Why I avoid lecturing


Academic freedom is glorious. Despite pronouncements to the contrary, university faculty — including most contingent faculty — enjoy tremendous freedom in what we teach and how we teach it. Most professors teach however the hell they choose to teach.

Academic freedom enables change, but resists rapid change. Faculty have the liberty to stand aside as change happens. We can stand by and snark as fads wash by. We also can fossilize as the landscape truly changes. I think it’s hard, in the moment, to distinguish between a fad and a change in the landscape.

I have no idea whether “active teaching” is a fad or a landscape change in higher education. When new K-12 teachers are being trained, it’s all about active learning. You couldn’t get your credential to teach in most states in the US if you taught by lecturing. That ship has sailed.

Professors will be quick to point out that universities are not high school, and that just because K-12 works one way, they don’t have to change. And they’re right, because most people are not changing.

But there is a substantial movement in the US to shift from lecturing to other modes of instruction. I think there isn’t a dichotomy between “lecture” and “active learning,” but instead a continuum.

On one end of the continuum, a classic lecture happens when a professor does not require the student to actively think. Students can just sit there, and are expected to listen, think and take notes. On the other end of the continuum, an extreme “active learning” lesson happens when students are interacting consistently with other individuals, and when presented with content, are expected to process this content and do things to communicate thought and understanding.

Most of us do something in between. We might ask questions of the class. We might use clickers or an easier and cheaper alternative (plickers). We might use “think-pair-share” to break up lecture segments, or have small group projects interspersed with powerpoints. We do all kinds of stuff. Anything that keeps students externally accountable for thinking while they are in class is a step away from the classic lecture. Randomly (not haphazardly, mind you) calling on students who don’t raise their hand works. When I’m teaching, I at least try to get students to talk with one another about small problems once in a while, which keeps them engaged and makes sure their attention doesn’t wane (which happens after about 15 minutes of lecture).

I’d like to think that all professors — those who just “lecture” and those who only do “active learning” —  want the same thing: active thinking, and deep learning, by all of our students. I have more detailed thoughts about what excellent teaching is, but in short, I think excellent teaching happens when students become better critical thinkers, gain better academic skills, and of course learn the course material.

So how do we get there? What is the most effective approach? I’ll let you in on a little secret that few scientists seem to notice: There are people who research this for a living. What have they learned about what works best?

Well, this is a whole frickin’ discipline. They’ve learned a lot. Most relevant to my teaching priorities, here’s what I have learned and processed.

  • Teaching with “active learning” can be just as effective as teaching with a classic “lecture.”
  • Students from marginalized groups are less engaged in lectures than other students. Even advocates for lecturing acknowledge this fact. This list includes low-income, first-generation, and members of underrepresented groups, often including women.
  • Let me point this out again: students who have experienced systemic disadvantages learn less from lectures than from active learning. There is a mountain of data on this. The findings are unequivocal.
  • There are clear socioeconomic disparities in academic preparation among students, and these disparities result in differences in study skills and the ability to learn independently.
  • No matter what we do in our 45 hours in a single semester, we are not going to fix a lifetime of economic and educational marginalization. Students who haven’t had the benefits of wealthy parents, expensive prep schools, and extraordinary high school teachers are not going to be able to learn from independent study like their better-advantaged peers.
  • If I can do something teach well-advantaged students effectively and simultaneously promote the success of less-advantaged students, this is a no-brainer of a choice.
  • Universities that primarily teach using lectures are choosing a mode of instruction that favors the academic performance of students from more advantaged socioeconomic groups.
  • Of course we need to do our best to help everybody get the academic skills they’ll need in life. But we also must accept that attempts to repair this deficit are not enough to justify less effective modes of instruction.
  •  If I frame this issue as “students need to learn to study on their own,” then what I am doing is passing the buck for effective teaching to the student. If I can do things that help all students to learn, that’s my job. I can’t fix social inequities but I can use approaches that ameliorate them rather than exacerbate them.
  • Universities that are attempting to diversify need to have an inclusive environment so that they can attract, retain and experience success of their marginalized students.
  • If I really care about equity and diversity, then I can’t make the choice to lecture when I can use more “active” approaches.

Some people have claimed it’s “unethical” to lecture. That’s nonconstructive hyperbole. But, well, when I look at the facts and ideas above, it’s hard to argue against that hyperbolic argument. I’m not running around telling people that lecturing is unethical, but it’s not a choice that I can make in my own good conscience. But I’m used to making ethical decisions that are in the minority, including my diet, language, transportation. So now I can add “mode of instruction” to that list. I realize that preaching about how to teach isn’t going to change many minds, no more than PETA will make people go veg.

If you’ve got a job teaching a the university level, and you think lecturing is best, then please go ahead and lecture. You can’t be an effective instructor unless you believe in what you’re doing. But if you’re inclined to dive into the education literature to learn about what works better, this can’t harm your teaching and probably can help (even if the education literature is annoyingly full of jargon and group-think, as much as our own fields are to outsiders).

