Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water: How to use lecture effectively and make more space for active learning (face-to-face and online)

All the focus (and accumulating data) on the value of “active learning” and “student-centered” practices for retention and higher order thinking skills, could leave the majority of educators with a more traditional experience feeling frustrated and confused and at a loss about how to change things up. This frustration might be compounded by the fact that for the near future, this will, to some degree, need to happen in a new environment – online.

While times are gradually changing, lecture is still the dominant mode of information delivery in higher education.  For most faculty members, teaching assistants and peer educators, an entire educational experience has been spent sitting in lectures.  Sometimes we listened with rapt attention to an excellent lecturer, and sometimes we nodded off early in the morning or fought with our closing eyelids when we didn’t sleep enough the night before, or were listening while a not-so-excellent lecturer droned on like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Success in our traditional education systems has been essentially synonymous with success in the lecture environment.  Faculty and teaching assistants might reasonably ask:  If it worked for me, why change it? However, US Census Bureau numbers in 2018 state that only 13% of Americans have a degree beyond the bachelors level.  The point is that ‘we’ in higher education represent a fairly narrow slice of the population.  More and more studies show that learning is a complex psycho-social-neurological process and there are broad norms of reaction for what motivates and engages learners and what results in retention and integration of information into knowledge and skills.  Improving learning outcomes for all students takes a toolbox with a variety of tools to choose from.  Lecture is one of these tools. Universal Design for Learning (UDL is the overarching directive for creating inclusive and successful learning environments. In simple terms it means considering the broad array of learners’ needs, mixing it up, and strengthening our strategies to get ALL students feeling welcome and involved. This creates equity and improves overall learning outcomes.

Rather than a focus on replacing lecture, this post will discuss situations in which lecture may be exactly right teaching tool, share some of its limitations, and suggest ways it can be introduced or followed by active learning practices that allow students to take ‘transmitted information’ (from lecture or reading or video) and interact with it and with each other.  Finally, we will provide some practitioner ideas and tools, and share some resources for making this happen in the face-to-face and online environments.

The best use of lecture

Lecture is one important option for disseminating information to large audiences, and covering the most information in the least amount of time. It does not allow processing of information for higher order thinking, nor the reflection, application, and linking of concepts. Here are some great uses for lecture:

  • Introducing new concepts for the first time.
  • Just-in-time lecture chunks can be used as an intervention to clarify complex topics or explain difficult ideas when it is clear learners are not getting the right ‘take-home’ message.
  • Summarizing a topic or showing a ‘synthesis’ of various bits of information from multiple sources.
  • Providing a rationale and/or learning objectives for the material and topics being studied, linking it to current or relatable topics of personal interest for the learner audience.
  • Helping prioritize topics or ideas in terms of importance.
  • Engaging, passionate lecture chunks can build interest. Enthusiasm goes a long way to generate interest in many learners: it is contagious.
(Some ideas adapted from

Why are lectures alone, not terribly effective for retention and development of higher order thinking skills?

Even teaching assistants and peer educators find the allure of sharing their knowledge as lecture irresistible. Among other reasons for this are that they 1) have been personally successful in this familiar format, and 2) that they really learn the material by explaining it to others (lecture).  The first of these rationales underscores the need for sharing peer-reviewed research outcomes with larger sample sizes and greater diversity of learners to help underscore that personal experiences, while important, are anecdotal and should not be the basis for our pedagogical choices as educators. The second is the strongest argument possible for incorporating active learning into classrooms.  Active, student-centered learning creates situations where learners explain what they know to other learners or to the professor and, in doing so, they learn better. For many learners, studies have shown that the information retained from lecture compared to interacting with course materials in other ways is significantly lower.

This quote from Schmidt et al, 2015, pg 14, is one basic explanation for why lecture may not be as effective as we would like it to be as a teaching tool:

“Implicit to conventional lecturing is the idea that information can be directly transmitted from one person to another. The other person then stores the information as communicated by the sender, and what is transmitted is remembered, provided the receiver pays attention. This is a misconception because the human mind does not work as a receiver. Students have to do something with the information to enable them to remember and use it in the future.
 They have to be able to elaborate upon the information using their prior knowledge, to rephrase the information in their own words, to discuss the information with other students or with the teacher, to explain what is learned to others, to apply the information to a problem. All these activities help students storing the information in memory for long-term use. This is because our memory is constructive.”

Lecture is a tool in the toolbox, though more and more studies show its limitations for inclusive learning.  Let’s consider how lecture can be reduced, ‘chunked’, and integrated with an array of active learning tools.

Engaging students while introducing or summarizing topics or concepts

  • Before a lecture chunk – Ask students to access their notes from last lecture and review concepts, complete a calculation if that is the nature of the material, and be prepared to share brief summaries, answers, and ideas (follow up with lecture clarifying the concepts, solving the problem, before moving on).
  • Before a lecture chunk – Create a prompt for students to discuss to generate ideas or determine their pre-existing knowledge about a new topic (follow up with asking pairs or groups to share out their ideas and then summarizing with a short lecture on the new topic)
  • Between two lecture chunks – Use an electronic or other sort of anonymous poll (low stakes) to get students thinking about a topic, or reviewing old material. These can be used at several points in a class but best not to overdo any one thing
  • After a lecture chunk or set of short lectures – Have students create mini-concept maps using topics and terms to help them articulate the connections among ideas discussed.
    • Best done with pairs or small groups (sitting next to each other, or in breakout rooms online) to share what they remember. This creates a learning opportunity.
    • Time for this will vary depending on how deeply one wants the learners to go, or how large the topic.
    • In the online environment, breakout rooms on zoom or other venues take a bit more time to get into and out of, so one must account for that. (Follow up with prepared lecture and take-home points.)

