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For several years now Higher Education has been promoting the virtue of student-centered learning; active learning, problem-based learning, and the experiential classroom have all had their moment in the sun. But what does this mean for the tried and true lecture? Should we throw out our lecture notes and PowerPoint slides?
Not necessarily. Research has shown us that students who are in classrooms that emphasize traditional lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students who participate in active learning classrooms. (Freeman et al., 2014) However, additional research shows students who receive a blend of inquiry and lecture-based instruction find a “sweet spot” of success. (Dorn et al., 2021) In fact, a well-prepared lecture is often the most efficient way to impart crucial content knowledge to students.
So how do we balance the need to convey content knowledge in a timely way while empowering students to process and grapple with more complex scenarios? The tips below can help you create engaging lectures which maximize the benefits of both active learning and the sage on the stage:
Walk a mile in their shoes
Higher education faculty are passionate about the subjects they teach, which can be both a blessing and a curse. For students who are first being exposed to a topic, there can be an overwhelming amount of new vocabulary and concepts to absorb. As you develop your lecture spend time thinking about what your students know, what they need to know, and the explicit connections that they need to make to get there. Every student brings their unique story to the classroom which drives how they relate to and interpret lectures. Taking both prior knowledge and life experience into consideration can help you craft a well-received lecture.
Begin your lecture by activating students’ prior knowledge so that they have a context for new information. This can be a quick round-robin of the previous day’s topics, a video, or even an ungraded or low-stakes pre-class activity or quiz. This also allows you to gauge student knowledge and adapt your lecture to account for deficits or inaccuracies of student knowledge.
In addition, it is important to prevent cognitive overload within the lecture by intentionally organizing information in shorter chunks that explicitly make connections between prior knowledge and course learning outcomes. After years of being told to “teach like a pirate” we often drop in stories and anecdotes to “hook” students, but these can be sexy distractors from the real content. Think about providing students with an outline of the lecture with major concepts or questions; this can help students to identify links between ideas and can also be helpful to ensure your lecture is directly aligned to course learning outcomes.
Use visual aids and graphic organizers purposefully
An abundance of words can be overwhelming and hard to process for students. Presenting information both verbally and visually can dramatically increase
student understanding: a 2015 study by Bui and McDaniel showed that students who were given visual aids increased follow-up test scores by nearly 70 percent. Diagrams, anchor charts, and pictures can all help students process learning. Small changes such as moving from bulleted text to tables formatted to categorize information can have big impacts.
However, overusing graphics and visuals can have a negative impact. If not used purposefully these seductive details can detract from the desired learning outcomes. It can be difficult to put yourself in the role of a student seeing information for the first time but reviewing materials with an eye for alignment with identified learning outcomes can help ensure that your lecture is able to be retained by students.
Build in time to process
It is important that you pace your lecture in such a way that students can process the information. We typically speak at a rate 10 times what we write, so it can be overwhelming for students to decide what the important topics are, and document them in a coherent fashion. (Piolat, Olive, & Kellog, 2005) Recording lectures can be helpful as students can revisit topics on demand, however, that does not allow them to fully engage with in-class discussion or activities. Frequent check-in questions can help you gauge student understanding and adapt your lecture accordingly. In addition, researchers have found that by revisiting the original topic in novel ways students are more likely to be engaged and recall information presented throughout the lecture, rather than just at the beginning. (Bransford, Brown, & Coking, 2005) These checks can take a variety of forms, such as a hand signal to indicate their understanding of a concept, a Muddy Moment where you ask students “What about this information so far is confusing or frustrating?” or interactive polls or quizzes using systems such as TopHat or NearPod.
Take a Break
Researchers have found that mental “breaks” help students focus and improve recall (Ariga & Lleras, 2011; Buch et al., 2021). These breaks are most effective when they incorporate opportunities for physical activities as cognitive and academic performance improves when movement is offered as an alternative to sitting every 10-20 minutes. (Felez-Nobrega et al., 2018) This may seem counter-intuitive to the professional gravitas of a higher education classroom, but something as simple as asking students to stand or sit to answer yes/no questions such as “Are you a freshman? Do you like pizza? Is winter your favorite season?” can dramatically improve academic performance.
Allowing students to engage with content through active learning is an important part of ensuring their future success, but this does not mean that the lecture is dead. As faculty we must apply what we know about cognitive engagement to design well-balanced classes which create active lecture opportunities.
Ariga, A., & Lleras, A. (2011). Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition, 118(3), 439–443. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind & experience. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Buch, E. R., Claudino, L., Quentin, R., Bönstrup, M., & Cohen, L. G. (2021). Consolidation of human skill linked to waking Hippocampo-neocortical replay. Cell Reports, 35(10), 109193. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2021.109193
Bui, D. C., & McDaniel, M. A. (2015). Enhancing learning during lecture note-taking using outlines and illustrative diagrams. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 4(2), 129–135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2015.03.002
Cerbin, W. (2018). Improving student learning from lectures. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 4(3), 151–163. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000113
Dorn, E., Krawitz, M., Moujaes, C., Mourshed, M., Hall, S., & Schmautzer, D. (2021, June 23). Drivers of student performance: Insights from the Middle East and North Africa. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved March 14, 2022, from https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/drivers-of-student-performance-insights-from-the-middle-east-and-north-africa
Feiler, K. E. (2018). Brain breaks go to college. Pedagogy in Health Promotion, 5(4), 299–301. https://doi.org/10.1177/2373379918799770
Felez-Nobrega, M., Hillman, C. H., Dowd, K. P., Cirera, E., & Puig-Ribera, A. (2018). ActivPAL™ determined sedentary behaviour, physical activity and academic achievement in college students. Journal of Sports Sciences, 36(20), 2311–2316. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2018.1451212
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, 111(23), 8410–8415. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111
Nicksic, H., Lindt, S. F., & Miller, S. C. (2020). Move, Think, Learn: Incorporating Physical Activity into the College Classroom. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 32(3), 528–535.
Piolat, A., Olive, T., & Kellogg, R. T. (2005). Cognitive effort during note taking. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19(3), 291–312. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.1086