Here's Why I Stopped Using Lectures in My Classroom


The data is in: the lecture is out as the go-to learning tool for the live classroom. Here's how one educator improved her teaching with less talk, at least from the lectern.

Breaking the Lecture Habit

I'll admit this up front: I love to lecture. Or, I did, until one day, the truth hit me like a meteor—I was the only one in the room loving my lectures.

While students were not hurling rotten tomatoes my way, neither were they hanging at the edges of their seats waiting to drink from the wisdom that dropped from my lips. As usual, about a third were taking notes, another third were pretending to take notes, and the rest baldly stared at their phones or dozed. When test time rolled around, only about a third of the first third had a working idea of what the heck I'd been yammering about. Something had to change.

Ultimately, I was far more committed to improving my teaching methods than preserving my role as sage on the stage. Like many teachers before me, the lecture format was the model I knew. Sure, I'd done my share of elementary, secondary, and undergraduate-level group projects in my own education. When it came time to construct my own lesson plans, however, the lecture remained a dominant fixture, as it has been since Aristotle.

Ancient habits die hard, but how, exactly, did my own awakening occur? Well, I had to face the fact that although I was talking to adolescents about sex—our module was 'Animal Reproduction & Development' (emphasis on human animals)—they could barely keep their eyes open.

Young woman with skateboard2

The Evidence Is In

David Hestenes, a physicist at Arizona State, says, ''Students have to be active in developing their knowledge.'' He adds, ''They can't passively assimilate it.'' He goes on to say that about ten percent of students do well with the lecture format, but that these students would probably do well regardless. In other words, they don't even need a teacher.

Joe Redish teaches at the University of Maryland. ''With modern technology, if all there is is lectures, we don't need faculty to do it,'' he says. ''Get 'em to do it once, put it on the Web, and fire the faculty.'' Ouch.

Eliminating, or curtailing, the lecture doesn't mean getting rid of teachers, however. Multi-tiered data points to the wisdom of de-emphasizing the lecture, and changing the dynamic of the classroom. Education trends include the flipped classroom, in which knowledge is absorbed by students at home or away from the classroom in the form of online lessons and, yes, lectures. Class time is reserved for interactive learning, which requires highly invested educators to serve as guides.

Jumping students

Effectiveness of Peer Instruction

Eric Mazur is a physics teacher at Harvard who changed his teaching methods drastically after reading Hestenes's articles about the ineffectiveness of lecturing. Today, instead of delivering a lecture, he has his students gather the information at home. Then, in class, the students are the ones who do the talking. Small groups convene to discuss a given problem, a method Mazur refers to as ''peer instruction.'' ''What we found over now close to 20 years of using this approach is that the learning gains at the end of the semester nearly triple,'' he says.

Peer instruction is not exclusively effective for college students. Middle and high school students thrive through interaction as well. The beauty of creating small groups is that almost any size class can be divided up productively. I have even combined my class with a colleague's students, with no loss of focus. The key is to be that effective ''guide on the side.''

Students at Desks

Key Advantages

The New York City Department of Education champions project-based and interactive learning for at least three good reasons:

  • Students self-direct and take ownership of their learning, becoming experts in their fields of study
  • Real-world research through the Internet, primary sources, and other data keeps students authentically engaged
  • Collaborative work combined with independent study provides opportunities to differentiate lessons so that all students learn

For all these reasons and more, I knew my classroom stood to benefit if I dropped the mic and pursued a different teaching approach with my students.

The Bottom Line

Since virtually abandoning the lecture, I have seen student engagement deepen and assessments improve. I don't attribute these results solely to the fact that I lecture less, but the fact that I do has changed everything in my classroom, including the way we arrange the furniture.

In my classroom, the sound of my voice has been replaced by an energetic cacophony of intellectual exchange among my students. It's music to my ears.

By Irene Cooper
February 2017
opinion lecture

Never miss an update