Lecturing has long been the primary method of conveying information to groups of students. It gives instructors great control over what is taught within a limited time, allowing them to explain complex concepts and clarify confusing points for students. But the monotonous presentation of information and lengthy one-way communication in didactic lecture lacks student engagement and makes students passive listeners in their learning process. While many of us know by now that lecture alone is incongruent with student learning, didactic lecture remains the dominant form of teaching in college classrooms. Given the prevalence of lecturing, educators need to be concerned about how to produce better learning and promote student success from lectures. The position of this manuscript is to suggest practical approaches for educators to enhance students’ retention of course materials, lessen achievement gaps, and promote student success in college classrooms. These strategies are adaptable for any length of lectures and easy to follow.
Present the learning objectives at the beginning of the lecture
Think about three to four points students need to know or be able to do at the end of the lecture. The instructor can provide students with an outline of the lecture which lists major concepts. This captures the attention of students and helps them better understand which topics are critical to achieve success in the course, and how the material connects to both previous and future content. The utilization of objective-based instruction informs students of the organizing framework they can use to process the flow of information and provides explicit directions concerning the lecture organization so students are more likely to follow.
Provide a mini summary/explicit transitions to increase clarity
Lecturing makes considerable cognitive demands on students: they need to focus and interpret the meaning of lecture content, then reconcile those with the instructor’s explanations. Many times, students might be unaware of when the instructor has moved on to a new topic. A mini summary or explicit transition provides students with a guiding pathway through a morass of information, and it also facilitates students in structuring their thinking and note taking.
Instructors can use obvious transitional phrases or write key words on the board to summarize. These cues help navigate the content and organize the information for students. Here are a couple examples:
- “Now we have learned the concepts of . . . , let’s discuss its application in solving problems.”
- “Now we have competed the topic . . . , and here is a quick summary of its key features.”
Segment lecturing with student active participation
As students are exposed to new course content in lecture, it requires active attention and the ability to focus on unfamiliar information. Students receive more information as the lecture progresses, impeding the assimilation of information still being processed from prior parts of the lecture, which makes longer lectures less enjoyable and effective. After lecturing 15-20 min, the instructor can segment the lecture and offer students the opportunity to participate in activities for active engagement. For example, problems/scenarios can be designed that require students to apply the concepts just learned. Students can work in small groups to integrate the lecture materials, synthesize connections between them, and construct explanations (He, 2020; Watkins & Mazur, 2013). The instructor can step away from the lectern and move around the classroom to identify and dispel students’ misconceptions (He, 2022).
Check for students’ level of understanding
Most courses are set up to assess learning at the end of a module, and a new module starts immediately afterward making it difficult to address gaps in understanding during the course. To resolve this, the instructor can administer a brief formative assessment at the end of the lecture to reiterate the learning objectives and ask students to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses in the course. The traffic light card is a versatile method that can provide students with an opportunity to reflect on and internalize the material. The instructor can distribute an index card that lists a summary of key concepts, in which students “traffic light” these topics by checking whether their understanding is high (green), partial (yellow), or low (red) (He, 2019).
This could engage students in reiterating key points from the lecture, increasing students’ awareness of the gap between their learning and course expectations, and helping students become aware of their strengths and weaknesses in the course content. At the same time, the instructor will be able to evaluate the comprehension level of the class and identify the gaps in understanding early enough to address them, which better tailors instruction to students’ needs. In the coming lecture, the instructor can spend the first few minutes by reviewing the yellow/red light topics, which consolidates previously taught material and strengthens links between the new content.
The practical approaches suggested here not only help students improve their conceptual understanding in the course content, but also promotes student success by supporting peer interactions and increasing their ability to understand and apply course materials. This can increase each student’s sense that their presence is valued in the classroom and embrace student diversity, thus boosting their engagement and achievement. By structuring lectures accordingly through capturing and maintaining the attention of students, active participation, and formative assessments with immediate feedback, we can enhance students’ retention of course materials, lessen achievement gaps, and promote student success in college classrooms.
Dr. Yunteng He is a chemistry instructor at Central Community College in Kearney, NE. Yunteng has been committed to developing innovative teaching strategies to improve student learning and engagement. His work has led to talks and workshops at several national and international education conferences, with papers published on Journal of College Science Teaching, College Teaching, and The Teaching Professor. He is also a board member of the American Chemical Society-Nebraska section and the recipient of League Excellence Award for Innovation in the Community College.
He, Y. (2019). Traffic light cards: A cross and modification between the minute paper and muddiest point. College Teaching, 67(1), 70–72. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2018.1522612
He, Y. (2020). Constructive error climate—A classroom assessment technique in science classes. Journal of College Science Teaching, 49(4), 37–40.
He, Y. (2022). Boosting student engagement and achievement during collaborative learning. The Teaching Professor. https://www.teachingprofessor.com/topics/classroom-climate/classroom-management/boosting-student-engagement-and-achievement-during-collaborative-learning
Watkins, J., & Mazur, E. (2013). Retaining students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors. Journal of College Science Teaching, 42(5), 36–41. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43631580