Say “Yes” to Lectures

The teacher opens an umbrella over his head while standing in the middle of the classroom. He appears not to recognize how unusual this is. Concerned about the teacher’s mental health, students lean forward as he begins to speak:

“By all that’s righteous and worthy, I beseech all of you to gather close and be compelled by the amazing story I weave for you this morning. Yes, there will be conflict as you focus all your intellect on trying to find fault with my rhetoric. I shall plant at least one falsehood to see who among you is truly wizened; a prize to generate great envy to the one who finds it first. These three tools shall guide our passage. ”

The teacher gestures to three objects displayed in the front of the room: a stuffed seagull, a mathematical compass, and an orange.

“Be the first to anticipate how each will be used, metaphorically or not. Pens, pencils, and iPads down and off. Eyes looking into our civilization’s past.”

Do I have your attention?

This teacher’s introduction to an instructional lecture is engaging, which is important to the effectiveness of the lecture. But, teachers must do more than entertain students with drama and a sense of the unknown; they must help students process and retain the content.

Lecturing is one of the most popular teaching techniques in secondary school classrooms, but straight lecture for an entire class period is not an effective way to help students process information into long-term memory. There’s more to the learning experience than listening to content. In fact, less than 10% of the meaning we receive from lectures comes from the words themselves. The vast majority (90%) of the message comes from how we perceive the speaker’s physical movements, vocal inflections, and facial expressions during the lecture. Students need these extras to understand the message.

Lectures can hold students’ attention if the presenter uses adequate forethought and has a skillful delivery.

Lecture Structure

The best lecturers are storytellers at heart, and just as stories have plots, lectures have road maps with points of interest and enticements to keep the audience listening. To plot our instructional lectures, we consider where on our lecture’s path we will reveal the following six elements:

  1. Hooks to create curiosity. These should be at the beginning and throughout the lecture.
  2. Goals and outcomes. Begin with the stem “As a result of this lecture experience, students will know and be able to do the following … “
  3. Major concepts. Most effective lectures have no more than five major concepts.
  4. Supporting details for the major concepts.
  5. Ways for students to access information. How will students grasp the information and make sense of it? Consider the words you say, sequence of information, graphic representations of ideas and other visuals for clarification and emphasis, student-teacher interactions to clarify thinking, and formative assessments to give you and students feedback on the message conveyance.
  6. Ways for students to process information. How will students recode information for themselves in a meaningful way? Consider analogies/metaphors, anecdotes/asides that personalize the story for students, summarization techniques, personal relevance, connections to other units of study and other classes, and the importance of providing enough background knowledge prior to the lecture so students have something on which to hook the new learning.

In the August 2010 issue of Middle Ground, the Teaching in the Middle column focused on making sense and making meaning. Check it out at <a ??=” originalAttribute=”>

Additional Elements to Consider

Invite Contrarianism. Invite students to identify incorrect information and arguable ideas in your lecture. Arguing with and correcting adults’ mistakes are very compelling activities for middle grades students.

Present in Fives or Fewer. Cognitive scientists remind us that young adolescents typically are able to memorize no more than five unrelated items in a given learning (See Pat Wolfe’s 2001 book, Brain Matters, published by ASCD.) Let’s rally around this five or fewer concept when we lecture. For example, keep it simple with:

“Two of the most frequent mistakes students make with this application are, 1) downloading an incompatible version with the device they’re using, and 2) forgetting that what they see in the small screen is only 1/50th of the whole landscape available for use.”

Use Novelty. Novelties, props, and the unexpected keep students engaged. To create a sense of curiosity, ask someone to burst into your room with information or objects related to the lecture’s content or incorporate optical illusions or a simple magic trick in the presentation.

Punctuate lectures with the names of students’ favorite locations, music groups, websites, and movies in purposeful ways. “Consider the shape of the parking spaces at the mall. Are they slanted or straight, and does one of these create more available spaces on finite pavement than the other?”

