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Learning in Lectures and Large Groups

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Nowadays, then, when many students have access to a range of knowledge resources, why continue offering lectures? 


The posting below looks at some interesting approaches to making large lectures more effective.  It is from Chapter 3 – Teaching by Leading and Managing Learning Environments, by Steven Cranfield, in the bookEnhancing Teaching Practice in Higher Education, edited by Helen Pokorny and Digby Warren. Published by SAGE Publications Ltd , 1 Oliver’s Yard, 55 City Road London

EC1Y1SP.  © Helen Pokorny and Digby Warren 2016. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Learning in Lectures and Large Groups


Lectures are as effective as other methods, such as discussion or reading, for transmitting information. In general, however, students capture only 20-40 per cent of a lecture’s main ideas in their notes (Kiewra, 2002) and without reviewing the lecture material, students remember less than 10 per cent after three weeks (Bligh, 1998). While students’ attention spans clearly vary during lectures there is little evidence for the often-cited figure of 10-15 minutes as the average attention span (Wilson and Korn, 2007). Attention spans can be extended by strategies such as improved note-taking. Even so, most lectures are not as effective as group discussion and debate, for example, for promoting critical thinking. They are also relatively ineffective for teaching behavioral skills. Changing students’ attitudes should not normally be the major objective of a lecture either.

Nowadays, then, when many students have access to a range of knowledge resources, why continue offering lectures? Valid reasons include:

-       To provide a focus for shared learning, where everyone gets together regularly.

-       To whet students’ appetites for learning or give them the chance to make sense of things they already know.

-       To clarify or introduce important or contested areas of knowledge, as well as provide a common briefing on assignments and intended learning outcomes.

-       To use the power of voice, facial expression and body language to communicate the significance and relative value of what is being discussed.

-       To provide material for later discussion, exploration and elaboration.


(Adapted from Race and Brown, 2001: 107)

In particular, new technologies, for example question-response software, have increased awareness of the value of integrating interactive components to lectures and teaching large groups, moving away from the notion of the lecture as a didactic exercise (Dalrymple and Eaglesfield, 2013). (See Chapter 5: Blended Learning.)

Lectures and large group learning environments pose a number of challenges, however. Below are just three commonly identified challenges with suggested strategies.

Students do not get the individual help they need

-       Facilitate learning from peers, by encouraging interactions among students (Biggs and Tang, 2007).

-       Provide follow-up seminar groups.

-       Often problems stem from study skills: offer advice or refer to study skills support.

Students find it hard to concentrate and pay attention

-       Speak clearly and intelligibly. Check that students can hear and comprehend you, particularly if English is not your (and/or their) first language (Miller, 2007).

-       Vary approaches and methods during lectures (Mortiboys, 2010).

-       Assign engaging activities to encourage active learning (Brown and Race, 2002). It may be harder to encourage interaction among 200 rather than 40 students but interactive lectures certainly can work (Habeshaw et al., 1993). (See ‘Ten basic ideas’ in box below)

-       Introduce small activities gradually and increase them as you gain confidence. Activities take more thought and preparation than straightforward lecturing. There doesn’t have to be constant activity every lecture.

-       Be alert to students’ daily work and rest regimes and other factors impacting on their physical and emotional well-being. It is hard to concentrate without sufficient sleep or on an empty stomach. Some learning styles models (e.g., Dunn et al., 1984) provide user-friendly tools for discussing these factors with students.


Students do not ask or answer questions

-       Ask open questions. It is more important to know how to ask the right questions than to have all the answers (Exley and Dennick, 2009).

-       Avoid answering your own question if it isn’t answered quickly.

-       Call at random and explain the advantage of contributions.


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Ten basic ideas for making lectures more interactive – none requiring technology

1.     Include individual, pairs and small group activities.

2.     (A variation on 1.) ‘Think, pair, share’; pose a short question or a problem and get students to think individually, share with a partner and then with the group.

3.     Pose a more substantial problem and get students working in small groups.

4.     Punctuate the lecture with questions and wait for answers.

5.     Introduce short writing exercises; for example, ask students to write down a key learning point so far and share this with a partner.

