October 9, 2020

Greetings everyone,

These days I need a mask as much for filtering out the smoke and ash as to avoid spreading the SARS-Cov-2 virus.  My heart goes out to anyone with a home in the path of the Cameron Peak fire (or any other fire).

The subject for my teaching tip this week is helping students to better remember and understand course material using “interactive lecturing” (lecturing plus some active learning). My source for this week’s tip is the UC Berkeley (Cal) Center for Teaching and Learning website once again.  The “sage on a stage” approach has given lecturing a bad reputation.  Certainly, lecturing alone will not engage most students.  However, we should not through the baby out with the bath water.  Lecture intertwined with active, interactive learning approaches can be effective and quite doable in large enrollment courses.  This approach has been referred to as “interactive lecturing” (Snell, 1999 and White, 2011).  Examples include (1) Start class with a small group discussion that will inform the lecture, (2) Use of a response system (like clickers) interspersed throughout the lecture to gather feedback and assess the level of student understanding (ideally at a conceptual level), (3) Position the lecture as a precursor to class debates and reaction panels in which students will need to draw on the content presented.  Another way to make lectures more interactive is to ask and answer questions during class.

Lectures can/should (list adapted from Brawer, Lenner & Chalk, 2012):

  1. Provide focus and emphasis on important points, ideas, issues, etc.
  2. Clarify difficulties or complexities in the readings, or from other course materials and experiences.
  3. Provide an overview or “the big picture” and help connect the dots.
  4. Expose students to experts (you) who can provide unique perspectives and the latest answers to questions that may stimulate interest, and to allow students to see how a practicing (biologist, chemist, economist, literary critic, etc.) approaches the material.
  5. Encourage structure by explicitly naming, and telling the story of the course, or the narrative arc.
  6. Provide depth and insight through examples not present in other course materials (You have good stories, so tell them. That alone can be a lecture, if you then connect it back to #1, 2, and 3 above.)

Six Ways to Make Lectures in a Large Enrollment Course More Manageable and Effective

  1. Establish learning goals

Once you and your students know where you’re going, the trip is easier and more efficient. And often the very act of creating learning goals results in reducing the amount of material to be covered, since you have brought your course into more focus.

  1. Cut down on the amount of material you are trying to cover

Content Tyranny is a problem for most college instructors, that is, trying to cover too much material. The result is usually opposite–less material absorbed at a more superficial level–of what we hope for.

  1. Focus your lecture on analyzing issues or problems, rather than on conveying factual information

Rely on students to get facts from their reading. Devote lectures to more in depth discussion and analysis.

  1. Engage your students through active learning practices and interactive lectures

“What professors do in their class matters far less than what they ask their students to do.” (“Teaching for Long-Term Retention and Transfer,” Halpern and Hakel). It’s difficult for anyone to sit for 50 or 80 minutes and simply listen. Attention span begins to fade after about 20 minutes, so you need to stop every 20 minutes or so and do something new.

  1. Provide more and shorter feedback to students throughout the semester

Don’t rely just on midterms and finals to let students know how they’re doing.

  1. Make optimum use of the classroom technology

Use clickers to get instant feedback on your students’ comprehension of a concept:

If your class is too big to track how individuals are doing between exams, have your students take a quick anonymous poll to gauge whether or not a concept was understood.

 Asking and Answering Questions

In every class there should be interaction between the faculty and students, and at the core of student engagement is how questions are asked of students and by students, and how questions from students are answered. Few things can encourage or discourage student engagement more than simply how questions are handled in a class.

  1. Asking Questions:

At the very least, asking questions of the class is one way to make sure that students are with you, are understanding where you are at a given point.

  1. Soliciting students’ questions and answering them:

The most common-and-very-worst-way to solicit questions is to look at the class and say, “Any questions?” or the truncated “Questions?” or “Ok?” or “Is that clear Try out a variety of other formulations: “I’m sure at this point you’ll have some questions, so let me try to answer them.” “This is a complex point, so please ask me questions about it.” When you answer a question, answer it directly first, then go off on any tangents that come to you. When you’re done, ask if you’ve answered the question.  Repeat a student’s question before you answer it.  If the question is a good one, say so. Consider turning some questions back to the class to answer. Finally, when you answer questions, don’t focus all your attention on the student who asked, but look at the whole class, so that it doesn’t become a conversation between you and a single student.

For more details go to https://teaching.berkeley.edu/resources/engage/remember-and-understand.


Brawer, J.R., Lener, M., Chalk, C. (2012). Student perspectives on the value of lectures. Medical Science Educator, 19(3).

Snell, Y. (1999). Interactive lecturing: strategies for increasing participation in large group presentations. Medical Teacher, 21(1), 37-42.

White, G. (2011). Interactive lecturing. The Clinical Teacher, 8(4), 230-235.

Please let me know if you have any comments, suggestions or questions.

Cheers, Paul

Paul Laybourn (he/him/his)
Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Director, W2R S-STEM Program
Director, NoCo B2B Program
Co-Director, REU Site in Molecular Biosciences