In Defense of the Lecture

Making the Most of Instructors’ Expertise

by Janet Mizrahi

shutterstock_153270923_Feb 2016Have you noticed it has become de rigueur to bash the lecture? Critiques about the long-established practice vary from relatively minor putdowns (e.g. a lectern limits an instructor’s ability to physically command the room) to more wide-ranging raps (e.g. the lecture is a passive learning model that relies on dated teacher-as-expert hierarchies).

I admit freely that I lecture. Not all the time and rarely for an entire class session, but twenty years of teaching college students how to write has done nothing to dim my belief that lectures are an important component of pedagogy.

A recent op-ed in The New York Times by a professor at UNC Chapel Hill corroborated my belief in the lecture and defined its benefits. Prof. Molly Worton wrote that lecturers do not merely cite facts; they build arguments requiring students to “synthesize, organize, and react as they listen.”

In fact, Prof. Worton pointed out that lectures help students learn how to listen and do so by requiring them to pay attention, no mean feat in today’s swish-and-tap smartphone world. Listening over the course of an hour is arduous, especially if students take notes. Because students cannot take down an instructor’s words verbatim, note taking requires the synthesis of information. Encapsulating an idea on the fly is a complex cognitive process and an important component of critical thinking.

Of course, the difference between a compelling lecture and one that provides students with a nice nap is key. A good lecturer must be an actor of sorts, someone who not only has exquisite command over a subject but who combines that authority with accessibility.

I believe that the lecture is not antithetical to active learning—if it is done well. The following are pointers for successful lecturing.

Remember a lecture is not a monologue. Think of lectures as more of a live performance in which you, the expert, can illustrate your passion for and knowledge of your subject. Be animated rather than stiff; students will see your enthusiasm and appreciate it. Don’t read notes and especially don’t put up slides that you simply read. (I have stopped using PowerPoint slides during lectures; I insist that students take notes, preferably by hand. If a student misses a session or would like to see the slides after the lecture, I make them available.)

Use the podium as more than a placeholder for lecture notes. A lecturer need not be “a sage on a stage” hiding behind a lectern. Venture out from behind the podium. If you see a student snoozing or texting, move toward that student. Likewise, move toward students who are answering a question you have posed.

Begin a lecture with one or several questions. Say you are lecturing about bad news messages. Begin the class by asking your students, “How do people in business communicate bad news to their stakeholders?” or “In what context might people want to hear bad news early in a message?” Then ask students to jot down their answers. Put students in small groups after they have written their individual responses and ask them to compare notes. This strategy tests students’ assumptions and will help them be more engaged with the remainder of the lecture.

Invite participation. Encourage student participation by speaking naturally with relaxed body language. To engender discussion, avoid criticizing anything students who speak up say—our millennials will be more inclined to chime in if they know they will not be embarrassed by a critique. Make eye contact and call on students by name. Use name cards if your class size and memory disallow instant recall.

One of the best ways to engage students during a lecture is to ask questions. You might encourage    challenges to ideas you’ve raised. Another way to invite participation to ask class members to answer a question another student has posed. You can ask for a show of hands after you pose a question: “How many of you would prefer to read several short e-mails on a single subject or one long e-mail covering several topics?”

Another way to involve students during a lecture is to show the class multiple-choice questions, have them vote on the answers, and then let them try to persuade their neighbors of their response. Also refer to readings; you can even ask groups or individuals to prepare short presentations of readings to engender involvement.

Vary the format. Consider using cases to illustrate topics you are covering. Conversely, you may want to stop the lecture at one point and ask students to write in response to a question for a few minutes. (I often employ this tactic and link it to an upcoming assignment.)

Close the lecture. Give the session a sense of closure by allowing time for questions toward the end of the hour. Alternately, you might give students a one-question “quiz” based on the material you’ve just covered. Try asking them to write down what they considered to be the main point of the day and to note questions that remain unanswered.


What are your thoughts about giving lectures? Do you prefer to take the role of the expert? Share your thoughts!

2 thoughts on “In Defense of the Lecture

  1. Jo Ann Starkweather

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read on the importance of lectures and quick, relevant tips on best practice! I’ll be borrowing heavily from the discussion presented the next time the conversation turns to why we need more of an online presence!

    1. bizcombuzz

      Please do, Jo Ann! It surely is anecdotal, but my students tell me that they prefer face-to-face contact with instructors even as they acknowledge the convenience of distance learning.


Leave a Reply