Hold an unusual prop in your hand or Velcro it to your shoulder for the first portion of the lecture, eventually incorporating it into the presentation. Portray yourself as an historic figure, well-known celebrity, inanimate object, or general concept as you present the information: “As a semi-colon, I’m lonely. Nobody understands me, and I’m never used. I can be a lot of help, however, especially when a period at the end of the sentence is too strong a sentiment.”

Limit Note Taking. We diminish both meaningful note taking and personal engagement when we require students to take notes during our lecture. It’s physically impossible to get the full message of a lecture via its combination of words, facial expressions, body movements, nuances, and vocal inflections while also transcribing personal interpretations in an organized manner for future recall.

Instead, stop every 10 to 15 minutes and lead students in a 2- to 6-minute processing of what they just experienced through note taking, summarization, or some other technique useful to them. If a student is panicked by not being able to take notes during the lecture, allow him to record no more than 10 words in a bulleted list during the lecture period, each of which can be developed with details during processing breaks.

For more practical tips on students taking notes, check out the August 2008 Teaching in the Middle column in Middle Ground magazine or e-mail me for the original article.

Co-Lecture. Consider co-lecturing with a student, parent, teacher, librarian/media specialist, subject expert, or administrator. Two voices are more interesting than the singular voice students hear every day.

Co-lecture as a tag team. One speaker has the floor for a short time, tags the other, and moves to the sidelines until tagged to return to the front of the class. Or, one person can lecture while the other records the important information on the board in front of the class. Or, the speakers can engage in quick back-and-forth interactions to keep things lively.

Prime Students. Prior to a lecture, prime students’ brains for what’s to come. Priming includes two elements: Explain what students will learn from the lecture and then provide students with a road map of what they will experience:

“As a result of today’s lecture, you will 1) understand how Pythagoras arrived at his theorem, 2) how the theorem works, and 3) how to identify Pythagorean Triples. First, we will work with tangrams and graph paper, then we’ll analyze three successfully determined hypotenuses and sides in right triangles, followed by sample practice problems. After critiquing each other’s practice, we’ll chase down those triples.”

Foreshadowing what’s to come not only creates anticipation (another healthy legacy from Madeline Hunter) but it also provides logical connections for the brain. Both are helpful to students’ long-term retention of knowledge.

Use Humor. We all enjoy humor while we are learning. We relax, become more attentive, and as a result, our brains process incoming information better. Collect and insert into your lectures humorous comics, cartoons, photos, quotes, anecdotes, online (appropriate) videos, and clever turns of a phrase. Students will remember the entire lecture, not just the funny aside or visual.

Avoid any humor that does not relate to the topic or something familiar to students, and avoid humor that is directed at any one student or sub-group of society.

Memorize the First Five Minutes. The first five minutes of your lecture are critical. Memorize this portion of the presentation. Don’t read from a script or PowerPoint—you’ll kill your credibility with students, and it’s hard to recover from that death. And, fight the urge to read PowerPoint slides word for word. Design your slides as launching points, clarifying graphics, information to be applied, and provocateurs, not mini-versions of articles to be read.

Interact with Your Audience. Increase audience interaction to maintain engagement. Create suspense when using a narrative model, incorporate individuals and small groups in demonstrations or role-playing at the front of the room, and ask students to respond to statements or questions by raising hands, clicking buttons in audience response systems, or leaning left or right according to levels of agreement.

End It Right. Conclusions are more important than we think, so let’s make them count. Conclusions need to reveal a powerful punch, a provocative idea, or a closed loop. Yes, we revisit important information in a conclusion, but we also incorporate an apt metaphor, quick anecdote, or graphic that weaves everything together for the audience in a memorable way. Don’t default conclusions to the school bell. Plan them ahead of time.

Our lectures can be boggy tar pits that mire students in feeble learning, or they can be catapults that push students into higher orbits. The difference is the degree to which we are able to engage our students.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2010

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, Virginia. E-mail: