The lecture is one of the most well-known teaching methods, but the questions “Is this medieval education format still relevant? If so, what is its function?” (Sutherland & Badger, 2004, p. 277) arise amidst the rich and vast array of instructional approaches at the educator’s command. Constructionist models of learning and the active learning methods reign so widely that adult learning expert Stephen Brookfield (1990) admitted, “[A]t first with a frisson of secretive guilt, I introduced lectures into my teaching. From initially regarding this as something to be kept private at all costs, I now happily admit to any who are interested that formal presentations take up between 20 to 25 percent of my total teaching time” (p. 27).
How did the lecture come into such ill repute? Dictionaries define lecture as an exposition or discourse delivered before an audience or class for the purpose of instruction (combination of Soukhanov, 2000, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 2004). Most educators view lecture as a one-way transmission of information (Sutherland & Badger, 2004). Because “the mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled” (Halonen, 2005, p. 318, quoting Plutarch), when a lecturer transmits information one-way to a passive learner, the fire of learning and thinking fails to kindle. But is that always true?
Palmer (1998) contends that techniques are what you use until the teacher shows up. He believes that the educator’s passion and reverence for the subject and his or her desire and skills to assist learners in connecting with the subject create effective teaching regardless of what method the educator uses. Effective teachers “weave a web of complex connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves” (Palmer, 1998, p. 11). Brookfield (2006) reminds us that “lecture is not a unitary method. In fact, it’s (sic) only unifying characteristic is that it involves sustained periods of teacher talk” (p. 99).
What Does Lecture Do Well?
Lecture has the potential to clarify difficult concepts, organize thinking, promote problem solving, and challenge attitudes (Naismith & Steinert, 2001). However, the lecture must move beyond a unidirectional flow of facts to realize these potentials. The When-to-Lecture Checklist (Figure) identifies goals the lecture can achieve effectively. Any one of these purposes justifies a lecture. For example, in e-learning environments effectively designed audio mini-lectures can add variety, clarity, and inflection to course material.
Research findings offer no strong consensus about the effectiveness of lecture compared with other methods. Some studies show no significant difference in objective measures of learning by problem-based learning when compared with learning by lecture (Beers, 2005). However, results of another study compared students who took problem-based courses with students who took lecture courses 3 years after the courses and found that students who took the problem-based courses had done significantly better in developing critical thinking dispositions (Tiwari, Lai, So, & Yuen, 2006). Evidence to either support or refute the effectiveness of the lecture method is not easily assembled. Some skilled lecturers can provoke students to think and interact with the subject matter even when strictly using a one-way method of delivery, whereas others who use every technological aid available still fail to inspire learning.
The Limitations of Lecture
According to Hodges (2006),
Our illusion is that we tell students the information that we want them to know, students who are motivated absorb it, and our obligation to the discipline has been met. Thus, the most readily recognized and accepted pedagogical choice is lecture. It’s hard to argue with this premise head-on because most professors themselves learned very well by the lecture method, and it does have its place as one option in our set of pedagogical tools.
Lecture is certainly efficient; the amount of information that can be transmitted is limited only by the speed at which the lecturer can talk. However, information can flow much more rapidly than the learner can receive it, causing much of the information to miss its destination.
Educators become obsessed with “covering the material” but might be better served by focusing on what can be left out and learned in a different way, if at all. Today’s information-rich practice environment requires nurses to know where and how to obtain information and how to organize it in a useful fashion. Teaching methods that model how to select and organize information contribute to this learning. Covering the field by presenting as much information packed into a lecture as possible is analogous to covering a fertile field with a tarpaulin so no air, light, or water reach the seedlings to support growth (Palmer, 1998). Benner (2006) expressed concern about the unintended consequences of too much content; teaching methods in nursing model the practice of nursing, whether intentionally or not. Therefore, it is important to model caring, judgment, and use of knowledge rather than simply overwhelming learners with facts and categories of facts.
Although lecture delivers content efficiently, an effective lecture requires significant preparation time. The educator must integrate several resources and examples and investigate the learners’ familiarity and connections with the topic. The educator must also develop delivery skills to maintain the learners’ attention and motivation. The lecture method lacks opportunities for individual feedback to learners, connection with a variety of learning styles, active learning, and independent learning (University of Pittsburgh, 2006). However, the educator can overcome some of these difficulties by introducing interactive windows (short discussions and problem-solving exercises) that positively influence recall and learning (Huxam, 2005).
Lecture facilitates learning for some, but alternative approaches are more effective for others. Educators may “teach the wrong learner” (Perkins, as cited in Ironside et al., 2006), or in other words mismatch the method with the learner, by failing to use a variety of approaches. With creative thought, the educator can modify lectures to address various learning styles (Amerson, 2006).
As strictly one-way communication, the lecture fails to apply classic research-based principles of good education practice, such as encouraging student–faculty contact, cooperation among students, or active learning, giving prompt feedback, emphasizing time on task, communicating high expectations, and respecting diverse talents and ways of learning (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). Psychomotor and affective learning obviously require more than one-way communication from the teacher. Learners must see demonstrations, practice actively, and receive feedback to master these skills. Learners must also practice high-level cognitive skills such as synthesis and evaluation. Although a lecturer might demonstrate synthesis and evaluation, the learner is unlikely to master these skills without active practice.
Benner (2006) stated “Classroom teaching in nursing is in trouble,” which is evidenced by instructors presenting endless taxonomies, failing to integrate other disciplines and relevant clinical experiences, lacking evidence-based literature searches, promulgating confusion about critical thinking, and subscribing to the view of teaching as entertainment. The lecture method does not deserve the blame for all of these troubles, but a well-planned lecture that is blended with interactive windows can counteract some of them.
The Ingredients of an Effective Lecture
When mixing ingredients for any purpose, whether for baking a cake or composing a symphony, proper relative amounts determine success or failure. The lecture is no exception. Table 1 describes ingredients necessary to create an effective lecture. The art and skill of choosing, balancing, and blending these ingredients develop with practice and critique. Some ingredients that demand balance to make a lecture effective include questions, learner preparation, note taking, structure, and technology and visual aids.
Ingredients of an Effective Lecture
Questions activate learning. Even when the lecturer does not ask for an oral response, a question promotes thinking. However, there is such a thing as a bad question. Questions that are too broad, ambiguous, or confusing produce more frustration than learning. To avoid bad questions, review your lecture outline for opportunities to ask rather than tell and create some clearly stated questions in advance.
There are many different methods lecturers can use for questioning. Early in the lecture, assign listening questions by giving a specific question to geographical regions of the room—quadrants, rows, or some other means of creating groups. Assign each region a different question (e.g., With which points do you disagree? With which points do you agree? Which points are confusing? What is an example in your experience of one of the points? What else would you add to elaborate on one of the points?). These questions can be a basis for paired or small group discussion at the end of the lecture, or you might ask for a few individual responses when concluding your lecture.
Create cluster questions (groups of questions designed to help learners understand the topic) that are sequenced in progressing complexity, elucidate different aspects of a topic, or develop some other organizer appropriate to the topic.
Have learners participate in questioning by requiring each learner to write a pertinent question on a 3” × 5” card during the first half of the lecture period. Collect and redistribute the cards to groups of learners. Ask each group to respond.
Present examination-style questions at intervals during the lecture. A multiple-choice format can stimulate discussion when learners defend different choices as the correct answer. This may provide an opportunity to clarify the circumstances in which certain choices would be appropriate. True–false or alternative response questions (e.g., safe or unsafe or documentation correct or incorrect) offer opportunities to correct common errors and misconceptions. When asked about a patient care situation, questions such as “What’s wrong with this picture?” give learners an opportunity to apply judgment and use information.
Give a brief mastery quiz at intervals during the lectures or at its conclusion. Require learners to write the answers. Answering questions immediately after learning facilitates retention.
Have learners produce a minute paper at the conclusion of the lecture. Pose a question such as “What stood out as most important in today’s lecture?” or “What ideas from today’s lecture are still unclear?” and allow the learners 1 minute to write the answers. Ask for a sample of oral responses.
Offer feedback to learners’ answers. Questions give learners the opportunity to practice with the information and receive corrective or validating feedback. Coaching is the signature pedagogy of nursing (Benner, 2006); questions and feedback in the classroom setting parallel the coaching process in the clinical setting.
Conclude the lecture by posing a question for further consideration. The learners’ “last memory of your lecture is of the questions you urged them to explore further” (Brookfield, 1990, p. 86). This approach promotes ongoing curiosity. For additional ideas, Angelo (1998) and Angelo and Cross (1993) described a variety of classroom assessment techniques based on using questions to engage learners.
Educators often bemoan the lack of learner preparation for lectures. In continuing education and staff development settings, it is almost impossible to enforce a requirement of reading assignments in advance of lecture. Recent research challenges the widely accepted idea that learner preparation facilitates learning. Research findings suggest that successful students use lectures as organizers to gain greater meaning from reading assignments (Diekelmann & Smythe, 2004; Ironside et al., 2006).
