Ditch the lecture (or 8 tips to do it better)

You have likely heard that people only remember 20% of what they hear (which may be a rubbish statistic) and we all, theoretically, understand lecturing is a generally ineffective way to teach pretty much everything from science to math to bowling to potty training. I have a hard time letting it go mainly because I feel like I’m good at it AND I like to do it. Seriously, y’all. I’m funny, charming, I walk around the room a lot, I have a loud, clear speaking voice, I wear costumes, and my power points have cool pictures, large fonts and non-annoying transitions. It’s like I DID get to have that career in acting . . . captive audience! Colleagues, you know what I’m talking about.

The truth is kids do not learn if we just lecture, that is unless we are ineffectively executing alternative approaches. In fact, a recent Harvard study found:

. . . while problem-solving activities may be very effective if implemented in the correct way, simply inducing the average teacher employed today to shift time in class from lecture style presentations to problem solving, without concern for how this is implemented, contains little potential to increase student achievement.  On the contrary, the study’s results indicate that there might even be adverse effects on student learning.

This makes a ton of sense to me. I think we can all think of a time when we went to PD, heard about some amazing, alternative approach, did it in our classroom the next day and it was a total, epic fail. Regardless of how you approach direct instruction in your classroom, the key to learning anything is what is called the practice and feedback cycle wherein the student practices the skill or knowledge and then relieves feedback on their performance. Then they cycle begins again with more practice, this time better than the last, and more feedback.


Although teacher-centered instruction such as lecture can be effective, the main problem is it sucks up all of our class time and does not leave room for our students to practice. Rather than take an extreme position of “NEVER LECTURE EVER” I have settled on a few rules of thumb I personally follow to make sure my classroom is student centered:

  • Never talk for more minutes than the students’ grade level (i.e. 6 minute for 6th grade) without pausing for students to actively participate: We all have those moments where we look out over our classrooms, see the glazed look on our students spaced-out faces and realize we have become the teacher in Charlie Brown. We think we are teaching, our students just hear “Whamp, whamp, whamp, wahm, wahm.” My go-to ways to break up a lecture are: 1) stop and jot pause while students write the answer to a question and 2) turn and talk pause while students turn to a pre-ordained partner and talk about a question.
  • Setting up effective student-centered instruction is harder than just lecturing: The Harvard study hits the nail on the head. There is a reason why novice (or seasoned but less prepared teachers!) struggle to execute effective student-centered instruction. It requires buttoned-down classroom management as well as careful preparation. Here are two hybrid suggestions if you are just easing into shifting away from lecture: 1) “The Miss Messes Up” – purposefully make a mistake on a problem or example and post it up. Have your class read it and then write down where you went wrong. Then call up a student to talk through where you made the mistake and what they would do to correct it. Spice this up by acting indignant “What?! No I’m 100% right! What are you guys talking about?!?!” and then praising them for being eagle-eyed. 2) Modeling – write the essay as they watch and copy down what you do, solve the problem as they copy what you do. Just make sure you take time to pause and have them work on particular problems on their own. Also make sure you narrate the process going on in your head as you read, write or solve. Another strong idea is for students to record the process, instead of the example, as you model.
  • The more one-on-one instances of feedback the better: Find ways to bring the ratio down either through peer feedback or by individual conferences.
  • Use the yo-yo method: Instruct and then release to practice, clarify and release, clarify again and release again. Math teachers traditionally do this better than the rest of us. They model a few problems, answer questions and then allow students to work a set of problems. While students work the teacher circulates and clears up misunderstandings often bringing the class back to a whole group setting in order to emphasize points many students seem to misunderstand. In my history classroom, this process looks like me teaching a short 7 minute lesson of background on the Vietnam War. Then I would talk through the meaning of 3 political cartoons about Vietnam while students followed along. Then I’d have them work out the meanings of 10 additional cartoons in partners using their textbooks (or computers or, honestly, smart phones) to look up references they don’t get. I’d circulate as they worked and pull the class back together to clarify what “Kent State” is if everyone gets stuck.

How do you incorporate effective student-centered instruction and practice into your classroom?


One thought on “Ditch the lecture (or 8 tips to do it better)

  1. Well, when I have students participating in a lecture or discussion, there is always a handout or some sort of guided notes. I tell them what they should write down. Some students write more, but then at least the ones who are doing the minimum have the minimum amount of information that they need to take away with them. (And IIRC you did do a post some time back about take away messages. That applies here too.)

    One thing that my colleagues shared with me early in my career is that you can’t just dump kids into active, inquiry based learning. If they’ve been passive learners and you try that awesome new technique, you probably will epically fail the first time you try it. Students have to be taught new ways to learn, and that often takes YEARS. It really takes a buy-in on at least the building level (if not more) and so students who are yanked in and out of different teaching styles often do worse on standardized tests (I’m told this data is largely unpublished because of 1) privacy laws and getting permission to use data collected from students and 2) because the study is long it is difficult to track a sufficient sample size for the amount of time that you need to in order to test these ideas – otherwise I would absolutely cite people on this.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: