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close this bookTeach Your Best - A Handbook for University Lecturers (DES, 387 p.)
close this folderTHE LECTURE METHOD
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentWhat is a Lecture?
View the documentHistory and Background
View the documentResearch on Lectures
View the documentLearning from Lectures
View the documentSkills of Lecturing
View the documentPreparation of Lectures
View the documentGroup Instruction


In this section we shall discuss the lecture method. We shall do this by examining its main characteristics, outlining some of its strengths and shortcomings and suggesting ways of improving it. - Remember the outline in Chapter 3, where the impact of lecturing on student learning is explained.

What is a Lecture?

Very simply, a lecture is an organized verbal presentation of subject matter often augmented by visual aids. According to Bligh (1972), a lecture is a period of more or less uninterrupted talk from a teacher. A more detailed definition is found in Percival and Ellington (1988) who state that a lecture is 'a didactic instructional method, involving one-way communication from the active presenter to the more or less passive audience'. Perhaps unkindly we should also include the student who described a lecture as 'an occasion to sleep whilst someone talks'.

History and Background

Historically the lecture can be traced back to the 5th century BC when it was popular with the Greeks. It was widely adopted in the early Christian and Muslim Universities in medieval times when books were scarce, and even today, it is the most common teaching method in higher education. The term lecture comes from the Latin lectare, to read aloud, which identifies it as an expository or ‘telling’ method.

Whilst the lecture largely consists of one-way communication from the teacher, this does not mean that there can be no discussion or dialogue between lecturer and students. Often such two-way communication is limited to the teacher asking questions to establish that the subject matter has been assimilated but many skilled lecturers are able to make their lectures more thought-provoking and interactive, so that deeper learning is possible. This is to be encouraged and we shall return to how this can be achieved later in this chapter.

Research on Lectures

Much has been written about lectures and lecturing and it may help our understanding if we examine briefly what research has established. Three main trends may be noted, the first comparing their effectiveness with other methods, the second detailing the views of students and lecturers and the third focussing on learning in lectures. So what does the literature tell us about the lecture?

In comparing the lecture with other methods we find that:

the lecture is the most common method used in universities;

it is as effective as other methods for imparting knowledge up to comprehension level but less effective for higher cognitive levels;

it is less effective for teaching practical skills than demonstrations and laboratory work;

discussions are more effective than lectures for changing attitudes.

In spite of these limitations, a consensus of authorities report the lecture has a place in higher education but should not be the only method used. Studies of views on the lecture reveal that both students and lecturers place high value on clarity of presentation, suitability of structure and generation of student interest. In addition, the lecture is popular with lecturers, students and administrators. They give the following reasons.

Figure 5.10 Why do you prefer lectures as a teaching-learning method?

From an educational or learning view point, several limitations of the lecture method are reported in research, many of which are frequently made worse by poor lecturing skills. For example:

research indicates that lectures need to be augmented with more active and participatory learning approaches;

lectures tend to encourage 'surface' learning only, which facilitates memorization but is unsuitable for 'deep' learning required for understanding and problem solving skills.

Learning from Lectures

One way of improving lectures is to examine the process of teaching and learning that takes place, for in doing this we find there are several techniques and skills for enhancing this method. So how do students learn in lectures?

Very simply, students learn in two ways: firstly, from the information presented by the lecturer, and secondly, by the way they process and restructure the information received to suit their own interpretation. Thus the degree of understanding will vary according to the way the information is transmitted, received and processed. A lecture can facilitate learning by being well structured, interesting and meaningful or it can inhibit learning by being confused, boring and meaningless. Let us examine this process a little deeper.

A lecturer sends information in many ways.

Verbal: through explanations, definitions, examples, descriptions or comments.

Extra-verbal: through the lecturer's vocal qualities such as clarity, audibility, fluency and speed.

Non-verbal: through gestures, facial expressions or body movements.

Visual: through the use of visual aids.

Students also learn by listening, observing, note-taking, discussing and restructuring information. The effectiveness of learning, however, is dependent on how well they receive and process the information, together with the quality of the message received.

Figure 5.11 In Africa, teaching and learning often take place under difficult conditions

Having read this information about how students learn from lectures, what would you do, despite the difficult conditions, to improve your lectures so that your students will understand them better and learn more from them?

You might have included the following points in your answer.

Firstly, you must organize and structure your presentation so that it is meaningful to your students.

Secondly, you must arouse students' interest and hold their attention.

Thirdly, you must help your students to learn in various ways.

By reflecting on these main lecturing processes and strengthening some of the skills required, many of us can enhance the quality of our lectures. So what are the skills associated with lecturing?

