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How to Use Active Lecturing Techniques

Although most teachers agree that active learning greatly improves student achievement, defining exactly what “active learning” should look like in the classroom can be a topic of heated debate.  The instructional strategy varies widely and, by necessity, reflects the subject matter of the course as well as the style and personality of the instructor. But whether we are leading classroom discussions, overseeing group activities, or lecturing, our primary goal as teachers is always the same; to facilitate our students’ interaction with the material and to help them relate to the course content on a personal level.

What is Active Lecturing?

Active lecturing occurs when students are processing and interacting with the material being presented. If you are thinking of your class as an “audience” you are probably not practicing active lecturing!

Active lecturing techniques are an effective tool to promote student engagement and facilitate learning in the classroom.

My department recently received an in-house curriculum innovation grant to introduce more active learning into our introductory level courses with Biology 160 Introductory Cell Biology, which is a prerequisite for both biology and allied health majors, leading the charge. Instructors were encouraged to employ a wide range of active learning strategies in their classes, and at the end of the quarter, 200+ students were surveyed to determine which classroom techniques they found the most helpful.

As expected, the majority of students reported that active learning techniques helped them understand the material. What was less expected was that “Active Lecturing Techniques” received the highest approval ratings, with 80% of students reporting that they found this approach “Helpful” or “Extremely Helpful.”  For comparison purposes, the data from two other categories are included in the chart below. (Note that although not every instructor chose to employ every instructional strategy, students only rated the techniques that were used by their instructor.)

How do I create active lectures for my classes?

  1. Use Instructor Resources

The instructor resources provided with your textbook typically include a wealth of supplementary materials for you to download and use. In addition to chapter outlines and PowerPoints, there are a number of useful and fun materials that can be incorporated into your lectures, including animations, figures, and Jeopardy-style game show presentations. Speak to your publisher or sales rep if you don’t currently have access to the supplementary instructor resources and see what they can provide for you.

  1. Simplify

The PowerPoint slides provided by publishers should be seen as a starting point, not as a finished, classroom-ready product. One of the biggest mistakes new teachers make is to include too much writing or detail per slide.

  • Don’t overwhelm your students. Remove the clutter.
  • Make sure that everything on the slide is something that you actually want your students to know.
  • Animate your slides so that one bullet point or figure label appears at a time.
  • Add your own labels in PowerPoint, or if you have access to an interactive screen, write the labels in during the lecture. This allows the lecture to progress at “real-time” and gives students enough time to take notes.
  1. Ask Questions

One of the most common active lecturing techniques is the use of classroom response systems (“clickers” or polling questions). Clicker or polling questions embedded at strategic points in a PowerPoint lecture can be used for much more than to test students’ basic recall. Remember, these aren’t exam questions. Some of them can be messy, complicated, or may not even have one clear cut answer. And that’s OK because the goal is to get your students to think critically about the material. Here are a few ideas:

  • Review Background Material

Before presenting a new topic, use questions to review necessary background material from prerequisite courses, or something that you covered in class a few days earlier.

  • Pair Up Students

Have students form pairs and work together to quickly sketch out a graph or diagram on a small piece of paper. Select a few to put on an overhead projector, label them A-E with a marker, and then have students use clickers vote on which one they believe to be correct.

  • Break Up Content with Questions

Break case studies or larger readings up into a series of multiple-choice questions that can be embedded throughout the lecture. Present the entire case at the beginning, then return to specific questions as you cover the content students need to answer them.

  1. Stay connected

Engagement is a two-way street. Stay in touch with the classroom dynamic during your lecture. Monitor student understanding and adapt your teaching to the immediate learning needs of the students. Spend extra time and add some additional explanation on the whiteboard if the students aren’t keeping up. In short, tailor the lecture to the class. Even if you use the exact same PowerPoint in two different sections, your lecture should never be exactly the same!

About the Author

Heather N. Cushman teaches anatomy and physiology at Tacoma Community College in Tacoma, Washington and is a member of the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society. She received her PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Minnesota in 2002 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Vollum Institute at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon where she studied sensory transduction and the cellular and molecular mechanisms of muscle pain. Heather is passionate about teaching and believes that physiology can be made fun and accessible without sacrificing integrity of content. She currently resides in Tacoma, Washington and enjoys climbing, camping and hiking with her husband Ken and their daughter Annika.

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