Making Lectures Less Painful

Lecturing is a key component to higher education, but sometimes lectures stifle learning.  McLaughlin and Mandin describe such lectures as lecturalgia:

"Lecturalgia (painful lecture) is a frequent cause of morbidity for both teachers and learners.” Medical Education 35 (2001): 1135.

However, lecturalgia is preventable for students and teachers.

Effective Lecture Strategies

While some educators think lecturing is passé as a teaching strategy, instructors can effectively employ lecturing to promote student learning by modifying their lectures to allow for the insights of studies about how students learn.

Remember the Attention Span of Students

The perennial advice about student attention is that attentiveness starts to decline after 10 to 15 minutes of lecturing.  McKeachie reports that research shows that “attention typically increases from the beginning of the lecture to ten minutes into the lecture and decreases after that point” (Teaching Tips, 10th Edition, p. 62).  While some scholars have questioned the veracity and specificity of the claim, most teachers know from their own educational experience that one’s attentiveness wanes regularly during lectures.  When you occasionally have found your thoughts wandering from a lecture, what were the prompts that reawakened your attentiveness?  Good speakers intentionally infuse their lectures with prompts to maintain and reinvigorate interest.  These prompts can be divided into two broad categories:

1. Organizational prompts help maintain and reinvigorate interest by previewing and reviewing main points, intentionally pausing for questions or discussions, and outlining key points via the white board or PowerPoint.

2. Content prompts sustain and awaken attention by using appropriate humor, anecdotes, stories and factoids to flesh out concepts.  They help students to relate new knowledge to their preexisting understanding.  A story can sometimes allow the student to grasp an idea in a way that s/he can relate.

Reinforce the Lecture Material with Other Learning Strategies

Another way to reinvigorate attention while incorporating sound learning theory is to intersperse your lecture with learning activities to reinforce key concepts. Real learning occurs through practice and reflection.  “Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves” (Chickering and Gamson, "Seven Principles for Good Practice," AAHE Bulletin 39: 3-7).  Give students opportunity in class to talk, write, relate and apply materials.  Group work, one-minute papers, think-pair-share activities and discussions are ways to incorporate other learning strategies into the framework of your lecture that will promote learning.  CTE has a resource page on common active learning strategies that you can employ.

Segment the Lecture into Smaller Blocks

The benefit of incorporating other learning strategies into your lecture is that it alleviates you from talking for the entire class session.  Try dividing your class time into manageable blocks, which consist of several mini-lectures that are interspersed with discussions, worksheets, group activities, etc.  While segmenting the lecture into smaller units and incorporating learning activities saves your voice, remember, more significantly, it engages students and increases learning.

Practice Good Learning Theory by Making Course Material Relevant

Vivien Hodgson’s analyses of student learning during lectures reveals the significance of “the vicarious experience of relevance.”  Greater learning occurs when professors are able to communicate their material in a way that students can relate.  Hodgson gives excerpts from a professor’s notes, the actual lecture and a student’s recall to illustrate how relevance occurs:

Extract from lecture notes:

  • Commercial process; that they are loaded on the deck of the fishing vessel may be tumbled, gutted and often contaminated with bacteria.

What the lecturer actually said:

  • I’m sure you have seen pictures, on television and things, of what happens to the poor old fish, they are tumbled on deck, they are trodden on, they are handled, they are gutted, and they are washed and all these operations add enormous other organisms to them.

Student’s recall:

  • It sort of flashed through my mind, actually picturing what happens because I’ve seen them pulling their catch in, the trawl. It was just like that, they sort of tread all over them, I thought goodness me, how do they ever get back, if they’re not in one piece are they fairly fresh?... Imagining all the bacteria on their boots coming off on to them ... I was just imagining it.

Try to teach material in a way that helps students to connect their previous knowledge to new materials.  As Hodgson says, “In the course of a lecture, students whose experiences might normally be largely extrinsic may find their interest in the subject matter itself kindled by the lecturer’s enthusiasm or, through the medium of a vivid example or illustration, see the content of the lecture as having meaning in the real world” (“Lectures and the Experience of Relevance,” The Experience of Learning, 171).

Quick References:

  • Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish, “The "Change-Up" In Lectures,” NTLF Jan. 1996  Vol.5 No.2.
  • Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish, “A Change Up Sampler,” NTLF Jan. 1996  Vol.5 No.2.
  • Vivien Hodgson, “Lectures and the Experience of Relevance,” The Experience of Learning (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment, 2005 Internet Edition): 159-171.

Resources from CTE’s Library:

  • Sally Brown & Phil Race, Lecturing : a practical guide.  London : Kogan Page, 2002.