Skills of Lecturing

We have some reservations about using the word lecture for it can conjure up a droning lecturer and sleepy, passive students. We tend to agree with George Brown, a well known authority in Britain on teaching, who prefers to use the word 'explaining' for lecturing. He describes explaining as 'giving understanding to others' for it consists of a series of short statements containing principles, Illustrations, definitions and qualifications, all of which are well organized and spoken clearly. It follows that the explaining must be appropriate for the particular learners and suitable for the time available.

The process of explaining has a number of important characteristics such as clarity, organization, emphasis, orientation, examples and feedback. Let us discuss these points in detail.

Clarity: this is promoted by using explicit smoothly flowing language and avoiding vagueness. It means defining new terms, clarifying key points, paraphrasing, and giving directions on learning tasks as well as speaking clearly, audibly and not too fast.

Organization: This calls for a sound structure and logical approach in which essential points are concisely covered, key links and relationships are indicated and good use is made of time. A well organized explanation will show evidence of sound preparation and will not attempt to cover everything.

Emphasis: This is concerned with the highlighting of important elements and details. Vocal emphasis, involving tone, pitch, volume and pauses, together with gestures, eye contact and pointing are ways of giving emphasis in explanations and these can be augmented by visual aids and handouts.

Orientation: This means helping to promote learning in several ways, for example, in outlining the structure of a topic when opening a lecture or introducing a new theme, giving directions and advice on what to expect, or using the key structuring moves that signal what is happening during the lecture. These are summarized in Figure 5.12.

Examples: These are essential in explanation but they need to be apt and interesting within the students' repertoire of knowledge, and with sufficient frequency and variety. A typical example, comparisons, and 'problem' examples should also be given to enhance comprehension.

Feedback: Continuous monitoring is an important feature of explanations for without it there can be no certainty that 'understanding' has resulted. Feedback is initiated by the lecturer asking questions, inviting queries, seeking interpretations and probing for clarification.

Four key "structuring moves" as identified by Brown


Statements which signal the direction and structure, for example, Today I want to examine four approaches to the management of tumours: Firstly, the use of surgical techniques; secondly, the use of radiotherapy; thirdly, the . . .'


Statements which delineate the beginning and ending of sections, for example, 'Let's now leave radiotherapy and turn to the use of chemotherapy . . .'


Statements which highlight or emphasize key points, for example, The basic pharmacological principal underlying chemotherapy is (pause)..


.'Statements that link sections of the lecture together or to previously acquired knowledge or experience, for example, 'So you can see chemotherapy is often as aggressive and invasive as excision and . . .'

Figure 5.12 Signaling direction when lecturing

Source: Adapted from Brown and Atkins (1988)

In addition to the above features, one of the most important and challenging aspects of effective explaining is that of generating and maintaining student interest. This increases the desire to learn by gaining and holding attention, avoiding boredom, encouraging learning activity, and providing a non-threatening helpful climate. Much depends on the inherent enthusiasm and innovativeness of the lecturer. The direction and help given to students as well as appropriateness of examples are also important. These should be complemented by a variety of participatory and active learning techniques.

The identification of specific lecturing skills is no easy task. Unfortunately, we cannot deliver here a more detailed examination, but we have researched the literature and adapted a list of teacher activities which summarize effective basic skills (see Figure 5.13).

Lecturer Activity Effective Lecturing Behaviours


Uses logical, organized approach

Covers essential factors

Is clear and concise

States relationships

Defines key terms

Emphasizes key points

Introduces topics

Clearly states objectives

Overviews topic

Describes structure

Advises requirements

Illustrates relevance

Links with past/future

Uses teaching aids

Uses appropriate medium/equipment

Provides variety of stimuli

Ensures audibility/clearly visible

Structures content clearly

Checks equipment before lecture

Presents interestingly

Maintains interest

Displays enthusiasm, own interest

Personalizes instruction

Gives interesting/apt examples

Varies activities

Questions and responds effectively

Asks questions clearly, concisely

Uses questions to explore, clarify

Uses problem solving questions

Re-phrases, reinforces answer

Distributes questions effectively

Encourages answers, elaboration

Organizes participation

Sets appropriate tasks

Varies activities

Issues clear briefs

Gives guidance

Responds to students' needs

Checks students' understanding

Adjusts content, if necessary


Shows awareness of needs

Communicates well with voice

Is clear and concise

Uses pauses, silences, varied tone

Uses appropriate language

Makes eye contact and uses appropriate gestures

Uses time well

Starts and finishes promptly

Shows evidence of planning

Departs from plan where appropriate

Advises on students' time-use

Closes lesson

Reiterates and summarizes key points

Issues reading lists

Advises on follow-up action

Acknowledges students' efforts

Figure 5.13 Skills of lecturing

Source: Adapted from O'Neil and Pennington, 1992.

