Lectures are oral presentations by the instructor or an expert in the content to a group of people. They are primarily used when the goal is to give a group of students a great deal of information, and are seen as the traditional form of content delivery in higher education settings.

Lectures are a great way to convey a lot of information to students. They are most effective when used sparingly and thoughtfully. To best improve the effectiveness of student learning, limit the length of lecutres to short segments interspaced by other active learning activities. 


Write an outline or script of the main points of the lecture.
  • It is very important to establish a roadmap of the content you plan on covering during your lecture. Articulate your plan at the very beginning so students are aware of what they should know by the end. It is also vital you create “guide posts” along the way. These can be quick reviews of the roadmap at the end of each major content takeaway, highlighting what has been covered and what is yet to come.

  • Some instructors provide handouts with the lecture outline and key terms to students. Other instructors put slides online prior to the lecture so students can follow along.

Create visuals.
  • Many students have difficulty learning solely by listening. It is useful to create some sort of visual aids to call attention to the major points of the lecture or ideas that students need to remember.

  • The visual aids should not simply present the words of the text you are speaking. Instead, bullet points or pictures that highlight the points of your text are more interesting and engaging.

  • There are several products that are available for this purpose. Some include: o Microsoft PowerPoint o Apple Keynote o Prezi o Haiku Deck
Choose engagement activities.
  • Research shows the average attention span is approximately 20 minutes. Think of ways to break up your lecture with brief activities to re­engage your audience and check for understanding.

  • Some options include:

    • Using clickers for polling
    • Think­pair­share
  • You can also ask the students questions throughout your lecture, with or without clickers.
Rehearse the lecture.
  • Practice the lecture in a setting as similar to the actual class as possible to make sure you have enough time to cover all necessary material. Do this ahead of the class session to allow you the opportunity to make changes.

  • If you are using visuals, they can help you keep track of your time. Discussing the content on a well­designed slide takes approximately two minutes.


Set expectations
  • Before you begin, let students know what you will need from them during your lecture to minimize distractions. Common distractions involve laptops or cell phones.

  • It is helpful to share the outline of your talk ­ including scheduled breaks ­so students know what to expect.

  • Encourage students to take notes. Research shows students generally retain information better when they take notes by hand rather than by typing; however, be sensitive to students with disabilities who may need a computer.
Engage your listener.
  • A popular misconception is that the information you present will automatically be as fascinating to your listeners as it is to you. Yet, how you present is equally as important. Some ways you can capture students’ attention include:

    • using a clear, loud voice.

    • moving about the space, whether it be just the front or the entire room.
    • incorporating funny or poignant stories to elucidate your points.
    • by using short engagement activities
Leave time throughout the lecture for questions and short activities.
  • At the beginning of the lecture, articulate your rules for questions. Some instructors prefer students to hold questions until the end of the lecture; however, allowing questions throughout the lectures aids in student engagement. You can make room for questions during the rests at the “guide posts” of your lecture.


Share your visual aids with the students.
  • As soon as possible after the lecture, post your visual aids to a place where students can easily access them.

If recorded, post the video of your lecture.
  • Post the recording of your lecture online so students can review it at their own pace.


Written by Lauren Britt­Elmore

Doctoral Candidate, Higher Education

Harvard Graduate School of Education

Lectures are oral presentations given by an instructor who stands at the front of the class and delivers information. Lectures are typically characterized by a unidirectional flow of information from instructor to students; hence, they may be best suited to disciplines and courses where there is a lot of ground to cover (e.g., the history and background of a topic, a large number of theories or equations). In a comprehensive volume on the utility of lectures, Bligh (2000) determined that lectures are a suitable method of instruction when the pedagogical goal is to impart information (they are not a good method for changing students’ attitudes or behaviors). Although Bligh’s review of the literature determined that lectures are just as good as other instructional methods (e.g., inquiry projects, self-guided reading) when the goal is to transmit information, he also noted that lectures are no better than these methods. In spite of six decades of research indicating that lectures are often not the optimal instructional method, lectures nevertheless remain the most popular teaching method at the university level worldwide (Bligh, 2000).

Lectures originated in the medieval university, where scholars would read to their students directly from a text. With time, the practice evolved such that scholars created lecture notes and spoke from those. In the Romantic Era, the lecture came to be seen as a “privileged vehicle” (p. 347) for disseminating knowledge (Franzel, 2014). Modern best practices strongly suggest limiting the length of a lecture to 15-20 minutes, or breaking up a longer lecture with hands-on activities, as research shows that 20 minutes is about as long as humans can maintain their attention on one source of information (Bligh, 2000). Surveys of instructors’ actual practices, however, indicate that it is not uncommon in higher education to find lectures that last over 50 minutes (Bligh, 2000). Lectures remain a quick and relatively inexpensive way to deliver content to large groups of students, which likely explains their enduring popularity.

Matheson (2008) argues that lectures are advantageous because they allow an instructor to collate information from multiple sources, explain complexities, and share their expert opinion. Moreover, students’ engagement and retention of material, which are typically low in lectures, can be improved when instructors make efforts to keep students at the optimal level of arousal, which is most often achieved by breaking up the lecture with activities (Bligh, 2000). Successful activities get students actively thinking, moving, or talking to each other.  Examples include 1-minute papers, problem sets, clicker questions, brainstorming sessions, and open-ended discussion questions. “Broken” or “interactive” lectures are beneficial not only for student engagement and retention of material but also because they provide an opportunity for formative assessment (Miller, McNear, & Metz, 2013).

Lectures have been criticized as creating passive learning experiences for students. Although students select which information to write down, and they may translate it into their own words when they do so, this is a relatively superficial way of processing information (Bligh, 2000). Moreover, research shows that students take fewer notes the longer the lecture continues (Scerbo, Warm, Dember & Grasha, as cited in Bligh, 2000). One study found that students spent 8.3% of the time they participated in class discussion trying solve problems or synthesize information while they did so only 1% of the time they were in lecture (Bloom as cited in Bligh, 2000). Furthermore Bligh argues that lectures cannot teach students how to think and they do not provide students with opportunities to practice thinking in the manner of their discipline.  However, not everyone agrees with this argument.  Proponents of lecturing counter that lectures are capable of stimulating higher-order thinking in students (Exley & Dennick, 2004; Small, 2014) and that not every lecture need be a painful experience (McLaughlin & Mandin, 2001). Matheson claims that students have come to expect a certain amount of lecturing in higher education and Exley and Dennick (2004) show evidence students appreciate when lectures are supplanted completely by active learning techniques, students request their return.

Faculty complain about low student attendance at lectures (Hilal, Mandiracioglu, Fatma, & Govsa, 2013); however, interestingly, attendance is not always reliably correlated with grades (Horton, Wiederman, & Saint, 2012). Providing students with the opportunity to ask questions during lecture, and programs that have a strong mentoring component, are associated with higher student attendance at lectures (Hilal et al., 2013). An increasing trend is to video-record lectures and make them available after class as a supplement to the in-class experience (e.g., Drouin, 2014) or in lieu of having a live lecture in class, as in the “flipped” classroom movement (Berret, 2012). Danielson, Preast, Bender, & Hassall (2014) found that students most value having access to videotaped lectures (also called e-lectures) when the course is fast-paced, relies heavily on lecture, and covers information not available in other formats. Some argue that providing e-lectures is a blended learning approach that gives students more flexibility about when, where, and how they learn (Joordens, Le, Grinnell, & Chrysostomou, 2009). However, Drouin (2014) cautions that making e-lectures available may diminish student attendance at the live class.

 Current best practices recommend that lectures be used sparingly and thoughtfully (McLaughlin & Mandin, 2001).  Preparing interactive activities to break up lecture times is time-consuming for instructors, but associated with learning gains for students (Miller et al., 2013; Steinert & Snell, 1999).


Written by Julia Hayden Galindo, Ed.D., Harvard Graduate School of Education




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Bligh, D. A. (2000). What’s the use of lectures?  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-7879-5162-5

Danielson, J., Preast, V., Bender, H., & Hassall, L. (2014). Is the effectiveness of lecture capture related to teaching approach or content type?  Computers and Education, 72, 121-131.

Drouin, M. A. (2014). If you record it, some won’t come:  Using lecture capture in introductory psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 41(1), 11-19.

Exley, K. & Dennick, R.  (2004).  Giving a lecture:  From presenting to teaching.  London:  Routledge.

Franzel, S. (2014). Romantic encyclopedics and the lecture form:  Schelling, A. W. Schlegel, A. von Humboldt. European Romantic Review, 25(3), 347-356. DOI: 10.1080/10509585.2014.899762

Hilal, B. A., Mandiracioglu, A., Fatma, O., & Govsa, F. (2013). Why do students miss lectures?  A study of lecture attendance amongst students of health science. Nurse Education Today, 33(6), 596-601.

Horton, D. M., Wiederman, S. D., & Saint, D. A. (2012). Assessment outcome is weakly correlated with lecture attendance:  Influence of learning style and use of alternative materials. Advances in Physiology Education, 36(2), 108-115.

Joordens, S., Le, A., Grinnell, R., & Chrysostomou, S. (2009). Eating your lectures and having them too:  Is online lecture availability especially helpful in “skills-based” courses?  Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 7(3), 281-288.

Matheson, C.  (2008).  The educational value and effectiveness of lectures.  The Clinical Teacher, 5, 218-221.

McLaughlin, K. & Mandin, H.  (2001).  A schematic approach to diagnosing and resolving lecturalgia.  Medical Education, 35, 1135-1142. 

Miller, C. J., McNear, J., Metz, M. J. (2013).  A comparison of traditional and engaging lecture methods in a large, professional-level course.  Advances in Physiology Education, 37, 347-355.

Small, A.  (May 27, 2014).  In defense of the lecture.  http://chronicle.com/article/In-Defense-of-the-Lecture/146797/

Steinert, Y. & Snell, L. S.  (1999).  Interactive lecturing:  Strategies for increasing participation in large group presentations.  Medical Teacher, 21(1), 37-42. 



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