Todd Zakrajsek, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Key Statement: Using mini-lectures to set up and support active learning is the most effective teaching method.
Key Words: Lecture, active learning, efficacy
Go Ahead and Lecture
Go ahead and lecture. Despite the extensive debates and grandstanding in the literature, the research indicates that it is perfectly fine to lecture, provided you don't lecture poorly or for too long. There are even times when lecturing is clearly more effective than any form of active learning, but more on that later.
When you imagine a lecture, what comes to mind? Take a second and think about that. When asked this question, many individuals indicate lectures make them think of “monotone,” “boring,” and other negative characteristics. We all have an image of an expressionless, drab faculty member standing at a lectern, droning on while the students in the class struggle to stay awake. That is likely the reason so many feel the lecture should be replaced with active learning. You have likely heard or read the phrase, “Active learning is more effective than lecturing.” Based on my experience conducting faculty workshops and the books I have written, I would argue this is the most recognized phrase in the history of education. Unfortunately, the research on this topic does not support this ubiquitous statement; it does not compare lectures to active learning (Zakrajsek, 2018). In reality, the comparison is between lecturing for entire class periods versus lectures with some active learning, not an assertion that lecture is ineffective or should not exist (Eddy & Hogan, 2014; Freeman et al., 2014; Hake, 1998; Theobald et al., 2020).
Photo credit to Kenny Eliason
Lectures are certainly effective at times. TED talks are a type of lecture, as are church sermons. When done correctly, a lecture can be illuminating. I have been to amazing conference keynote lectures where I left the session with a plethora of ideas. One can certainly learn from a lecture, but only when the length of the lecture is held in check. The best teaching strategy—and this is supported by extensive research—is to mix lecture with active learning strategies. In other words, for most faculty members, the best strategy is to plan mini-lectures that support your active learning plans.
There is extensive published work about how best to use active learning strategies (e.g., Major et al., 2021). By comparison, there are few resources about how to deliver an effective mini-lecture. Following are four strategies that can assist you in delivering effective lectures.
Lectures Worth Hearing: 4 Strategies
Length of Lectures
A lecture's length is typically based on two factors: attention and cognitive load. If learners find it challenging to pay attention to the lecture, either because of how information is presented or received, the information shared will not likely be learned. To help learners to focus, it is best to keep the mini-lecture short, perhaps 8 to 12 minutes. But this is not all lectures, by any means. We can watch TED talks that last 15 minutes and stay riveted, although there are relatively few TED or TEDx talks that exceed 17 minutes. Even the most effective speakers delivering practiced content find it challenging to hold learners’ interest for more than 17 minutes.
Cognitive load is also an important factor when determining an appropriate mini-lecture length. Cognitive load, most simply, is the amount of information you are processing at a given time. When a person maxes out their cognitive load, no additional information can be learned. Think about a time when you read something challenging, perhaps an article or a textbook chapter, and people started talking near you. If it was difficult to understand what you were reading it was likely because your cognitive load was maxed out. When lecturing, it is important to stop when you have presented enough information to max out students' cognitive load. How do you know how much information may be presented before you max out your students' cognitive load? This is a skill you will develop. Early in your teaching career you can catch a few students after class and ask them. If you work at learning about cognitive load, you will get better at knowing how much your students can process, and when your lecture should stop.
When Mini-Lectures Are an Appropriate Teaching Strategy
Mini-lectures are not only effective support for active learning, but sometimes may be preferred over active learning strategies. Following are five such situations (Zakrajsek & Nilson, 2023).
Students need to acquire foundational information quickly.
When conveying information that would be dangerous to teach in any other way. If you go parachuting, instructors deliver a lecture about important steps before you get onto the plane.
You want to model disciplinary-based thinking. It is sometimes helpful to demonstrate how an expert (you) thinks about a topic.
When providing information about how an active learning exercise will be carried out, such as a jigsaw or gallery walk. (Yes, a mini-lecture about how to do an active learning strategy.)
When students are interested in a topic and have a foundation of knowledge. The interest means learners are less likely to get bored, and the foundation means cognitive load is less of a concern.
Science of Learning Applied to Lectures
Many of the findings regarding how people learn can be applied directly to mini-lectures. With these practices "built in," faculty members are able to help students to learn course content by the way lectures are configured (Harrington & Zakrajsek, 2017; Major et al., 2021).
Activate Prior Knowledge. One of the best ways to learn anything is to connect it to something already known. This can be done in the lecture by including previously learned information or prompting students to think about something related they likely already know.
Capture Attention. Just presenting information with no effort to generate interest on the part of the student will typically fall flat. To enhance learning, start each class session with an "attention getter" tied directly to the course material for that day.
Emphasize Main Points. As you proceed through the content, point out to students the main points. What seems obvious to you as an expert is frequently not obvious to a novice.
Use Examples to Make It Meaningful. An effective way to establish retrieval cues to strengthen memories for newly learned materials is to show students examples and how the information might fit into or have an impact on everyday life. There are amazing models and examples on the web that can be incorporated into a lecture. You can find good examples by searching “immersive” and any natural disaster (e.g., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K75YFndkAZY&t=22s)
Provide Opportunities to Reflect and Retrieve. One of the most consistent findings concerning the science of learning is that one of the best ways to solidify learning is to practice retrieving information (Zakrajsek, 2022). After your lecture, you might have students write down the major points learned. You can also take a minute throughout the lectures for a similar reflection practice to ensure students are staying engaged and considering the new information.”
The information presented here is a very basic foundation designed to help you think about effective lectures. Continue to work on lectures and your skill will grow with your work. Mini-lectures are an effective way to teach, as long as students remain interested and their cognitive load is not maxed out. Follow each carefully structured mini-lecture with an activity to solidify learning that takes anywhere from 2 to 20 minutes. This lecture and active learning sequential pairing may be done two times or more in a class period, depending on the length of the class session.
At present, what proportion of your average course session is lecture versus active learning (students are purposefully engaged in learning through some form of activity)? Do you prefer to lecture or to facilitate group activities? Explain the basis for your preference.
In material you typically teach, in what situations do you feel it is better to lecture than to have students engage in an activity? How do you, or could you, ensure students are learning from the lectures you deliver during each class period?
Select one of the 5 items within the section “Science of Learning Applied to Lectures.” Explain how you would facilitate the concept you selected during a lecture. How would that same concept be facilitated during a small-group activity? Consider how these two approaches are similar and different in achieving the outcome desired for the identified learning components.
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Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., &
Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in
science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences USA, 111, 8410–8415.
Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive-engagement vs. traditional methods: A six thousand–
student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses.
American Journal of Physics, 66(1), 64–74. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.18809
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Newman, S., …, Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps
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Zakrajsek, T., & Nilson, L. (2023). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for
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