Preparation of Lectures

The effectiveness of a lecture is closely related to the quality of the preparation. In this section we shall examine preparation skills for, as George Brown states, 'presentation is important, but without a clear, coherent lecture structure which emphasizes key points and examples, a presentation may have a short-lived effect'.

In preparing a lecture we should consider three main factors: firstly the purpose of the lecture, secondly the content and the structure, and thirdly how to include some key features in our lecture plan.


Lectures are given for several reasons, for example to:

tell students what they need to know (note-taking lectures);
promote understanding and learning in depth (problem-solving lectures);
provide an introduction to a topic (overview lectures);
stimulate student interest in a topic (motivational lectures).

This means we need different kinds of lectures for different purposes and it is important at the start of preparation to be clear on the type of lecture required. Very often it is possible to combine two purposes, for example, an overview and motivational lecture, but is unlikely that all purposes can be fully accommodated in any single lecture.

Content and Structure

The selection and structuring of content is very important for it ensures optimum coverage of a topic as well as understanding. In addition, it is closely related to purpose for this determines whether selection of content should require full coverage, an overview or only some elements of the topic. Most of us tend to select too much content, probably because we know a great deal about the subject. So, we need to be ruthless in selecting only relevant information which must be viewed in the light of the students' perspective and stage of development. One way of reducing content is to categorize it as 'must know', 'should know' and 'nice to know', and use only the 'must know'.

Having selected the content, you should then consider the way it is structured. This is important in planning a lecture for it determines whether coverage is adequate and student understanding likely. Three common methods of structuring lectures are the classical, the problem centred and the sequential. See Figure 5.14 for details of these structuring approaches.






The topic is divided into main sections, then sub-sections and finally elements. It is the most common form of structure. Each sub-section will contain main points with examples, elaborations and other relevant information.

Easy to plan and take notes from

Can generate boredom

Useful for outlining subject matter

Necessary to clearly indicate structure, delineate sections, emphasize key points and link to overall topic

Problem- centred

Contains a statement of the problem, then various solutions are postulated and evaluated.

Intellectually stimulating

Easy to confuse rather than clarify or wander aimlessly

Students' participation easier

Note-taking difficult


Consists of a series of linked information on a linear or step-by-step basis leading to a conclusion.

Useful in historical accounts and maths based subjects

Must be interesting for effectiveness and within students' capacity

Figure 5.14 Structures for preparing lectures

Source: Adapted from Brown and Atkins, 1988.

Key Features

Several key features should also be included in most lectures for full effectiveness and, in our view, it is better to attend to these when preparing lectures. The following are considered the more important.

The introduction or opening stage of a lecture is crucial. Effective openings require that you should gain the students' attention, advise on content and structure and indicate the purpose or objective.

The use of appropriate audio-visual aids is important for clarity and comprehension but it is essential that these are well prepared. Ensure that illustrations and diagrams are simple, brief and readable from the back of the class; handouts are concise and well structured; whilst slides, videos, films and recordings, must be relevant as well as clearly seen and heard. These should be viewed as 'aids' only and require augmentation through reflection and activity by students, so it is important that you plan for this and allow time to achieve full benefits.

You should deliberately build-in consolidation of learning in your lectures and allow time for such purposes. Many of you are familiar with the old Chinese adage:

· First you tell them what you are going to tell them (the introduction)

· Then you tell them (the instruction)

· Then you tell them what you have told them (the consolidation).

It is important that such recapitulation is presented differently to the original instruction and not word for word. When time permits the task can be shared with students as the lecturer can pose suitable questions to extract the information, perhaps with some guidance and elaboration. Again, such aspects require attention in the preparation stage, such as framing suitable questions or selecting a different structure for reviewing the topic.

Because you have a lecture scheduled for one hour it does not mean you have to talk for the whole hour. The inclusion of student activities is an important alternative for it enables you to renew attention, provide opportunities for student reflection or problem-solving, and helps you to obtain feedback on progress. Many lecturers will argue that they haven't time to waste on student activities but research evidence shows that active learning is essential for understanding.

· set questions or problems for buzz groups or collective answers;

· show video clips and discuss implications;

· set a brief multiple-choice questionnaire and discuss solutions;

· give students data and ask them to frame questions, make estimates or solve problems;

· ask students to discuss a research design or a set of findings;

· list advantages and disadvantages of a procedure or theory;

· have students suggest examples and compare with neighbour;

· let them make a problem solving poster outlining the problem, solution, issues and implications;

· demonstrate a task and discuss;

· instruct the students to draw a one page 'map' of a topic, detailing main elements, sub-elements and links.