According to Titsworth (2004), “If lecture is a teacher’s sacred cow, then note taking is a student’s Holy Grail” (p. 306). Like lecturing, note taking can be done well or poorly. The lecturer can facilitate learning by creating handout materials and guiding learners in their note taking.
Encourage learners to focus on listening to and thinking about what they are hearing rather than writing. Facilitate listening and thinking by providing a handout that contains a skeletal outline of the lecture (not a complete manuscript) that includes the key points with spaces for learners to write examples (Brookfield, 2006, p. 107). Speak at a pace that allows for writing of important points. For difficult spellings, web addresses, or other information, display the information visually or provide the information as a handout.
Call attention to points that learners should write. Talk in 7 to 10 minute segments, pause, and ask preplanned, rhetorical questions. Ask learners to record their answers in their notes. Pause two or three times to allow learners to consolidate notes and develop questions.
Declare a note taking moratorium. Have learners listen to 15 to 20 minutes of lecture without taking notes. At the end, instruct them to spend 5 minutes recording all they can recall. Then, ask learners to form small discussion groups in which they reconstruct the lecture conceptually with supporting data. Provide a question period during which the learners ask you to resolve questions that arise.
At intervals, instruct learners to work in pairs to organize their notes and discuss key points. Instruct learners to close their notebooks for a few minutes at the end of the lecture period and outline or diagram as much as they can remember.
Organization is key to effective lecturing. The lecturer can demonstrate how to organize and use information. The lecturer facilitates learning by introducing the lecture outline and continually referring to it to help learners create their own internal organization of the information.
Titsworth (2004) found that giving organizers initially and during a lecture contributed more to learning than some other behaviors usually associated with effective lecturing. This study analyzed the concept of immediacy, which includes eye contact, vocal variation, facial expressions, and movement around the classroom. Titsworth found that organizers improved organization of material and learning of details, although immediacy did not. Learning of details and organizational points was strongly related to performance on tests of the material. Although immediacy and interesting tangents can facilitate connection with learners, these ingredients clearly must be used judiciously.
Body language that conveys enthusiasm for the topic and interest in learners facilitates learning, but can also be distracting if exaggerated. Pay attention to learners’ responses to your body language and consider the size of the room when communicating with facial expressions and gestures.
Pertinent examples facilitate learning, especially when elicited from learners. However, in one study, the lecturer’s use of interesting but tangentially related adjuncts that were irrelevant to the lesson resulted in learners recalling fewer main points and fewer acceptable problem-solving details (Harp & Maslich, 2005). Humor, examples, and anecdotes can facilitate learning, but choose carefully and plan to clarify the connection to the topic.
Storytelling has gained momentum among pedagogies in nursing education (Dieklemann & Smythe, 2004). “Stories allow the listener to seek an experience of being alive in them and find clues to answers within themselves” (Faculty Center for Teaching and e-Learning, 2002). Telling stories as a lecturer (Jacobson, 2004) and eliciting and encouraging learners to tell their stories contributes to learning. However, artful and effective use of the technique requires the lecturer’s expertise in guiding reflection and illuminating connections.
The recommended structure for a lecture begins with a top-down description of main ideas followed by a bottom-up construction of details. To facilitate mastery of new terms, meaningfully “introduce a new idea only after it’s born” by stating the term “only after giving an example of the notion that it stands for” (Movshovitz-Hadar & Hazzan, 2004, p. 814).
Technology and Visual Aids
Technology and visual representations can aid in the delivery of an effective lecture but cannot substitute for lack of other essential ingredients. Although slides and computer-based presentation programs lend a more polished appearance, at times seeing the lecturer construct relationships on a chalkboard or white board has a greater effect. One study found that patient presentations and chalkboards were the most effective aids for medical students’ learning (Nielsen et al., 1997). Study and observe the rules for creating appropriate, legible visuals. Remember that the visuals are used most effectively to clarify or emphasize information.
Computer-based presentation programs have become extremely popular. Some researchers (Tufte, 2003) criticize such programs for limiting thinking, reducing complex concepts to bullet points, and reducing lecturers to deliverers of bullet points. Used thoughtfully, such programs can provide an outline for both the learners and the lecturer and can create useful note-taking handouts. However, they do not need to be used in every modern lecture.
Susskind (2005) found that students had a more positive attitude and increased self-efficacy when Power-Point®, slides were included in the lecture and that motivation decreased after PowerPoint® was taken away. However, positive attitude, self-efficacy, and motivation did not increase when PowerPoint® was added for learners who were receiving lectures without it. When using PowerPoint®, be aware that the use of animation and sound effects can distract learners. Ensure that your choice of technological aids is contributing to learning and is neither distracting nor monotonous.
One underused technological aid is the microphone. Straining to hear the lecturer is unpleasant for learners and may cause them to tune out. Even if you pride yourself on your ability to project your voice, consider using a microphone unless the physical environment or the size of the group makes it obviously unnecessary.
How to Improve Your Lectures
In addition to incorporating the suggestions in this article, undertake a self-conscious performance improvement program. Use the suggestions in Table 1 and avoid the mistakes listed in Table 2.
Let the Effective Lecturer Beware
Seek and use feedback from colleagues (Brookfield, 2006; Costa & Garmston, 1994; Young & Diekelmann, 2004). The practice of educators often takes place in isolation from peers. Palmer (1998) contrasts the practice of teaching with the practice of lawyers and surgeons, who practice in full view of their peers and colleagues, “[b]ut teachers can lose sponges or amputate the wrong limb with no witnesses except the victims” (p. 142). Costa and Garmston (1994) recommended asking a peer to provide feedback. They suggested contracting with the peer to make a highly focused observation by looking for evidence of effectiveness previously agreed on between the teacher being observed and the peer who is observing.
Reflect on your actions during the lecture. What worked? What did not work? What will you do differently next time? (Biggs, 2003; Brookfield, 2006; Palmer, 1998). Young and Diekelmann (2002) identified being open to reflection as one of the five themes in learning to lecture. Other themes included attending to learning, reading class situations, unlearning teacher preparation, and challenging assumptions of conventional pedagogy. Their findings emphasize the importance of assessing and responding to the learners during the lecture, also known as reflecting-in-action. Address your fears that arise with the challenge of trying something new (Hodges, 2006).
Consider the feedback from learners and their performance on measures of the knowledge you have presented to them in the lecture format. Retain as much objectivity as possible when reviewing learner evaluation data. Examine your practice in light of constructive criticism, but also remember that in some simplified definitions, learning equals change. Most people naturally resist change, and some learners resist changing their cognitive structures and experiencing new teaching methods. Low ratings on evaluations may reflect this resistance. Strive to improve without becoming defensive or defeated. Critically examine, validate, and then act on the feedback you receive.
When you can, take advantage of the opportunity to learn from masters. Watch and listen to great lecturers and riveting public speakers. Do not take copious notes; instead enjoy the experience and at the conclusion of the presentation make a few notes about which techniques had the greatest effect on you.
Although much maligned as a teaching method, the lecture can facilitate learning effectively. By reframing the lecture from strictly one-way communication in ways that engage learners and force them to interact with the subject matter, the lecture can support the learning process. This article has offered specific suggestions to that end.
“Just because something is done badly by some teachers in some classrooms does not mean that the method as a whole is inherently flawed” (Brookfield, 2006, p. 97). The lecture deserves respect from the lecturer. Respect the lecture by choosing it for the purposes it serves best, incorporating approaches designed to overcome the limitations of one-way communication, stimulating active learning and critical thought, and reflecting critically on your lecturing with a view toward improving.
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Ingredients of an Effective Lecture
Make a well-organized plan that contributes to connections of previous learning and experience with new learning, but do not reduce all learning to taxonomies.
Create an outline and notes.
Plan a clear introduction, body, and conclusion. Plan to tie the conclusion to the introduction (e.g., how we accomplished the learning objectives and outcomes).
Plan the time frame and allow for interaction. Learners place high value on appropriate pace (Neilsen, Jennett, & Jones, 1997).
Plan to be student-centered and personal, not to showcase your skills—including your skills in using technology.
Anticipate learners’ experiences and reactions and plan accordingly.
Consider worst-case scenarios, such as a technology failure, and plan a tactic.
Look at your lecture outline—select points at which you will ask learners to give information and examples rather than giving the information yourself. Learners place high value on organization and relevance (Neilsen et al., 1997).
What organization best communicates the nature of the subject? Examples-to-generalizations? Comparisons? Chronological or cause/effect sequence?
Introduce the topic by stating a clear purpose and learning outcome for the session.
Introduce yourself with a connection to the topic at hand.
Provide a framework for the topic and a structure for the information.
Present your outline. Refer back to it at intervals. Display it for yourself and your learners on a white board or chalkboard, flip chart pages, overhead transparency, or computer-based display, as a handout, or in any visible form.
Orient learners to handout materials.
Interact with early arrivals.
Maintain eye contact and include all learners.
Check that learners can hear you.
Avoid hiding behind the podium. Walk around.
Make the content a shared experience between you and the learners. If using someone else’s plan or notes, make it your own. Blend in examples from the group of learners.
Use analogies, metaphors, similes, and examples that are meaningful to the particular learners.
Repeat key points in different ways.
Use pertinent quotes to illustrate points and make information memorable.
Construct bridges to previous learning.
Relate to learners’ goals and interests to stimulate motivation and attention.
Continuously weave relationships between concepts, principles, facts, generalizations, and examples.
Keep emphasizing the relevance of key points (the “what” followed by the “why”).
Alert learners to key points.
Display your enthusiasm for the topic, your comfort with it, and your knowledge of it.
Be alert to learners’ responses to your presentation. Reflect-in-action and modify your approach if necessary, including asking your learners what might work better.
Ask early (avoid setting a passive learning environment) and often.
Apply the 10-second wait-time rule. Give learners time to process and respond to your questions. Assess their readiness to continue or need for pauses. Pauses show a thoughtful approach and capture attention.
Ask, don’t tell.
Serve the purpose of interaction: to give the students practice in using the lecture information and an opportunity to receive feedback.
Vary the approach at least every 15 to 20 minutes. Research findings show that 15 to 20 minutes is the maximum time for effective listening. For example, instruct learners or pairs of learners to summarize, ask for examples, or require learners to apply what you have presented.
Survey the group. Ask for a show of hands: Agree? Disagree? Example of. . .? Ask for a comment to support the position.
Construct activities that require the learners to do something relevant with the information.
Ensure that your directions for group or paired activity are clear. If several steps are involved, interrupt the activity to give instruction for each step. This helps to pace the activity and keep learners on task.
Introduce brief, focused periods of learner presentation/response, such as debates, reaction panels, role plays, and simulations.
If this is one of a series of lectures, or perhaps an afternoon session of a full-day workshop, ask the group to identify any unresolved issues from the previous (or earlier) session and facilitate brainstorming to resolve these issues.
Be judicious in asking learners to recite their answers and conclusions to group or paired activity. Group or paired work that is well-structured, appropriately focused, and timed facilitates learning without learners reciting all of their processes and conclusions for the whole group. It is useful to elicit a sample response or two to a specific question.
Address disruptive behavior or lateness.
Troubleshoot the learning environment by controlling the long-winded, encouraging the reticent, introducing controversy as devil’s advocate, and managing other problems that interfere with learning.
Demonstrate organizing information, comparing and contrasting concepts on characteristics, building evidence to support assertions, selecting relevant information, and other cognitive skills that learners must master to use the information you are presenting.
Show how you expect learners to use the information (e.g., What does a nurse DO with this content?)
|Visual aids and technologies|
Make a diagram that displays the concepts or instruct individual learners, pairs, or groups of learners to construct such a diagram as an activity.
Use the many resources available related to effective design and use visual aids and learning technologies.
Consider some of the technologies that can be used to display student responses to questions, such as those that tally responses to questions or identify the first person to respond.
Make some notes immediately about what you think worked well and what did not. Did you leave out something important? Have you thought of a better response to a learner’s question? What contributed to your effectiveness or lack thereof? What will you do differently next time?
Invite the critique of a colleague. Give specific directions to your colleague in advance (e.g., “Please give me some feedback on the interactive window I’ll use right after presenting the first patient.”). Ask your colleague to focus on specific aspects, but welcome feedback on other aspects.
Evaluate your learners’ achievement of the objectives of your lecture. In continuing education settings, lengthy written posttests may not be practical or desirable, but devise some method—even a few multiple-choice questions for group response—to assess learning.
If at all possible, devise a method to at least sample whether and how learners have put this learning into action in their practice.
Plan to incorporate the results of your own reflection, critique, and measurement into future lectures—whether on this topic or on others.
Continue your quest for your own learning on this topic—use your own experience, the experiences of others, and research evidence.
Let the Effective Lecturer Beware
|AVOID speaking in PowerPoint®. Do not display and read the bullet points without further elaboration or examples.|
|AVOID cramming as much information as possible into each visual or frequently acknowledging, “I know you can’t see this, but. . .”|
|AVOID reading from a manuscript.|
|AVOID reading extensively from a text or other book.|
|AVOID distributing your lecture in a word-for-word manuscript.|
|AVOID using a PowerPoint® handout with 12 slides per page.|
|AVOID displaying a cartoon or other visual while talking about something else.|
|AVOID letting visuals speak for themselves. Point out key features or relevance to the topic.|
|AVOID letting the available technology drive your approach, instead of the subject and learners.|
|AVOID racing through the last part of your lecture where you have placed all the great examples and action implications.|
|AVOID using a monotone voice and extensive pauses.|