Is Lecture an Effective Teaching Method? Update

A few years back, I wrote a piece on the effectiveness of lectures as a teaching tool.  I decided to revisit this topic to see what is in the educational literature now. Previously, there were a lot of negative judgments about lectures, fueled by a study that defined a "learning pyramid" that reported lectures had the lowest retention rate compared to other teaching methods (Mosaica, 1996). With the emergence of research about the role of active learning on retention, lectures continued to be vilified. However, despite the widespread messages that lecture is an ineffective and obsolete teaching method, there is a resurgence of substantive challenges and debates to this accuracy. The truth is many of us enjoy lecturing, and despite all the research on active learning, it is still one of the most common methods used in higher education (Weimer, 2019b). However, there is evolving significant evidence that the data from which this "learning pyramid" was built was not based on empirical information or evidence-based research, and the percentages assigned to the amount of learning regarding lectures lacked consistency and validation (Letrud and Hernes, 2018).

I believe what is important here is recognizing what has always been true. It is up to us as educators to determine the best method to use for teaching whatever content or material we have to teach and to take into consideration doing it in such a way that fosters learning based on what we now know about how the brain learns. When we factor all of this together - lecture is still very much a valuable method because sometimes it just makes sense to "tell" students the information.

With that said, there are ways to improve lecture delivery and make it more "interactive." I am sure we all have memories of that teacher who stood behind the podium, droning on for hours in a monotonous voice, and never looked up from their notes. I think we would all agree this is not effective for learning. However, I would also bet you can recall at least one professor or teacher who used lectures predominantly. And because that teacher was so effectively engaging, motivating, and interesting - when the class was over, you couldn't believe 3 hours had gone by! So what was the difference? 

The lecturer made the lecture interactive and engaging. They stepped away from "traditional" lecture, where information is communicated in one direction from teacher to student with little to no other activity during class time, to interactive lecturing. So what is interactive lecturing? Simply stated, it is intentionally interspersing active learning activities at different points throughout the lecture.  I suspect many of you already do this.

As defined by Barkley & Major (2018), when used effectively, a lecture can provide students with information drawn from multiple sources, not just the textbook. The lecturer can present information that may be otherwise unavailable to students, such as sharing an experience or story to illustrate a point. It provides an opportunity for the teacher to illuminate differences and similarities and clarify confusing principles or concepts. A teacher using lectures can also role-model critical thinking and professionalism and engender motivation and interest.  

 Here are a few suggestions for ways to make lectures interactive (although I bet you are already doing some of these)!

  1. Pre-planning is required – ask yourself how can I make the lecture engaging and interactive.
  2. "chunk" your class time – the concept of chunking in education refers to intentionally breaking the material you plan to teach into smaller or shorter segments and providing the opportunity for students to work with or apply this material or skills before moving to the next section or chunk. For example, in a 50-minute lecture, there could be 20 minutes of lecture followed by an activity that engages the students with the material or concepts you just presented.
  3. Add active learning activities.  
    • Leave blanks in the PowerPoints/Keynote presentation. This may require you to have two versions, a faculty one you use in class and a student one you post for them. Rather than giving them all the information on the slide, leave some blank, which requires them to fill it in during the lecture – this can be true for diagrams as well – give them the picture on the slide, but let them draw or circle and label the diagram.
    • Develop guides, worksheets, and class assignments that students must complete in class. These could be done individually, in pairs, or small groups.
    • Use the Socratic Method (one of my favorites) – intentional dialogue through the use of questions and answers to stimulate critical thinking. Think of it more as asking questions but letting the students find their solutions rather than a traditional question-answer dynamic where the students ask questions, and the teacher responds.
    • Recent research has brought to light that what students know about a topic before they come to the lecture influences what they can learn (Cerbin, 2018). So, finding ways to determine what students know, in general, before the lecture may be helpful. You can use a pre-quiz administered prior to the class meeting or start with opening questions about the topic at the start of the lecture. Or, you can give students pre-lecture assignments that must be completed that provide them with the basic information they need to make the lecture content more relevant and engaging (He, 2022). You are right if you think this sounds like a bit of a flipped classroom approach. There is a flavor of that here. And we all know that while we want and assign student reading with the intention they read before class, we know that rarely happens.
    • Consider adding a short, simple in-class assessment to be completed before the student leaves to help you gauge learning, such as The Muddiest Point or The 2-Minute Paper (Angelo & Cross, 1993; He, 2022).   
  4. As a lecturer, be sure to move around the room, be enthusiastic, and consider sharing appropriate personal or professional experiences or stories to illustrate a concept further.

 How to decide: Lecture or Active Learning or Both

What makes a teacher effective is their ability to pull from the many different teaching approaches and use them to create an environment that motivates students to learn. The debate about whether lecture is a useful method is finally coming full circle. In the emerging evidence coming to light, lecture is making a comeback as an acceptable and worthy teaching method (Barkley & Major, 2018; Gooblar, 2019). The truth is, there is no single best method for teaching. The decision is the teacher's and should reflect what method is best for the content and the intended learning outcome. Case in point, if the material is new and students likely haven't had it before, then you may need to spend more time in an interactive lecture format to help address complexities and confusion. But if students come to class with some knowledge, consider ways to perhaps cut back on lecture and provide more inactive learning activities. The reality is, from day to day, our teaching methods should vary. Some days it may be all lecture, other days all interactive or a combination (Weimer, 2019a,b). All of this to say, lecture is still an effective teaching method when used appropriately and effectively and not as the only method.



 Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P.(1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. 2nd Ed. San Francisco, CA:Jossey-Bass.

Barkley, E.F., & Major, C.H. (2018). Interactive Lecturing: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Cerbin, W. (2018). Improving student learning from lectures. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 4(3), 151-163.

Gooblar, D. (2019, January 15). Is it ever ok to lecture? The Chronicle of Higher Education.

He, Y (2022, January 18). Quasi-active learning: An approach to blending active learning and lecture. The Teaching Professor.

Mosaica. (1996). Starting strong: A guide to pre-service training. Washington, D.C. : MOSAICA: The Center for Nonprofit Development and Pluralism.

Weimer, M. (2019a, June 24). Lecture or Active Learning? When to Decide. The Teaching Professor.

Weimer, M. (2019b, February 1). Lectures and prior knowledge: Helping students make sense of new material. The Teaching Professor.



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