Thursday, 16 November 2017

The lecture is dead, long live the lecture, By Peter G Knight. School of Geography, Geology and the Environment, Keele University

When I first started teaching, back in the Stone Age, I went on a training session to develop my skills in lecturing. Yes, we had training sessions even way back then. And in that golden, wild-west age before health and safety, political correctness, or quality assurance, those sessions were real humdingers. They must have been, because in those days a single 2-hour session was all the University required for a youngster like me to make the transition from newly qualified PhD graduate (no teaching experience required) to fully-fledged lecturer. Training was a session, not a programme. And I think it was optional.

My training session involved me and half a dozen other new staff members each delivering a short example of their lecturing, and then discussing our different approaches. I think we may have been filmed. Perhaps it was set up as part of the session’s cunning design, but watching somebody nervously reading their lecture from an over-prepared script written down on index cards was possibly the best lesson in lecturing I could have had at that time. “Look how bad it can be. Don’t be this.” Even in those primitive times, and even as a youngster, I understood that a University Lecture was not supposed to be like that.

Now, thirty years later, we have recourse to a substantial literature telling us how useless the formal lecture is as a teaching tool. But I like lectures, and I think they still have their place in our teaching armoury. Not the lectures where somebody reads off a script, even if (especially if) the script is nowadays projected on PowerPoint, published on the virtual learning environment and available for replay on the PlayBack system. That’s not what I mean when I talk about lecturing.

For me, the lecture is not mainly about information delivery. Information can be delivered more effectively in other ways. If your idea of a lecture is reading out information from a script, cancel the lecture and post your script online. If you like the sound of your own voice, make a podcast. Recordings are great for students who want to listen to your pearls of wisdom while they do the washing up, walk to the park, or fall asleep at night. But where large numbers of students want face-to-face access to the individual expertise of a small number of teaching staff, the lecture remains an effective way of teaching… as long as you are careful with it! For me, the lecture is primarily about route laying, signposting, and motivation. There is some information content in my lectures, but the real aim is to show students the learning territory that lies open to them, and to motivate them to want to go and explore that territory. The lecture is a facilitating tool, not a content holder.

So what simple steps can we take to make our lectures more engaging and effective?

There are lots of different ways of doing this, depending on your own course context and teaching style, but for me it has been effective to use a blended learning approach in which the lecture is the glue holding together a range of other media. For example, a lecture might have strong online backup including a short topic summary and readings from both undergraduate textbooks and advanced research sources, so I can be sure that students have access to the core content even if I don’t go through all of it in detail in the lecture. Students can be encouraged to do pre-reading for the lecture (not just post-reading) so that they come along already clued up (and perhaps even with questions) rather than turning up saying “what are we doing today?” (or, worse still, if they say “what are you doing today?”). Preparation can be encouraged and enhanced using resources such as YouTube mini-lectures that flag up things for students to wonder about in advance. Or you could post material onto a module’s Facebook page. Students are then familiar with the key points before we start, and the lecture can operate at a higher level than if you needed to run through the basics for 15 minutes. You can see an example of these pre-lecture mini-lectures on YouTube at

For courses where students do preparatory work such as pre-videos or pre-reading, the lecture sessions can be improvised in response to in-class student questions/comments about what they have already done. It is usually easy to predict what students will want to learn more about (indeed you can steer them with the pre-resources that you provide), so you can still “write a lecture” in advance if you want, but then deliver it as a response to the questions they bring from their prep-work. Alternatively, you can simply give the bits of the lecture that become relevant as they ask questions about the video or the reading.

If you don’t want to set up preparatory resources, but plan to “stand and deliver” for 50 minutes, you don’t have to simply stand and deliver for 50 minutes! One effective approach is to break the session into manageable chunks, and to use each chunk to achieve a specific goal.

Here’s an example breakdown of a 50-minute 1st-year lecture, following a model that has worked well for me:

  • minutes 0-5: “establish a teachable moment” – in other words, do something that puts the students into a frame of mind where they want to learn. They won’t learn just because you force information on them. They will learn if they feel the desire or need to know something. This can be achieved in different ways. One basic approach is to ask them an interesting question (interesting to them) to which they don’t know the answer or to which you show the answer is not what they always thought. Essentially you need to make sure at the start of the lecture that the students are curious to know more about whatever it is you are covering. 
  • minutes 5-20: flag up the key issues in your topic of the day. This is the “core content” section of the lecture, and needs clear signposts and subheadings so students know exactly what to go away and read up on. Remember that you don’t have to teach them everything in class, just show them that it is there and help them to realise that it is important and interesting.
  • minutes 20-25: short break, with a reminder that students could take this opportunity to review their notes from the previous 20 mins and identify questions they might want to ask.
  • minutes 25-40: present a case-study or counterpoint example (perhaps from an important research paper) that draws together key themes from the day’s topic and perhaps illustrates them in an applied context (or from a perspective that will help shed light on what you did in minutes 5-20).
  • minutes 40-45: time to deal with student queries and comments about what you’ve done (including opportunity for them to ask questions they thought of in the mid-lecture break), and time to reiterate your key point. This might be a good point to throw in a quick Mentimeter activity to get student feedback on what they feel they have understood well or have found difficult in the session. Not heard of mentimeter? Check it out at It is one of a whole raft of interactive tools that are available to help make lectures more engaging. If you don’t want to use technology, then a good old-fashioned 2-minute talk-to-your-neighbour buzz group can work well at this point, too.
  • minutes 45-50: a closing activity to reinforce their learning and encourage them to do the follow-up work you may have set. One simple approach here is to give them a short self-assessed or peer-assessed mini-test on what just happened in the lecture. Alternatively, the old-fashioned “conclusions” slide still has its place! Better still, throw them a teaser to prime them for the next session.

Recently I set out to redesign an entire module using that kind of framework as a starting point. I didn’t really stick perfectly to the plan, but making a step in that direction was a big improvement on my previous style. Basically, instead of a 50-minute block covering a set of information, think of half a dozen short blocks of varied content, including student activities, designed to signpost and motivate. If you are adopting an approach like this because you think students have short attention spans (we all have short attention spans), then you can also help by making sure you switch occasionally between different modes of presentation. For example, if your core session at minutes 5-20 is delivered by PowerPoint, then perhaps try using the whiteboard, or a box of sand, or at least a Prezi instead of a PowerPoint for the case study section. Or you could use a video for the opening few minutes, then talk-and-chalk for a bit before going back into PowerPoint.

Mix it up. Stay lively.

The example above is just that: an example. I’m not pretending to be able to teach anyone how to teach. But having looked at my example, take this as your own teachable moment: I know you are thinking you could do it better, and that I’ve missed a trick, or a bit of technology, or a key pedagogic theory. Excellent, then my work here is done: now please go and develop lectures even better than I have suggested!

NB: Some of this content was previously published on Peter G Knight’s own WordPress blog.   Creative Commons License
The lecture is dead, long live the lecture, By Peter G Knight. School of Geography, Geology and the Environment, Keele University by Peter G Knight, Keele University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at