Posted by: Jeremy Fox | January 7, 2012

Are even the best lectures bad?

Like most profs, I haven’t had much formal teacher training. I’ve had a bit, and I’ve had some informal training (some of it from my wife, who is a trained teacher). I do care about my teaching, and I’m aware of the large body of research that says that just standing up in front of a class and lecturing is an ineffective way to teach most students. But I still mostly lecture, though I’ve slowly cut back on it over the years. I still lecture in part because I think I’m a solidly above-average lecturer and so I’ve always questioned whether that body of research really applies to me.*

But reading this post over at Crooked Timber gave me pause. It relates how a really good lecturer at Harvard–so a really good lecturer lecturing to really good students–found out that his students just weren’t grasping the material nearly as deeply as he thought they were. He was lecturing as well as possible, under the best circumstances possible–and it still wasn’t working. Now, I do wonder a little how he could’ve failed to realize it wasn’t working (the post includes some thought-provoking speculation on this point). But still, a pretty sobering story for someone like me.

The post goes on to talk about some radical alternative approaches. I don’t know that the most radical ones–like having students do the lecturing!–are feasible for the sort of material I, and probably many of you, teach. But recently my gradual ramping down of the amount of lecturing I do, in favor of things like spending one class session a week having students work in pairs on practice problems and thought exercises, has started to bear fruit. So even if you feel, with justification, that you’re an excellent lecturer, you may still want to try lecturing a bit less. There are ways to do this even in a massive class, and even if you’re not (yet) prepared to give over entire class sessions to non-lecturing activities. For instance (to pick just one example of the many non-lecturing things you can do), you can break up your lectures by posing questions to the class and have the students talk to their neighbor for a minute to come up with the answer. Then call on a few students, who will probably give different answers if the answer is non-obvious, or if there is no single right answer. Those different answers then provide a jumping off point for another minute of discussion-in-pairs, or for the next bit of the lecture.

I encourage you to share your best tips for how to teach without lecturing in the comments. And do check out the comment thread for the linked post as well–comment threads at Crooked Timber are lengthy and excellent.

*Yes, I know that most everyone thinks they’re above-average at everything they do. But in my own defense, I do have some independent reasons for thinking I’m an above-average lecturer.


  1. It is important not to overbuy the anti-lecture hype. There are so many rich ideas that are easier to convey in a lecture than even the textbook. The real key to understanding good teaching is that it is all about getting the students to think. The reason that most lecturing falls flat is that behaviorally students will just sit back and either ignore, doodle, or copy down random things off the power point. Description of big ideas, with an immediate use of the idea as either a question or problem, followed by feedback is the way to go.

    • Agreed–engaging the students, getting them to think, is key.

  2. Certainly failing to engage (all) the students is the problem. You need to be very very skilled or have very exciting news to engage students for all of 45 minutes or longer by simply lecturing. 15-20 minutes is much easier – therefore I suggest to enter something forcing the audience to listen/think/respond in the middle if not earlier. I also have practised small “questionaires” with 5-10 questions related to the theme of the lecture for students – everybody thinking this or that – stand up/sit. That can become quite fun and I used it in the beginning of lectures for first year students where I knew the student had had 4 lectures in a row before my lecture. Then I imagine that they really can use getting up and down and some laugh. Unfortunately, there are big differences between the engagement of students in different countries/universities and on different stages of their education and it seems that at some places it is almost impossible to get the students even just to reply questions in the lecture hall. They are used to be quiet for hours. There, the other means with small tasks as discussing two and two for five minutes are valuable. Those students need to be trained in participating and engaging. Training the students to assimilate and reflect in the lecture hall I believe may turn out to pay off with more independently thinking and behaving students in the longer term.

  3. […] not actually a response to my post asking if even the best lectures are bad, but it might as well have been: Joan Strassman at […]

  4. […] have been some nice posts recently on information and self-reflection about how we teach over at Oikos (based on, indirectly, on a great piece on NPR) and Sociobiology (and a second piece) that are […]

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