So, what truly is the best way to teach? I like what Miriam Burstein has to say:

All instructors have to assemble their own pedagogical toolkit from the many resources out there and restock it (and recreate it) as necessary.  There is no one single way of being effective.  There is no magic spell… that will make all pedagogical techniques effective all the time.  It is very difficult to generalize from one instructor’s experience to the next.  One gets on with it.

Please, if you want to lecture, go ahead! I’m not stopping you. But if you’re mounting a defense of the lecture that isn’t evidence-based, and isn’t designed to help level the playing field for students with a disadvantaged educational background, then it’s not useful for me.

18 thoughts on “Why I avoid lecturing

  1. Hi Terry, thanks for the great post, I agree with everything you said. I just want to add that, in addition to helping students who are underrepresented in the sciences, active learning also helps students who are already over-represented in the sciences. Check this out:


    Their last figure shows their finding that active learning helped the top third of students at MIT achieve the greatest learning gains, both absolutely and relatively.

    Have you used the plickers that you linked to? Do they work well?

  2. Thanks for writing this. I’m in my first year teaching a freshman biology class, and I’m using a lot of active learning. One challenge I’m having is that some students will “get” what we do in class. But that doesn’t always translate to success on exams (my exams are more traditional, multiple choice). I am sure I need to improve my exams, but it is hard to know how to do that in a practical way that separates those who have truly learned the material from those who haven’t (and that doesn’t take too long to administer or grade). I’m open to advice on that.

  3. I’ve used plickers in a demo in a room with about 40 people and they worked seamlessly. With full-size cards, they can work in a class maybe twice as big, beyond that probably not, so I’ve heard. It is really cool and I like getting to use a clicker-type assessment without the advance prep and requiring students to have/use clickers.

  4. Steve Piccolo, I had that same issue in a large intro class that I taught, where students would seem to understand in class but wouldn’t do as well on multiple choice exams. One thing that worked well for me was to start posting “daily quizzes” online where students could test their understanding of the material. A lot of the daily quiz questions would be reproduced on the exams. Quizzes were fully automated and students could take them as many times as they wanted up until the date of each exam. Student success (at least, the part measurable in exam scores) increased, without much extra burden on me.

  5. My problem with writing exams for classes that are primarily in-class active exercises is that we cover less content. I think covering less content is a GOOD thing, so long as they learn the content we cover better. Which I think is borne out by the data. But it leaves less to test them on. Here are a couple relevant posts that touch on this, but I’m hoping a bona fide expert in this will have more to say in these comments:


  6. Personal anecdote: I went through undergrad and PhD with all traditional lectures. Then I did the typical postdoc, etc route. Now I’ve been in another type of fellowship to gain some additional credentials. Part of this fellowship is attending didactics that are very much of the active-learning type. What I’ve found is that I learn much less from the active-learning approach, but what I learn probably sticks a bit better. For me, it’s a great way to learn very specific, focused points (factoids, really) that the instructor considers to be important. But the context is lost; it’s more difficult to synthesize those disjointed points into a bigger picture. Whereas, a lecture (if the prof is good) is more of a story in which all the pieces fit together. But maybe that’s just me.

    By the way, thanks for getting your podcast on TuneIn! I just enjoyed listening to it on a 2 h roadtrip this past weekend.

  7. I’m a great fan of active learning techniques, and I use them in all my classes. I also lecture in all my classes, when it’s appropriate. My problem with this critique and others that have emerged recently is the assumption that if you’re lecturing, that’s all you’re doing. For some people I’m sure this is true, and yes, courses that are straight lecture, and nothing else, have been shown to by less effective by all sorts of measures. But that does nothing to diminish the lecture as a pedagogical tool, because those studies don’t extend to the value of the lecture as part of a broader ecology of pedagogical approaches. Sometimes you just have to tell people some stuff, just like sometimes you need to let them hash it out in groups. I’d go so far as to say that a competent college teacher MUST be able recognize when a lecture is necessary and execute it effectively.

    No single teaching technique should be anyone’s sole approach in the classroom. And as such, this, and other “lecturing is bad” critiques are straw-manny in the extreme. Pedagogy should never be about what method is “best”—the very question smacks of a pernicious absolutism. It’s a question of what techniques, in what combination, and in what circumstances can work together to create a useful learning experience. The lecture is one of those techniques, and although you shouldn’t use it exclusively, you should damn sure know how to give a good one.

  8. Spending more time on less material can be problematic.

    Students must have a good foundation of knowledge and understanding in order to perform well at the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. For a topic like ecology, there is so much that 1st and even 2nd year students should know that lectures and readings are often the only way to cover that information in the allotted time.

