-rated lecturers nearly always have five elements in their lectures:

  • Begin with a question.
    What question will the lecture help students to understand? How can you most effectively raise that question? Is there a story that will raise the question?
  • Help students understand the significance of the question.
    Call attention to significance; explain significance; tie to previous and larger question; raise question in provocative way so significance is self-evident, help students understand what they will understand better or be able to do better after listening to the lecture and thinking about it.
  • Ask students to make a judgement and provide them with some basis for making the judgment.
    In some cases this might mean to judge the argument you are about to make. In others, it might be to decide when and how to use the procedure, the method, the explanation you offer. In still others it might be to determine the implications of what you are concluding or to make a judgement between different methods of solving a problem. Or it might include all of these, and more.
  • Answer the question (the heart of the lecture).
    Every point that a lecture might make is an answer to some question. Make the question clear and answer it.
  • Leave students with a problem or question.
    What's the next question? Where do we go from here? What are the implications of this material? What are the problems in accepting this interpretation?

What's Wrong (and Right) with Lectures?

By Ken Bain

What can we hope to accomplish when we lecture to students? If we expect no more than to communicate information, then B. F. Skinner and others were right: the lecture method should have disappeared with the invention of the printing press. Students can read faster than we can talk. We can assure accuracy and thoroughness and save time by saying it once on paper. Students can review the printed page with considerable confidence that it will be more accurate than their notes. Word processors allow us to make constant changes, to keep "the lecture" on the "cutting edge" of advancing knowledge (once the standard defense for offering lectures).

Yet surely lectures offer more than the opportunity to say the latest ideas and information to students. Proponents often cite these benefits:

  • Lectures can help simplify the material, offering an entry point for learning complex subjects.
  • Lectures offer an opportunity for students to ask questions, to clarify, to correct misconceptions, to seek elaborations.
  • Lectures offer students a chance to process information, to make it their own, to engage in so-called "encoding" of the material.
  • Lectures can make a strong visual and auditory imprint, assaulting the senses, and increasing retention.
  • Lectures can use the rich and unique vocabulary of oral communication, where a gesture--a wry smile or even a raise of the eyebrow--can sometimes substitute for words, reminding an audience of a point already articulated.
  • Finally, lectures can provide a human face to information, conveying enthusiasm and interest, motivating students to learn. Historian Dexter Perkins said it best. "I am old-fashioned enough," he wrote in 1966, "to believe that some values to be communicated in the classroom are not easily communicated by the written word. One is a zeal for knowledge, another is perspective, and still another is an appreciation of other outlooks and points of view. . . . We learn from example in this world, and a teacher is an example of a [person] . . . thinking. . . . those engaged in college teaching [must] recognize that their responsibility is not alone to advance knowledge but to stimulate and inspire...."

Do such advantages actually come from the lecture? A few conclusions seem obvious.

  • Lecturers who try to cover everything or to impress students with their knowledge offer little simplification. As we know from research with medical school lecturers, information density can actually interfere with learning, causing students to forget key points and to learn less than with more selective lecturers. Finally, the "lectures-can-help-simplify" argument leaves unanswered the question of whether the information is best communicated orally or on paper.
  • Lecturers who read from their notes, never look up, never entertain questions, never find out what students are thinking, never act excited or enthused, who deliver in lightning fashion or drone on constantly, obviously do not inspire or provide the motivation and opportunity for students to ask questions.
  • Students remember more, pay attention longer, experience less confusion, and respond positively to the material and the class when lecturers interact with students, deliver with expression and charm, with flair and enthusiasm, with subtle use of notes, and with obvious interest in both the students and the material (the "Dr. Fox" studies demonstrated as much).

Other conclusions from the research may be less obvious:

  • Studies of students' notes have found them woefully inadequate. Even with the most sparkling teachers, major omissions or errors occur in those notes every 12 to 15 minutes or in clusters at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of lectures.
  • Studies correlating what students miss on examinations with when the information or ideas appeared in lectures found that what students remember is more related to when something is said than it is to the significance of the ideas. Even the best students often miss major points. Few, if any, students get it all down. Human beings simply cannot maintain full, uninterrupted attention for fifty minutes without at least one or two lapses.
  • But the most serious problem threatens our fundamental enterprise. Professors often complain that students will not or cannot read assignments outside of class, making oral explanations essential. Yet the lecture may be the cause rather than the cure for such deficiency. The passive nature of the experience sends strong messages: no need to read the professor will feed; we cannot read the professor must feed. Furthermore, some studies of the influence of lecture-based courses have found that they change little about the way most students think. At best, many students learn to play the games of the various disciplines, plugging in numbers or using the right vocabulary with little understanding of the concepts involved; at worst, they memorize information but fail to recognize how they might use any of it in solving problems.
  • We want to think that lectures travel as a seamless entity from the mouth of the professor to the brains of students. In fact, students bring models of knowledge with them to the lecture (see story on the study in physics). The information they hear wraps around those preexisting models (prejudices, misconceptions, beliefs), often altering the ideas of the lecture entirely.

The Lecture at its Best

But what can we say about the lecture at its best? Can the lecture make good on any of its promises even under ideal circumstances? Is it possible for the lecture to change student thinking? Obviously, one brilliant lecture can restore our faith in the beast. It can inspire, transform, provoke, broaden, enlighten, and captivate. But what do those splendid teachers do that proves to be so productive?

In my conversations with scores of highly successful lecturers I have noticed that within a myriad of practices, some (almost) universal approaches emerge.

  • The lecture is an argument, complete with evidence and conclusion. It becomes an illustration of an educated mind reasoning within a particular discipline. Such lectures often contain the following elements: A question; a discussion of the significance of that question (perhaps relating it to other questions); a discussion of how other scholars may have answered the question or how science may have once answered the question; the lecturer's answers to the question, complete with evidence, reasons, and conclusions; and the questions that emerge from the answers to the first question..
  • To encourage students to confront the problems, to learn the intellectual skills, the best lecturers interact with students and encourage and allow them to interact with each other and with the material. They maintain an interactive atmosphere and experience for students; they keep students involved. At minimum, they treat the lecture as a conversation with students, not a performance--even if it is a conversation they dominate. They maintain strong eye contact, invite questions, and use a lively conversational tone. They learn students' names and call on them. They move from behind the podium. They watch reactions, read eyes, then change pace, direction, or explanations if necessary. They ask for feedback from students, stopping to ask for questions, pausing ten seconds, looking at students.

Some people use a variety of more elaborate ways to involve students. Here are some example:

  • In some classes, students receive outline notes with all key specific information, but they also receive--and this is important--plenty of encouragement and instructions and space to take notes on those notes. Furthermore, the teachers offer that advice every day at appropriate points, not just at the beginning of the term. The instructors shares research information on note-taking and learning with students to convince them that they will actually save time if they will use class time to take notes, to think actively, to process without worrying that they may, by taking notes, miss something important (indeed, some students fail to think during lectures because they are too busy playing stenographer, trying to take down every word in fear that they may miss something and telling themselves they can always learn later). The instructor will stop on occasion and say, "I'm going to shut up for a moment to let you construct a few notes to remind yourself of what I have been saying."
  • Some people end a lecture either by asking students to spend three minutes writing down everything they can about the lecture or by asking them to answer two questions: What major conclusion did you draw from today's class; what questions remain in your mind?
  • Other people stop twice during a fifty-minute lecture for one to two minutes to ask students to work in pairs to discuss and rework their notes or to confront some fundamental questions about meaning, implications, procedures, or so forth--all while the instructor says nothing.
  • Still others organize the class into small groups and carefully craft assignments to charge those groups with working collaboratively outside of class to confront the intellectual problems and questions of the course. In class, they might occasionally stop lecturing and ask those same groups to interact. For example, with some topics, the lecturer might give each students a written "lecture" and ask them to read it during class to identify its central arguments and conclusions. In most cases, students can read in fifteen minutes what we can say in fifty minutes. In the second fifteen minutes students gather in groups of five to seven to discuss with each other the meaning, application, implications, etc. of the material in the "lecture." In the final twenty minutes the instructor entertains questions, clarifies misunderstandings, suggests how students can learn more, asks additional questions, summarizes, and finally asks students either to write down everything they can remember or to answer the two questions mentioned earlier. In some disciplines, the instructor might begin the last twenty minutes by asking one or more groups to offer a brief summary of the central argument and major conclusion of the "lecture" or, in some fields, to go to the board and to work a problem applying the methods covered in the lecture.
  • Highly successful lecturers use the lecture as a time to inspire, to provoke, to focus; as a time to raise important questions, to discuss the significance and implications of those questions, to summarize the controversies that may exist about the questions, and to offer tentative answers; as a time to let students hear a highly educated and disciplined mind thinking about a subject. While offering a carefully structured, tightly-knit discussion, they avoid the temptation to become encyclopedic. They never use the lecture as the only--or even the principal--way to communicate information and ideas, but as an opportunity to provide an introduction and a methodology students can use in learning from other sources (textbooks, etc.). They do not assume that to teach it one must say it, or that saying it is necessarily teaching it.
  • They let students know what they should be able to do intellectually with the material of the course (remember, understand, apply, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, etc.). They offer the objectives (the ability to think critically, to make comparisons and contrasts, to synthesize conclusions, etc.) as promises (this course will help you do such and such) rather than as requirements or hurdles (you must do this to get an A).
  • They recognize that the most enduring learning takes place naturally when people try to solve problems that interest them rather than in response to arbitrary rewards and punishments (honors and grades). They understand that people change their way of thinking only if they confront problems they care about that their way of understanding will not solve. The highly successful teachers pose questions that intrigue and fascinate. They help students understand the relationships between the immediate questions of a particular lecture and larger issues. They sometimes share with students the intellectual path that led them to the questions they now emphasize. They discuss the big questions that influence the current emphasis or problem.
  • They design instruction so that students actively use specific intellectual skills to analyze various dimensions of the content while integrating those skills into larger intellectual performances--the ability to make reasoned judgements, to think historically or scientifically or philosophically, to ask probing and insightful questions about the work of other students, to recognize the importance of assessing their own work intellectually while it is in process, to apply routinely a range of intellectual standards to their own thinking. They use the lecture to discuss and demonstrate those skills rather than simply to "cover" information. They discuss the logic of their discipline and ways to solve problems rather than simply solving problems orally. They use the lecture to help and provoke students to read rather than to offer a substitute for reading. They discuss significance and implications, and they try to simplify rather than to confuse or overwhelm.

Copyright 1993 by Ken Bain