To accommodate the substantial number of students enrolled in your class you are assigned to teach in the large lecture hall and so, you rely on lecture as your pedagogical approach. Does this describe your situation? Perhaps, you teach in a medical school where the didactic method is the standard curricular approach. Or maybe, you prefer a lecture style of teaching. If these examples are characteristic of your teaching situation, you may wonder if a student-centered approach to instruction is feasible. Challenges such as these should not be perceived as obstacles that prevent instructors from implementing learner-centered pedagogy through the use of active learning strategies .

Don’t let this be your students!

Boring Lecture
Why does the best sleep come in a boring lecture?

This image appears on a website that asks the question: “Why does the best sleep come in a boring lecture?” A quick Google search revealed multiple hits addressing the topic of staying awake in lectures. Many of these sites were directed on how students can stay tuned in and attentive, which is good; yet, I can’t help but consider that the fault does not belong entirely to the students. Instructors need to ask themselves if they are doing their part to keep lectures engaging.

The formal lecture is among the oldest teaching methods and has been widely use in higher education for centuries. Potential benefits of a good lecture include:

  • Presenting analyses and showing relationships between dissimilar ideas
  • Modeling the thought processes and problem-solving of a creative, intelligent person 
  • Summarizing and presenting an overview of a topic, which can set the stage for reading and further discussion 
  • Supplementing and expanding the knowledge presented in a textbook or other source of information 
  • Inspiring and motivating students to learn about a topic or subject matter
  • Synthesizing, evaluating, and discussing information presented 

While a lecture may benefit students in these and other ways, lecturing alone cannot ensure that students become active learners. Studies on attention span suggest that after 15-20 minutes the lecture loses its effectiveness even in transmitting information. 

Participatory Lecture

An easy way to combat passive learning and loss of attention is to break up the lecture by interspersing student interaction strategies. Get students to interact with the material throughout the class session. Involve them in the lecture. For maximal student engagement, allow students to interact not only with the material, but with each other. The fixed seating of lecture halls may seem to argue against this, but it can be accomplished by forming teams from adjacent seats or by having students in a row interact with those in the row behind. Although typical lecture hall classrooms may not be the most conducive for student-student interactions, they certainly do not eliminate the possibility.

In a teacher-centered classroom environment, it is common for only some students in a given course to participate in asking or responding to questions. In contrast, a class with successful active learning activities provides an opportunity for all students in the class to think and engage with course material and practice skills for learning, applying, synthesizing, or summarizing that material.

Using active learning strategies does not require abandoning the lecture format. Rather, adding small active learning strategies can make lecturing more effective for student learning. These activities give students just a minute or two to check their understanding of recent material, practice a skill or highlight gaps in their knowledge before giving an explanation.

Active learning refers to a broad range of teaching strategies which engage students as active participants in their learning during class time with their instructor. Typically, these strategies involve some amount of students working together during class, but may also involve individual work and/or reflection. These teaching approaches range from short, simple activities like journal writing, problem solving and paired discussions, to longer, involved activities or pedagogical frameworks like case studies, role plays, and structured team-based learning.

Active Learning Strategies Coninuum

Strategies for “Activating” Your Lecture

Questions/Discussions

Pose questions to the students throughout the class. Questions can be stand-alone or designed to spur a discussion. Discussion asks students to process information they have studied in new ways, for instance, by applying it, evaluating it, or comparing their understanding of it with that of others. Class discussions, either between the instructor and the students or the students themselves, greatly improve students’ ability to retain information.

Consider the following tactics…

  • Use questions that engage and challenge the students. Focus them on core content, current events, higher order thinking about concepts. 
    • Keywords include: why, how, should, what is next, compare, contrast, plan, design, develop 
  • The use of charts, diagrams, and photographs in your slide presentation may serve as question prompts.
  • Questions can be short-answer or open-ended.
  • Ask for volunteers or call on non-volunteers.
  • Use the audience response system to engage more of the students. 
  • Incorporate novelty in how the questions are answered.
    • Have the class “agree” or “disagree” with the student who answered the question. Students can submit their choice via the audience response system.
    • Students can work in small groups or partners to come up with the answers to questions
    • Students can write out their own questions and exchange them with a partner and then answer each other’s questions.
    • Assign students to an “expert panel” who will answer the questions for that class session. Rotate students so all have an opportunity to be an “expert.” To encourage preparation for class, assign the expert role at the beginning of the class period. The “agree” or “disagree” activity can be added to the expert panel approach.

Student Writing

Large classes make it cumbersome to grade long term papers or essay exams; but, there are other strategies for student writing that you can consider. Several short writing activities requiring a minimal amount of feedback from the instructor can be incorporated into a lecture course. These activities provide students who are reluctant to participate in a large-class discussion another way to be active learners. 

Consider the following tactics…

  • Allow students to download notes in advance that include significant blanks, so students have to listen intently and mentally engage the material.  These notes should be more than the PowerPoint slides you use to guide your lecture.
  • Ask students to draw a picture (or a graphic) of the concept, using no words but still demonstrating comprehension.
  • Use one minute papers to ask content questions, which can be collected and used as a micro-quiz (graded or otherwise) to gauge whether students really are understanding the material. 
  • Daily Report – Students are asked to complete the following sentences: “The point of today’s lecture is. . . ” and “A question I have is … “. These reports can be graded or ungraded and can provide a clear sense of which areas are presenting students with the greatest difficulties.
  • Chain Notes – Students receive index cards at the beginning of the class. During the class, students pass around a large envelope on which the instructor has written a question. Each student spends a few minutes writing a response to the question when the envelope reaches him or her. The instructor can then respond to what the students have written. 
  • Three-Minute Thesis – After discussing an issue, have students write down their reactions and reasons to support one side or another. Circulate the responses and ask students to support and elaborate on their comments.
  • Ask students to list which topic was understood the least, to see if the entire class shared the same lack of comprehension.

Many of the above student writing activities can be used to garner feedback from students. In very large classes it is not strictly necessary to read all the responses— just enough to get a sense of the class. You can start the next lecture with a brief summary of what students had to say in their assessments. If the responses revealed considerable disagreement or confusion, use that as the basis for a discussion or review of the difficult material. It is important to come back to the students with some summary of their assessments to make clear that you are really interested in their thoughts, so that they learn more from each other, and so that they will put effort into their next writing assessment.

Faculty Role in Active Learning

Many of the suggestions offered here call for instructors to play roles different from the ones you may be used to. When using a technique for the first time, you might try it for a test review session or with material that you have already taught. Remember, students may also need time to adjust to a new teaching technique. Many students will appreciate your effort to be an effective instructor, even if those efforts are not initially as successful as you had hoped. Ultimately, you must decide what works and what doesn’t for your teaching style, course goals, and students. Teaching situations vary and what works for one instructor in one classroom may not be as effective in another situation. Some of the methods may be appropriate for a particular subject or group of students, but may not mesh well with an individual instructor’s personality.