| Contributor: Karin Barac |

The subject of the humble lecture can be a contentious one at modern universities. You’ll often see think pieces with titles like “Is the lecture dead?” whose arguments are usually centred on the premise that in a lecture someone is at the front of the room talking at students for an hour, reading from PowerPoints that contain all the information being said. But we know that the lecture these days is much more than this. In this episode I want to explore some ideas about what an active lecture might actually mean.

These days I am not so keen to discuss the merits of the lecture but rather focus the conversation on the real question at hand “why are we bringing students on campus?” If it is just to sit and listen to someone talk to them for 1 hour by reading off a PowerPoint then I do believe that can be done in better ways. Current research shows that students want to come to campus for different reasons: they want to come to campus to interact with their peers and the teaching staff to make sense of, and apply, new knowledge (Conole, De Laat, Dillon, & Darby, 2008; Russell, Malfroy, Gosper, & McKenzie, 2014).

Lectures represent one teaching space where we can reach students at scale and rather that just standing and talking at students for an hour, many teachers use their lecture spaces to communicate new knowledge and set up a dialogue with students around that content in interactive ways. One of the most common ways that universities have used to make lectures more interactive is with the implementation of student response systems (clickers, online polling etc). But how active is a lecture that uses these as the primary “interactive” element?

I recently came across this article that gave me pause around our use of these systems. It was found that students could not complete conceptual questions after answering factual questions. If the space of your lecture is to provide students with a grasp of factual information then the use of multiple-choice clicker questions will work well. However if you are in a discipline that requires students to move quickly from factual understanding to conceptual application then you should be wary of how and where you focus the students’ attention.

The other potential failing of these types of clicker and polling activities within lectures is the time required to answer them. Generally they are extremely short in nature and are often only a slight pause of engagement in the flow of the lecture. If you read our episode on how memories are formed, you’ll see that the research has found that people have to spend more than a minute using new knowledge for it to be converted from short-term memory to long term. Therefore, a truly active learning lecture would include other strategies such as pair or group discussion for think-pair-share type activities that focus students’ attention on a problem on a deeper or a more sustained level.

One of the things that have become quite evident to me is that students will only be as actively engaged in learning as we (the designers of the learning environment) ask them to be. We must also remember that the lecture, or large-scale teaching space, is just one component of the overall sequence of learning for the week. Usually we move to higher-order learning activities in the other contact times within the week. Small-teaching spaces such as tutorials or workshops serve this purpose. As such, it is equally important for us to start thinking of a mix of activities that we clearly signpost at each session showing how they build on and connect with other sessions so that students can connect the lower-order learning to higher-order skills across and through the course. Our episode on Learning Activity Design might help you how to map these out and use these maps with students to show the connections.


  • How active are your lectures? Do you have an appropriate mix of collaborative activities that give the time and space for conceptual learning?
  • How does the lecture connect to the other learning spaces in the learning design for the week?
  • How do you communicate this to the students?

Ideas for Interactivity

This handout from University of Newcastle has some interesting maps on how to organise groups in a lecture theatre

44 ideas from Sheffield Hallam University

Learning Futures Interactive Lectures 

Griffith Response Tool – JPoll


Conole, G., De Laat, M., Dillon, T., & Darby, J. (2008). ‘Disruptive technologies’,‘pedagogical innovation’: What’s new? Findings from an in-depth study of students’ use and perception of technology. Computers & Education, 50(2), 511-524.

Russell, C., Malfroy, J., Gosper, M., & McKenzie, J. (2014). Using research to inform learning technology practice and policy: a qualitative analysis of student perspectives. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 30(1).

Header Image Source: http://ls-cwsei.biology.ubc.ca/page/2/


2 thoughts on “Active Lectures

  1. Thanks for this great article … I have had a quick scan but I can’t wait to delve deeper!

    regards Chris

    *Christine Wheeler (Mrs)* *Senior University Liaison* *Lecturer & Tutor 3701EDN Professional Experience and Learning 3: Safe and Supportive Learning Environments* *Mount Gravatt & Logan Campuses* *Griffith University*

    On Mon, Jul 3, 2017 at 4:23 PM, ael professional learning wrote:

    > aelprofessionallearning posted: “The subject of the humble lecture can be > a contentious one at modern universities. You’ll often see think pieces > with titles like “Is the lecture dead?” whose arguments are usually centred > on the premise that in a lecture someone is at the front of the ro” >


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