Interactive Lecture: Small Changes for Improved Engagement and Learning

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Traditionally, undergraduate education has been predominately lecture-based instruction and passive lecturing continues to be the most widely used instructional strategy. However, educational research over the past decades has shown that students retain more course content when active learning techniques are correctly implemented in college courses (Prince 2004, Revell and Wainwright 2009, Freeman et al. 2014, Auerbach et al. 2018, Akhtar and Saeed 2020).

Additionally, evidence shows that active learning lessens learning and achievement gaps for historically marginalized students (minorities, non-traditional students, first-generation students, individuals from low socioeconomic areas, etc.; Haak et al. 2011, Snyder et al. 2016, Theobald et al. 2020). And students often report more positive attitudes toward courses that incorporate some level of active learning into lectures (Rambocas and Sadtry 2017, Gok 2018).

One method for starting the shift to active learning is the use of interactive lectures. Interactive lectures are lectures that incorporate short activities that give students opportunities to engage with the materials just covered in class (or in the prior lecture). The main advantages of interactive lectures for instructors are the ease of implementation and the variety of activities that can be explored and incorporated into a course. Students benefit through increased engagement, learning, and long-term retention of course ideas, topics, and materials (Ernst and Colthorpe 2007, Revell and Wainwright 2009, Miller et al. 2013, Hadie et al. 2018). Additionally, interactive lectures are preferred by most students resulting in increased class attendance compared to traditional lectures (Ernst and Colthorpe 2007, Revell and Wainwright 2009).

So, how do you create an interactive lecture?

Design of Interactive Lectures

  1. Learning Objectives: The preparation for an interactive lecture begins with determining or revisiting the student learning objectives. Student learning objectives are key to determining which topics are essential to the course and aids in focusing on these ideas, materials, and topics for lectures. Student learning objectives should be provided to students to help them better understand what topics are critical to achieving success in the course (Hadie et al. 2018).
  2. Content Refinement: Once you are clear on the learning objective(s), review the topic content to determine which aspects of the lecture are key points or required topics and which can be eliminated or covered using other methods (textbook readings, introductory videos, homework assignments, etc.). Often, traditional lectures contain more information than is essential for student learning which can result in cognitive overload and confusion in students. Often a “less is more” approach results in greater long-term learning and retention.
  3. Restructure the Lecture: Determine the smallest units of content that can be given and remain coherent (often referred to as “chunking”). For each small section of information, reframe the content to answer a question. By focusing on question-driven lectures, students are more likely to engage in answering the questions. Using questions for structuring lectures also allows many strategies to be employed to increase student engagement through analysis and discussion. For example, asking a question at the beginning of a new segment of lecture and then having students make a prediction about the question as it pertains to the content can increase student interest and engagement as they seek validation for their prediction (Lang 2016). Alternatively, you could use the same question and have students brainstorm possible answers in pairs or small groups. Either method helps students determine their prior knowledge and has them think critically about the topic.
  4. Add Active Learning Breaks: Approximately every 15-20 minutes provide students with a break from lecture by providing activities that allow students to incorporate the new lecture information into their knowledge on the topic. These activities can be individual or group strategies that occur at the beginning of the class (to active prior knowledge), the middle of class (to have students use or interact differently with the new information), or at the end of class (to reflect on their learning or ideas that are still confusing). For specific strategies, explore these techniques:
    1. Pause Principle
    2. Wait Time
    3. Think-Pair-Share
    4. Response technology (Clicker Questions)
    5. Interactive Lecture Demonstrations using PODS
    6. Reviewing and Comparing Lecture Notes
    7. Practice/Application Problems
    8. Lecture Reaction
    9. Backchannel Discussion
    10. Illustrative Quotations
  5. Student Questions and Feedback: Finally, create methods for students to submit small assignments or questions to gain better understanding of what topics or skills students are struggling to understand. These assignments could also prompt students for their opinions of the different techniques that are being used in lecture. Common strategies for asking for student questions or feedback include:
    1. Muddiest Point
    2. Minute Paper
    3. Write a Question
    4. Exit Ticket/Chat Waterfall
    5. Mid-term Course Evaluation

Additional Resources

Akhtar, M., and M. Saeed (2020) Assessing the effects of agree/disagree circles, exit tickets, and Think-Pair-Share on Students’ academic achievement at the undergraduate level. Bull Educ Research 42:81-96.

Auerach, A. J., M. Higgins, P. Brickman, and T. C. Andrews (2018) Teacher knowledge for active-learning instruction: Expert-novice comparison reveals differences. CBE – Life Sciences Educ 17:1-14.

Ernst, H. and K. Colthorpe (2007) The efficacy of interactive lecturing for students with perse science backgrounds. Adv Physiol Educ 31:41-44.

Freeman, S., S. L. Eddy, M. McDonough, M. K. Smith, N. Okoroafor, H. Jordt, and M. P. Wenderoth (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS 111:8410-8415.

Gok, T. (2018) The evaluation of conceptual learning and epistemological beliefs on physics learning by think-pair-share. J Educ Science, Environ, Health 4:69-80.

Haak, D. C., J. HilleRisLambers, E. Pirte, and S. Freeman (2011) Increasing structure and active learning reduces the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science 332: 1213-1216.

Hadie, S. N. H., A. Hassan, Z. I. M. Ismail, H. N. Ismail, S. B. Talip, and A. F. A. Rahim (2018) Empowering students’ minds through a cognitive load theory-based lecture model: a metacognitive approach. Innovations Educ and Teach International 55:398-407.

Lang, J. M. (2016) Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Miller, C. J., J. McNear, and M. J. Metz (2013) A comparison of traditional and engaging lecture methods in a large, professional-level course. Adv Physiol Educ 37:347-355.

Prince, M. (2004) Does active learning work? A review of the research. J Engineer Educ 93:223-231.

Rambocas M. and M. K. S. Sastry (2017) Teaching business management to engineers: the impact of interactive lectures. IEE Transactions on Education 60:212-220.

Revell, A. and E. Wainwright (2009) What makes lectures “Unmissable”? Insights into teaching excellence and active learning. J Geography in Higher Education 33:209-223.

Snyder, J. J., J. D. Sloane, R. D. P. Dunk, and J. R. Wiles (2016). Peer-led team learning helps minorities students succeed. PLOS 14:1-7.

Theobald, E. J., M. J. Hill, E. Tran, S. Agrawal, E. N. Arroyo, S. Behling, N. Chambwe, D. L. Cintron, J. D. Cooper, G. Duster, J. A. Grummer, K. Henessey, J. Hsiao, N. Iranon, L. Jones, H. J. Ordt, M. Keller, M. E. Lacey, C. E. Littlefield, A. Lowe, S. Newman, V. Okolo, S. Olroyd, B. R. Peecook, S. B. Pickett, D. L. Slager, I. W. Caviedes-Solis, K. E. Stanchak, V. Sundaravardan, C. Valdebenito, C. R. Williams, K. Zinsli, and S. Freeman (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented student in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. PNAS 117:6476-6483.

This page was authored by Michele Larson and last updated May 24, 2022

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