Creating buy-in from students and incorporate their interest and feedback into the learning environment

  • Before starting a class – Invite students to share their interest or lack of it in the topics you will cover. Challenge them to share their reasoning. Be sure they differentiate between things they enjoy, and things they believe will have value to them.
  • Before you begin a course or the set of topics –  Share the course learning objectives explicitly with learners and have them read, discuss and share their own additional goals that might be ones you could also facilitate (this can be done online between synchronous classes early in the semester or on an objective by objective basis .

Getting students working with each other and the content, on the content

  • After a lecture ‘chunk’ – Have Students Apply or Restate Content (can be done individually, and are very strong in small groups or pairs)
    • Ask students to write down at least one possible, real-world application for what they have just learned.
    • Ask students to create an explanation of a concept in their own words
    • One Sentence Summaries. At the end of the discussion/lecture chunk, have students summarize the overall concepts in a one-sentence format: Who did what to/for whom, when, where, how, and why?
  • Before or after lecture chunks –  there are so many ways to do this, with and without providing prompts or materials.  There is overlap here with the first part of this blog section ‘engaging students while introducing or summarizing…’.

For more specific suggestions, access this great link with some additional, detailed tools for getting student working together in various ways. No sense reinventing the whole wheel here.

Collecting feedback from your learners

All the following are versions of the ‘minute paper’ that asks students to reflect and share what they learned, what they did not quite learn, and how they felt about what they learned. At the close of the class time, ask students to share (either on paper, or on a discussion board of the LMS or other communication media) before they leave the class:

  • Something they learned
  • Something they need clarification on
  • What was most interesting for them and why
  • What is a question you have about the material
  • How well did we meet the stated learning objectives for this class? (Likert-scale with required rationale)

(Some ideas adapted from

Transferring these practices to online 

The COVID epidemic and new education models (both online and hybrid courses) make it imperative that we also discuss these course design planning opportunities for online teaching and learning. Remembering this emergency situation means faculty are working to adapt the materials in place for face-to-face courses so that they can be delivered remotely and in some cases in a hybrid version of the same. This is not the same as taking months to fully develop all the structure that supports an online course.

The best things about face-to-face learning are what make the best remote teaching and are even more critical in the online environment.  More than face-to-face teaching, facilitators should prioritize:

Clearly stated and consistent expectations

    • What do you expect of students with respect to showing up, engaging in discussion boards, working in groups or participating in online chats, breakouts, polls or other tools. (the caveat here is that for those still working from family homes or other living spaces, flexibility and compassion are paramount – this is not an easy balance, but really matters).
    • What are the learning objectives for the semester, and for each topic or class meeting
      • Studies have shown that sharing learning objectives with students help them know where they are expected to go, and what they are expected to learn.
    • What can be expected of you as the learning facilitator
      • When will synchronous lectures or discussions be held.
      • What options are there for make-up times.
      • What are the options for learners in different time zones.
      • When will assignments will be posted and due.
      • How different activities and participation will be incorporated into the grade.

Varied options to communicate, listen and reach out – the human component is harder to get across in online learning and is what students who choose face-to-face learning miss the most!

    • Let student know when you will be available
      • Be sure students know when and how they can reach teaching staff and be sure that teaching staff adhere to being there.
      • Have both synchronous and asynchronous options regularly for learners to check in, and for you to reach out and ask how it is going
      • Prioritize this more than you might do in a face-to-face scenario, when students can stop after class, come early or find you more easily to ask questions.

Opportunities online for providing feedback, challenges, and ideas

  • Feedback can be about
    • Content – how well learners are understanding different topics
    • How they are doing with the online environment.
    • What learners are having trouble with and what might help them (accessible google docs work well for this, as long as they are monitored weekly)

A variety of ways to be active and engaged during synchronous zoom or other real-time teaching platform

  • Here is where we circle back to the middle of this post “Planning for active learning in your course” and put them to work as you chunk up the lecture portion and add these options in using zoom tools (chat, breakouts, annotating, white boards) or other add-ons like poll everywhere (easy download and links to power point).

This blog (link below) has excellent and practical tips and elements for structure of your online learning environment.

If active learning is new to you, remember, there are many ways to include simple practices.  Start slow, try one, see how it goes.  Once you find out what works for you, add another.  Don’t give up.  Study after study has shown the value of including opportunities for engaging students through active learning. This engagement is even more critical for online learning. Be warned that quite a bit of research has shown some students are resistant to it, while at the same time showing that it promotes higher scores and deeper learning!  The change to active learning is as challenging for students at first as it is for facilitators. Ultimately, we know that lecture is tried and true and has value.  Adding in these other pieces will improve student learning and can happen gradually.  So, take baby steps and there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater!

The College of Engineering at Cornell has webinars and helpful tools as well ( as does the Center for Teaching Innovation ( Don’t forget the Zoom website as well.



2 thoughts on “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water: How to use lecture effectively and make more space for active learning (face-to-face and online)

  1. Hello! How do I navigate back to the main ELI Ediblog home page? I don’t see a header to show me where I am or how to navigate to other posts, or back to the main page.

    1. Eric, thank you for that question! Im new to the blog platform world and definitely want readers to be able to do that!! I will address this issue! very best, Celia for ELI

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