Before leaving this section on preparations we should note that it is not advisable to write out every word for a lecture or to try and cover everything. A common error is to over-prepare by reading so much that you become overwhelmed but still unsure of what you are going to say. Try and summarize your main points on one sheet. You can use this as a handout, an introductory visual aid, or to talk to in your lecture.

Identify a lecture you will soon have to deliver. Prepare for it by giving its:




key features

Group Instruction

Group instruction forms part of the expository telling method of instruction, often classified as a lecture. It usually follows a prescribed format that is structured and systematic. This type of instruction is commonly used in further education and programmes of a vocational or business nature. A brief outline is given here as it is a simple method yet incorporates a number of important principles of learning.

Group instruction consists of five main steps.

Figure 5.15 Five main steps in structuring group instruction

Step 1: Prime

The purpose of the prime stage is to get students into a state of readiness to learn. This is done by advising on procedures for the session, giving a brief outline of the topic and its structure, and generating student interest by indicating the importance of the topic as well as how it will be utilized. If desired, a review of relevant previous learning may take place. At the end of the prime phase students should be aware of what is expected of them, should want to learn and should know how the subject will be dealt with.

Step 2: Present

Step 2 forms the bulk of your input. In this stage the main body of information is delivered in a systematic and logical manner, or put another way, a well organized explanation is given, using visual aids.

Step 3: Summarize

At the end of the presentation phase, the topic should be summarized and the main elements reviewed. Visual aids such as an overhead projector (OHP) should be used where appropriate.

Step 4: Consolidate

Up to this stage, it may appear that the lecturer has given a good lecture for not everyone takes the trouble to get their students ready to learn, present their material in a structured and visual way, and provide a good summary at the end. But even when doing all this, there is no certainty that students will remember the instruction for there has been no mechanism to make the group think hard about the topic and, as a result, learn. This is the purpose of the consolidation stage for it forces students to recall the information and think it through with guidance from the lecturer.

Consolidation is achieved by the lecturer first asking some simple recall type questions on key elements of the topic and then posing open ended questions of a problem solving type. The way these are asked is important and the lecturer should advise beforehand that some questions will be raised to help the students understand the information given but no one should answer until requested.

The consolidation phase proper, some prefer to call it recapitulation, now commences, with the lecturer:

posing an open ended question;

pausing to give students a chance to think;

nominating at random a student to supply the answer (if this is not done at random some students will 'switch off');

echoing the response by using the student's own words or paraphrasing them.

When the nominated student gives an incorrect answer, the lecturer should refer it to another student or give clues to correct the original response. This procedure should be repeated until all the main elements and key aspects of the topic have emerged and the lecturer should ensure by the distribution of questions that as many students as possible make a contribution. Some variations to this format are possible, for example, you may record the answers and then compare these with the original structure or use them to probe for deeper knowledge or a justification.

A second phase in the consolidation stage, time permitting, is to give students the opportunity to ask questions requiring clarification or elaboration. A danger is that questions may call for information that is over and above that decided in the planning of the topic, or lead to sidetracking or argument that is excessively time-consuming.

Step 5: Check Learning

The final stage of group instruction is to check learning and its purpose is to assess the effectiveness of instruction. This is done by asking several questions requiring short, or one word answers on the main points covered. These may be asked orally or shown on an OHP, but should always require written answers. These should be marked there and then by each student, either personally or through exchanging answer sheets with a neighbor, whilst the lecturer calls out answers and asks for results. This can be done formally or informally, but both students and lecturer will have some idea of whether the instruction was assimilated because all students were tested.

It is difficult to be precise with regard to the allocation of time for each phase but as a guideline the following is suggested:

Step 1:

Prime =7.5%

(5 minutes)

Step 2:

Present = 35%

(21 minutes)

based on a

Step 3:

Summarize = 10%

(6 minutes)

60 minute

Step 4:

Consolidate = 37.5%

(22 minutes)


Step 5:

Check learning = 10%

(6 minutes)

Group instruction is a simple but structured method which, if planned and executed effectively, enables a lecturer to organize meaningful presentations, provide for student participation and retain control of the learning process in a facilitative way. More important, it ensures learning occurs. This is what students expect from lectures and what lecturers would like to provide.


After your next lecture ask yourself whether you have:

primed your students?

presented the information effectively?

summarized the topic?

consolidated the presentation?

checked whether the students have learnt the main points covered?

If your answer to any of these questions is ‘no’ then you should improve your group instruction methods.