How to Make Lectures More Effective: Part Two

edtech_lecturesOrganizing and Delivering Effective Lectures to Improve Student Engagement and Learning

Recently the faculty book club discussed Teaching Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which covered over 30 years of research he did with his partner, Amos Tversky. Their research investigated the thinking process and the brains cognitive mental activities which both affect the ability to process information.
In the book, he describes the brain as being divided into two systems: System 1, which is automatic, innate consciousness that is fast, intuitive and emotional and System 2, which is slower, deliberate and logical, and spends a lot of energy on critical thinking (Think of the Bloom’s Taxonomy Pyramid). The System 1 and System 2 framework also correlates with research on cognitive load and the idea of presenting information without all of the “extra” information (unessential) that takes up valuable space in the learning brain. (Plass, J. et. Al, 2010). He also brings awareness to biases everyone has developed over their lifetime, and makes a connection from their research that people cannot always trust their gut or what they “think” they understand. This begs the question of how faculty can organize and deliver effective lectures if students come to class with different biases and possible misconceptions.

One strategy might be to adjust the way lectures are given by organizing and delivering information in ways that increase engagement and student’s ability to move content and information into long term memory.


Start by identifying the key points students should remember after the lecture. Once the objectives have been established it provides a bridge between the gap in what students perceive and possible misconceptions they have on the subject matter. Making these connections early on helps students re-organize cognitive structures, scaffold learning and build critical thinking skills. The following are a few specific strategies to consider when organizing:

  • The introduction of the lecture is a great time to ask pre-questions that not only peek the student’s interest, but also give feedback on their baseline knowledge and can identify any misconceptions that need to be addressed.
  • Integrate new information with existing knowledge structures (what they already know) which minimizes processing load. (Plass, J. et.all, 2010)
  • The body of the lecture should be synthesized by removing less critical material. Too much information can overload the brain’s processing capacity so experienced students will learn less because of an increase in cognitive load. (Plass, J. et.all, 2010)
  • Use visual elements to complement what is being said during the lecture. Examples should move from concrete (knowledge) to abstract (applying). Have students give examples as well to enhance opportunities for critical thinking skill building. (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014)
  • Use stories and analogies when lecturing to increase student attentiveness and transform new learning into something familiar, leading to memory retention. (Angelo & Cross, 1993). The more examples focus on real-life, the more engaged students will be.

Delivery and Engagement

Lecutres_two_imageThe image to the right shows research findings from EDA recordings of students who wore devices that tracked them for 7 days. (Poh, M.Z. et al., 2010). Notice that the brain’s activity during class is relatively the same as when they were watching TV, indicating they are not engaged. In addition to this challenge, research has shown that students have an attention span of around 10-15 minutes. This is important to know if the lecture is an hour or longer. Once the materials are organized, consider how best to deliver the information so students remain engaged during the lecture, increasing learning and retention of information.

  • Engage students by changing up the environment: move around the room, use gestures and props, vary tone and introduce active learning activities such as case studies, self-assessments, formative assessments, short video clips, peer-to-peer learning or lecture captures. Varying the stimulation, whether auditory, visual or physically helps elevate the heart rate and assists in retaining student attention.
  • Simply asking students to stand up and stretch or take short breaks goes a long way in gains in learning. (Bligh, 2000).
  • Choose different styles of lectures to keep the attention and interest of the students, such as an interactive lecture, problem solving where the problem will be uncovered during class, case study method which is delivered step-by-step and short lectures with discussions. (Gross-Davis, 1993).
  • Stop the lecture periodically to summarize, giving students a chance to catch up.
  • Towards the end, link key concepts by embedding them in a low-stakes quiz. “Students really want to know why their thinking was correct or incorrect.”
  • Don’t check in with students by asking “Any questions?” Ask open-ended questions that will get students to respond in their own words, giving feedback for faculty on biases and misconceptions that can be addressed immediately.


Angelo, T. A. & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA, 2nd ed.

Bligh, D. (2000). What’s the use of lectures? Retrieved November 28, 2016 from:

Gross-Davis, B. (1993). Tools for Teaching. Jossey-Bass Inc, San Francisco, CA.

Plass, J. L., Moreno, R. & Brunken, R. (2010). Cognitive Load Theory. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.

Poh, M.A., Swenson, N.C. & Picard, R.W. (2010). A wearable sensor for unobtrusive, long-term assessment of electrodermal activity. IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, VOL (57), (5), MAY, 2010 1243

Svinicki, M.D. & McKeachie, W.J. (2014) Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. 14th ED. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Tomorrow’s Professor (2016) Designing and delivering effective lectures. Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from: