Simple Principles to Follow for Effective Lectures

The prevalence of lectures within the academic community has changed little since the inception of the university.  Despite their bad reputation, can lectures actually facilitate active and deep learning?  In a recent article published in the Journal of Geography in Higher Education, Revel and Wainwright (2009) examined both students’ and lecturers’ views of what constitutes an effective lecture, and what lecture conditions best promote deep learning.

The researchers collected qualitative data through face-to-face interviews from 10 lecturers and 24 second-year students at the Brunel University (UK), Centre for Human Geography.   The results suggested that both lecturers and students agreed on three key aspects of an effective lecture: a high-level of student engagement, participation and interaction; clear structure and organization; and a passionate and enthusiastic lecturer who brought the subject to life.

Student stated that effective lectures included regular breaks for them to be able to apply and think critically about the material.  With in-class attention spans generally limited to 15 minutes, interactive techniques such as discussion, group activities, problem solving, and opportunities to actively explore relevant and current issues and cases studies were cited as providing important opportunities to stimulate individual thought and to promote a deeper understanding of the subject matter.  Students greatly valued a structured lesson plan that enabled them to organize and prioritize information, and to see linkages between lectures and to other parts of the course.  Students greatly valued an instructor who demonstrated passion and enthusiasm for the subject matter – someone who was able to get students excited about the course content. They also appreciated an instructor who was approachable and was able to create a positive rapport with students , such that they were not intimidated in the classroom.

The authors contend that,

“…formal lectures can still be considered a useful method of teaching provided that the following principles are applied:

  • Lectures should be designed to provide structure and framework so that students are better able to see the ‘big picture’.  Lecturers should synthesize information, highlight intended outcomes, and repeat key points so that integrative links are more easily made….
  • Lectures should be used to bring a subject matter to life for students by lecturers conveying their enthusiasm and passion for the topic…
  • Lectures should be used as a means for academics to communicate the findings of their research, and as an excellent medium for providing the most current information on a topic…
  • Most importantly, lectures—even large-group ones – should generally be interactive ” (p. 221).

Sometimes simple advice is the best advice. This research project supports many of the best practices recommended by teaching and learning centres around the globe, and supports recommendations made by past researchers (eg. DeWinstaney and Bjork, 2002).  Structure and organization, student interaction and participation, repetition of key information,  and personal and real-world relevance can go a long way to improving the traditional lecture. By no means are these earth-shattering changes, but they are simple practices that we can all embrace and implement to promote effective instruction in higher education.


deWinstanley, P. and Bjork, R.A. 2002.  Successful lecturing: Presenting information in ways that engage effective processing.  New Directions for Teaching and Learning 89: 19-31.

Revell, A. and Wainwright, E. 2009.  What makes lectures ‘umissable’? Insights into teaching excellence and active learning.  Journal of Geography in Higher Education 33(2): 209-233.

Author: natashakenny

Senior Director, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. Interdisciplinary academic and professional background in educational development, landscape architecture, urban planning and environmental science.

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