    In my experience, the flipped classroom works best in the upper year classes (3rd and 4th), after students have a solid foundation of ecological knowledge.

    As to the notion that covering less material is acceptable if one focuses on teaching only the important stuff, perhaps so. But frankly, I have yet to see this happen at my school. For the past few years, I’ve polled my upper year students on the first day of class to see how many came from flipped classrooms and I’ve been surprised to find that at the end of the course they often perform worse than students from the traditional lecture classes.

  9. NB, do you have any way to substantiate that that lectures are the only way to cover what students need in the lower division, other than a personal anecdote? Because from what I’ve read in the literature about science education, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
    Flipped classrooms are an entirely different matter – having students watch lectures outside class doesn’t seem to be that productive as far as I’m concerned. So I can’t comment on their effectiveness. But the idea that students who were in them learned less than the lecture classes, I’d love to see the data because that contradicts what is already published.

  10. Thanks for this. I am a lecturer, and work hard to make the lectures engaging and interactive. And, from student evaluations, they are.

    The point about socioeconomic differences had never occurred to me.

    On a different, but perhaps related note, one think I find distracting during teaching is when students are engrossed in their phones. I mean, why come to lecture if you are just going to be texting others?

  11. Thinking back to my time in college, all of the worst classes were lectures. But, I also took one really excellent class that was lecture-based. At least one major difference between the terrible and excellent lecture classes seemed to be instructor effort. That is, in the excellent lecture the instructor was heavily invested in student learning and would continually do things (ask questions, scan facial expressions, etc.) to ensure that concepts were making sense. Information definitely flowed in two directions – from the instructor to the class, and from the class to the instructor. The lecture was clearly modified depending on what students were understanding or questioning. In contrast, in the terrible lectures, the instructor pretty much just droned on. Information flowed (poorly) in just one direction. From my point of view as a student, the excellent lectures looked like they must have been exhausting to deliver. Now that I’m a teacher (middle and high school) I use active learning techniques in my own classroom. I think it is possible to get great results (at least in some subjects) with lecture, but it is much harder on the instructor. If you like lecturing and you have evidence that you’re a virtuoso, I’d say you should go for it. But if you’re not in the top 5% (and 95% of us aren’t!) lecturing is probably a terrible idea.

  12. I’m a geographer who teaching mainly GIS or spatial analysis courses. Active learning strategies have long been baked in to this subject at a basic level, but certain forms of active learning in particular, and ones that may not necessarily be more accessible to less privileged students. I find that the challenge is to consider different forms of activities (e.g. individual/group, computer-based or not) with other methods for conveying material, and settle on those that seem to best achieve my goals for the course.

    At this point, where the question of active learning is not “if” but “what,” I’ve found the literature to be a bit less helpful, and have relied (with some success) on my own experience, and estimation of the limits of course structure and student skills/experience.

  13. A minor note on hand-raising: how does one balance calling on students who don’t raise their hand (and other well-meaning classroom issues such as banning the silent use of phones during a lecture) with respecting undergraduates as adults who can make their own choices?

    I, as a PhD student relatively new to this whole “teaching” thing, really don’t know the answer to this, and I’m honestly curious.

    For example, I have a firm rule that I will never embarrass a student in front of his or her peers, if I can avoid it. This is my second year of teaching a course that is both required for the major and has required attendance, which means I see the entire pantheon of problems undergraduate students can be having. And, yeah, if they’re clearly goofing around, I’ll tell them off, but I’ve also seen students reduced to tears over p-values due to what else is going on in their lives. If a student’s not raising his or her hand, it could be because they have crippling social anxiety. Or they’re struggling with depression. Or they were up super-late the night before because they’re overwhelmed with academic work or their part-time job or family duties. Or their house just got broken into (by far the best excuse I’ve ever had for late problem sets, and easily verifiable!). Or whatever. Particularly if the underlying cause is a disability, I don’t want to inadvertently draw attention to something a student might want to keep private.

    Similarly, if a student’s checking his or her text messages, yeah, they’re probably just chatting with their friends, but it could be that something really important is going on in their lives. Or maybe something on their phone is helping them overcome some sort of learning disability. As long as they’re not disrupting others, again, I don’t want to risk drawing attention to something that might be embarrassing for the student.

    I absolutely think that active learning can still be incredibly successful without resorting to student-shaming, though! Clickers or online quizzes, small-group discussions (“turn to your neighbor and talk about this question for a few minutes”), having some sort of mechanism in place to teach how to study and how to engage with readings or lecture materials, etc, are all really great, and I’m so glad the evidence-based pedagogical evidence backs this up.

  14. Juice, clearly (at least in my view) the foundation of effective teaching is mutual respect with students. Which means that getting judgey about phone use hurts the educational environment. And also requires medical accommodations. If a student has a learning disability that requires certain conditions for exams, or a medical condition that makes lack of interaction with classmates improve learning, then that should be honored.

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