CATL Teaching Guides

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Brief Description 

Lecture remains a very common teaching method in higher education. While studies comparing student learning by teaching method find lecture effective primarily for conveying knowledge and with fairly low rates of retention, lecture can be combined with other teaching strategies to improve its effectiveness. Use lecture to convey complex knowledge to a novice audience, provide students with very current or emergent knowledge, model an intellectual process before asking students to try it, provide a mental framework that helps students make sense of other course materials. Instructors who have developed excellent presentation skills can also inspire students to learn more on their own. Enhance lecture with with excellent organization and a variety of other teaching strategies.


  1. Keep lectures short. Nilson (2010) reports on studies that indicate student attentiveness drops rapidly beyond about 15 minutes. Try interactive lecturing:  talk for a short period, then move to an activity that aligns with your learning outcomes for this topic.

  2. Match content to a schedule; short lectures make this even more critical.  Be clear about what you want students to learn in each class session in which you plan to lecture. Listing your learning objectives for each class session can help you match teaching strategies to your goals.    

  3. Try to complete a topic in one class period. Lectures that break over two course meetings can be very difficult for student learning and retention.

While some colleagues might seem to be "naturals" as lecturers, the reality is that anyone can learn the skills needed to deliver an engaging lecture.   

Tips to Implement Lecture Effectively

  • Repetition is generally not an effective learning strategy, so don't force students into it by lecturing the assigned readings or other course materials.  As Nilson (2010) notes, "any rational student will decide either to do the readings or to attend lecture… no doubt not what you intend."

  • Less might be more with this method: Intersperse lecture with other methods that engage students in thinking about the material just presented. Discussion, short in-class writing assignments, surveys or polls -- methods exist that can work in any size class.  See Nilson (2010) and the Ways To Improve Student Learning section of this Teaching Improvement Guide for ideas.   

  • Learn to use lecture slides effectively.  Kosslyn (2011) has an easy-to-use, well-researched guide to help you identify and fix common problems. 

  • Teach students to take effective notes. Studies comparing students' notes to key concepts, processes, structure of an argument -- the things we want them to learn -- indicate that advanced undergraduates capture only about 40% of the important content, and first-year students only note about 11%. Students enrolled in courses for which lecture slides are provided are likely to assume they need not take notes.  You will have to convince students that note-taking is important to learning, and then teach them how to do it.  Most did not learn this skill in high school.  Nilson (2010) provides good ideas.  Note-taking for research projects is another skill that most students lack from high school, and while their note-taking needs for lecture vs. a research project may be very different, students are unlikely to know that.

  • Develop minimal lecture notes in order to keep your presentation as natural as possible. Reading your lecture in a face-to-face course can be deadly for your audience. On the other hand, if you are recording a lecture to post on D2L, a script does make it much easier to caption your video for disability compliance.  


  • Nilson, L.B. (2010).  Teaching at Its Best:  A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors.  3rd ed. San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.  See Chapter 12.
  • Kosslyn, S. M. (2011).  Better PowerPoint:  Quick Fixes Based on How Your Audience Thinks.  New York:  Oxford University Press.  Several members of the CATL staff have copies of this book and might be able to lend theirs.
  • Mazur, E. (2014). Peer Instruction for Active Learning (video).  Mazur explains why and how he changed how and when he lectures.

Hoskins, D. (2015). Lecture. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from