6.     Use brainstorming; for example, ask students to recall and write a list of important terms, concepts and ideas from the material covered.

7.     Use short tests and quizzes.

8.     Ask students to do a calculation or complete a diagram.

9.     Invite students to contribute to the whiteboard to write up their key points, questions or answers.

10.  Get students to do a one-minute paper at the end of the lecture.


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Vignette: Managing disruptions in lectures

During an interactive lecture on historical skills given by Len, four students arrived individually around 25 minutes late. The rest of the students were underway with the tasks and Len’s time was being spent on a small group basis dealing with queries and enabling each group to work at its own pace. When the new students arrived, Len was forced to go quickly through the initial mini-lecture with them again. Spending time trying to assist the latecomers meant that the last part of the session was not used to gain student feedback and to discuss findings and comments generated from the task. Len failed to conclude the lecture, which frustrated him. In future he decided to minimize disruptions by not allowing students to arrive more than 15 minutes late, explaining that this impinged on the quality of learning for everyone. While this did not eliminate the problem entirely – some students simply did not like to follow rules – it enabled Len to arrange to speak with these students early on and discuss plans of action with them. Early detection of disruptive behavior also let the rest of the class know that Len meant business.

Points to explore

-       The subsequent decision about latecomers taken here was benignly authoritarian (‘fair but firm’). Lecturers will need to weigh up the pros and cons of using different leading and decision-making styles: there is no ‘one size fits all’ rule.

-       Lecturers can model good practice to encourage prompt attendance. They can, for example:

o   always start and end lectures on time;

o   indicate at the outset that punctuality is expected, explaining the benefits of this rule;

o   schedule an interesting or essential activity at the start of the lecture to practice positive reinforcement of being punctual;

o   draw attention to latecomers through a remark or non-verbal cue, while avoiding sarcasm, getting angry or issuing threats;

o   minimize disruptions by asking students present to move to the front and middle seats before starting.


(adapted from NUS, 2008)


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Vignette: Interactive lecture using mobile devices

Anya arrived at her lecture on marketing for second-year undergraduates without the data stick containing her PowerPoint slides. She had a momentary panic when she realized they were not available online either. Then she recalled a recent seminar in which a colleague had presented research on interactive lecturing with the use of technology (see Graham et al., 2007), including the use of mobile devices in lectures (Gehlen-Baum and Weinberger, 2012).

Anya quickly decided to try something novel (for her and the class), taking cues from the seminar. She asked for a group of volunteers in the lecture hall with smartphones to act as ‘research nodes’ for small groups. Nearly all students had phones or other portable devices so finding sufficient volunteers was not a problem. Each group of five was randomly allocated a theme related to the lecture content, asked to research this online and to identify a rapporteur to feed back one key point to the plenary lecture: the ‘node’ or another volunteer was asked to take responsibility for uploading this and additional points discussed to a course blog. Anya circulated around the hall, acting as a resource and monitoring groups, some of which had decided to have a number of members research the same theme simultaneously and compare findings. Introducing, explaining, and facilitating the activity took much longer than the PowerPoint presentation but the plenary discussion, though shorter than usual, was focused and lively. The blend of activities kept the majority engaged for the whole hour and materials and ideas sourced by groups were uploaded to the course virtual learning environment for further tasks and revision. Some students had also been introduced to ways to use portable devices to conduct research.

Points to explore

-       Technology is but one way of promoting collaborating dialogue and learning in the classroom (Webb, 2009; Hmelo-Silver et al., 2013).

-       Audio-visual aids can cater to a range of different learning styles (Coffield et al., 2004) but over-reliance on bulleted PowerPoint slides can inculcate a linear, stereotyped approach to teaching that yields diminishing returns (Kinchin et al., 2008).

-       Lecturers can create, as well as exploit, opportunities that allow for improvisation and the unpredictable (Cvetek, 2008; McCarron and Savin-Baden, 2008; Debowski, 2012).



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