The most commonly stated purposes of lectures are to:
- convey information;
- stimulate motivation and interest in a subject area. This can lead to deep understanding if opportunities are made available to construct and ask questions;
- generate understanding.
Are lectures an effective means of encouraging students' learning? Research on lecturing suggests that traditional lectures, if well planned and presented, are as effective as other methods (but not more effective) for conveying information (see Brown & Atkins, 1988). However, there is little point in simply conveying information, however well it is presented, without stimulating students' motivation to learn and giving them opportunities to develop understanding. Methods which actively involve students are more effective than lectures for encouraging them to take deep approaches which are likely to result in developing understanding, encouraging critical thought, challenging opinions or changing conceptions.
This does not mean that all lectures should be abolished. Many teachers enjoy lecturing, and many students enjoy good lectures. If you choose to lecture, you can do so in a way which maximises the chances of students developing understanding. Lectures can be used to give broad contextual information, to highlight the important or interesting aspects of a topic, to demonstrate problem solving techniques, or to show the relative strengths of two sides of an academic controversy. They should not, however, be used to transmit information that the students can acquire (perhaps more effectively) from reading their textbook. Lectures which are based around a set text should be used to clarify, expand, or explain the content of the text rather than merely to repeat it. It should also not be assumed that transmission by the lecturer implies reception and learning by students. Students learn more effectively when lectures include activities which engage their thoughts and motivation. The following points from Gibbs and Habeshaw (1989) are particularly relevant to the making lectures more effective.
Students construct knowledge
Students are not empty vessels into which knowledge can be poured. All people, including university students, try to make sense of new information in the context of their existing knowledge. Students can have pre-existing misconceptions about the subject which affect the way they interpret and try to understand new concepts. It follows that in order to encourage student understanding, you need to know about students' prior knowledge and conceptions and help them to change misconceptions. It helps to ask students to explain concepts in their own words, to discuss and to debate the conflicts and paradoxes present in the subject. It also helps to point out links between your subject and others and to relate new knowledge to everyday examples. When students are constructing knowledge themselves they are taking an active role in their learning. Consider , especially for postgraduate subjects, getting the students to give some lectures as long as they are given guidance.
Students like to see the whole picture
As experts in their subject areas, teachers have no difficulty in seeing how different topics in their subjects relate to each other and fit within the framework of the discipline area. As novice learners, students often experience subjects as a collection of topics, without being able to gain an idea of the relationships between them or how they link to related subjects. To help overcome this, give students an overview of the whole subject at the beginning - a written subject outline or diagram of the subject can be helpful. Students can then link each new session back to this overview and to previous sessions. Making the structure of each session clear to students can help them to fit the topics together in their minds and begin to make sense of them.
Students can be easily overburdened
Presenting too much content too quickly can rapidly overwhelm students' ability to make sense of it. This is particularly so if the content is very new, detailed or conceptually difficult. Students are likely to have a greater chance of understanding if given opportunities to mentally process and reflect on new material. This may mean reducing the amount of material you can cover and providing other sources of information - such as printed or Web based lecture notes, in order for students to learn important concepts more effectively.
At the beginning
It is crucial in any lecture to have a clear structure in your own mind, and to make this structure clear to the students before and during the lecture. This can be done by means of a handout or prepared overhead projection. The plan should show the main issues, themes, concepts or problems to be considered, their sequence, and their relationship to each other.
During the lecture
It will help the students to understand the lecture if you refer frequently to your plan, in order to show when you have finished with one point and are moving to the next. Don't be afraid of the repetition that will result from this. Students like signposting - it helps them to take more organised notes and to avoid becoming lost as their concentration waxes and wanes. Use verbal cues ("we have now finished this point and are moving on to ...", "the most important idea is ...") to highlight steps in the lecture and key points.
Make sure you include specific provisions for question breaks and student activities in your lecture plan.
At the end of the lecture
Repetition is useful at the end of the lecture. One way to end is to summarise the main points you have made, show how these points fit in to the overall plan of the subject, and, if appropriate, how the following lecture will develop them. An alternative is to ask students to write down what they think are the two or three most important points in the lecture, then to compare these points with each other, or with an overhead which you could display. This encourages students to reflect on the lecture, which helps their longer term learning. It also helps you and them to see whether they have missed an important point which may need to be readdressed.
Before your first lecture go to the room and check that your materials can be seen and that your voice can be heard. Early in the lecture, check that the students in the back row can hear clearly. Vary your voice in pitch, speed and volume to add emphasis and interest.
Do not speak too quickly when explaining a concept or making a point; remember that the students are trying to understand what you are saying and take notes at the same time. When you make a particularly important point, pause, and even repeat it, to give the students a chance to note it properly and reflect on it. This time also gives students a chance to consider any questions they have. Providing students with handouts of detailed notes or important diagrams will save time, and ensure that the students have the notes or diagram which you intend.
When introducing unfamiliar words or formulae, write them clearly on the board or overhead projector. If your lecture contains many unfamiliar expressions, put them in a handout, either in alphabetical order, or in the order in which you are going to refer to them.
Finally, when you ask questions, make sure you allow sufficient time for students to think and answer before rephrasing.
Student Activities in Lectures
Involving the students in activities where they engage with the content can promote understanding and critical thought, and hence raise the quality of student learning from lectures. The following list (adapted from Gibbs, 1992) offers some suggestions for student activities which may take as little as two minutes. Explain to the students beforehand why you want them to do the activity, and that the aim is to assist their learning. After any activity allow the students to report back to enable them to hear different perspectives, and to give you an idea of what they have been doing. It is not necessary (and usually not possible) to ask all students or groups for answers. Three or four answers are usually sufficient. You can of course raise important points yourself if students don't seem to be doing so. Try to vary the activities you use, while choosing those which best suit your aims for student learning
- Read notes: Give students two minutes to look through their notes, make sure they understand them and try to fill in gaps. Students can also note points that they don't understand.
- Read another student's notes: Ask students to swap notes with the person next to them and see what they have written. Note points that could be added to their own notes when you get them back.
- Read some material: Give students a few minutes to read a case/example/text/poem/idea/newspaper clipping. You could then ask several students to outline the main points; ask students a question about the item, use the item to lead into a new topic etc.
- Summarise important points: Give students two minutes to note down the two or three most important points they've learned in the lecture so far. When students have finished, they could compare points with the person next to them, or you could put up an overhead and ask them to compare their points with yours. This also helps to ensure that students note the points that you consider important.
- Write down a question: Ask students to write down one or two questions that they have at this point in the lecture, and to word the question so that it addresses what they are really interested in or confused about.
- Silent reflection: Request students to take two minutes to quietly think about what the lecture has dealt with so far.
- Explain a point to the person next to you: Ask students to explain... (the concept you have just discussed) to the person next to them in their own words, as if they were explaining it to someone who was not doing the subject.
- Discuss an experience: Students can be asked to form pairs, each member of the pair to think of a example of ....(this topic) which she/he has seen or read about. Then take it in turns to discuss it. Set a time limit of two minutes per student. Two or three students could then be asked to share their example with the rest of the group.
- Work on a problem or a case study: Give students a case study from real life, and ask them to work individually or in pairs or threes on any aspect of it - devising a solution, discussing the ethics of particular options etc. Depending on the task, you could reveal the solution which was chosen in reality, then ask students to comment on it, or discuss options which they put forward.
- Group problem solving: Students can be asked to work in groups of two or three, to devise a solution to a problem. You could then ask several groups for their solutions.