New Lecture Tool

October 14, 2010
Writer: Brian Schmidt

Read the newest tool on the Learning and Teaching website on the use of Lecture.


For over 500 years, lecture has been associated with teaching in higher education.  The word itself derives from the Latin lectus and hints at the ancient and venerable origins of the practice.  In the medieval university, texts were rare and beyond the economic reach of most students.  Texts were therefore read aloud so that others could hear and take notes on them.  In the renaissance universities, the practice no longer always involved reading aloud, but referred to an instructional discourse given publicly.


In nineteenth century America, orators like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Jennings Bryan grafted rhetorical skills honed at the pulpit with the academic tradition and raised lecture to an art form, a means of public enlightenment and even entertainment.  The Chautauqua or polished, engaging, public lecture became, according to Roosevelt, "the most American thing in America."


During the same period and starting with Johns Hopkins, America imported the German model of the research university, associating irrevocably the academic ability of a scholar with their ability to ‘hold forth' on their subject.  The lecture became the sin qua non of academic life and the de facto instructional job description of the professor. Even in the minds of those who had not perfected the skill, lecture is what was meant by instruction in higher education.


Yet in recent years, lecture as the default mode of instruction in higher education has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism. With the adoption of a formal Learning Model at BYU-Idaho, questions about the use of and appropriateness of lecture as a pedagogical technique have abounded.


Is lecture antithetical to the Learning Model?  The most correct answer is, "Not necessarily."  The Learning Model most emphatically does not exclude instructors from the Teach One Another equation.  Instructors are part of the community of people intent on "lov[ing], serv[ing], and teach[ing] one another." As such, there are times when it is most appropriate for us to use expository instructional methods like lecture.


On the other hand, the endemic one-sidedness of lectures and the temptation lecture provides to focus on the process of instruction rather than the process of learning means that we must be careful.  Lecture is too often the preferred means of instruction, not through any process of planning, design or choice, but through a thoughtless reversion to the historical default.


When used properly, lecture can be an effective and enjoyable pedagogy.  When used incorrectly or over-used, it can become a stumbling block to learning.  When you decide to lecture,


  • Insure that the instructional purpose and material is well suited to the lecture format. Use lecture to create initial motivation in students, disperse largely informational material or frame a discussion in a particular way.

  • Design your class period to be broken into mini-lectures of no more than 15-20 minutes, punctuated by activities that help students focus, process, question and re-engage. This is called an interactive lecture and makes use of such tools as concept tests, clickers, quizzes, peer mentoring and many, many more CAT's or Classroom Assessment Techniques interwoven with the lecture.

  • Verify that you have or can develop the presentational and rhetorical skills needed to effectively carry a lecture. Carefully prepare the lecture ahead of time, selecting key points, means of transitioning between ideas, examples and stories to use. Develop a presentation style that is pleasant and clear, avoiding distracting mannerisms while appropriately integrating humor, graphics or other presentational aids.

  • Make sure that lecture doesn't become a default instructional methodology, but is always selected to fulfill specific instructional goals for its strengths over other instructional options.

To explore further the powerful uses and potential abuses of lecture as a pedagogy, read the new tool on the Learning and Teaching website by clicking here.