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Lecture Isn’t a Teaching Strategy (Part 1): 3 Problems with Lecture (and What to do About Them)

How many lectures did you attend before graduating college?  Do you still remember any of them today?

In order to graduate from college I attended 40 courses and the only classes I remember are from a public speaking course.  I remember it because we were supposed to use repetition and get audience participation and I didn’t really accomplish either of those during the speech assignments we were given and I ended with a B-.  It was one of the lowest grades I ever received in my academic career.  Yet I still remember the classes because the professor involved us in the learning.  Every other course I attended over four years was lecture-based.

A lot of the sermons and homilies I hear in church are similarly lecture-based.  Sometimes I think the priest makes a good point, but usually I’m making a grocery list in my mind or thinking about what I have to do at work during the upcoming week.

During the fifteen years since I graduated college I’ve noticed that too many training workshops and business meetings intended to ensure attendees walk away knowing more also revolve around lecture and the person in the front of the room.

Lecture isn’t a teaching strategy, it’s a telling strategy.  Add some PowerPoint slides and perhaps it’s a showing strategy, too.  It’s a way for the person in the front of the room to say: “I have information that you need, so sit back and pay attention and open up your head so I can fill it with my knowledge.”

Problem #1: The teacher, presenter, trainer, facilitator – the lecturer – has no idea whether or not the students “get it.”

Addressing Problem #1: There is a proverb that goes: tell me and I forget, show me and I understand, involve me and I remember.  If your goal is for the learners to remember your material, it is essential that the learners are involved in the session.  Following are several quick tips to involve your audience, regardless of group size:

  1. Pose a question to the group and take a few responses.  Rhetorical questions can get people thinking.  Going a step further and taking a few answers, or at the very least asking learners to share their answers with the person next to them can quickly get participants engaged.  And the opportunity to turn to a neighbor and answer a question can also help add energy to the room.
  2. Turn to your neighbor to discuss. This strategy can be useful in answering questions, brainstorming new ideas or discussing a case study you’ve just presented.
  3. Its time to practice in small groups. Taking five minutes out of your session to allow your learners to gather with those around them and apply the content you’ve just taught is an opportunity for immediate reinforcement that will help in reinforcing the learning, moving it from short term to long term memory.  I still remember a peer coaching model from a training session I attended four years ago because the presenter gave us five minutes to practice the model.

Problem #2: Many argue lecture is just faster and easier for teacher and learner – there is less time needed for preparation and there’s no need for the attendees to burn valuable energy in touchy-feely type activities.

Addressing Problem #2: This argument begs two more questions:

  1. Is it still faster and easier if the content needs to be re-taught again next year, and the following year, and the year after that because nobody remembers what you lectured about?
  2. Is it really true that simply putting together some lecture notes and spending an hour or two on PowerPoint slides is really faster?

One effective strategy in addressing this concern is to have the learners do the teaching as they’re doing the learning.  I was once asked to train groups of people on a series of child welfare laws.  The original lesson plan called for a brief lecture on each law.  And none of the trainees were able to recall details of the laws or their importance six months after the training.  I re-designed the lesson plan to break the learners into groups, assign each group one of the child welfare laws and give them a short period of time to note the key points of the law and what its impact would be on their work.  Each group wrote their comments on a piece of flipchart and then all participants spent time reading through the various flipcharts.  A de-briefing session followed in which questions were asked and answered by the participants themselves (I was on stand-by to make sure nobody was giving erroneous information about the laws).  This was a lot easier than trying to keep everyone awake while lecturing about the laws.  And the participants, who were responsible for teaching about the laws, also were able to retain the information.

Problem #3: Lecture is generally focused on a topic – lecture is solely content.  If the audience isn’t familiar (and/or passionate) about the topic, they may struggle to follow along.  And if they can’t connect the dots between the content and how it can impact their work or life, it may not be retained very long.

Addressing Problem #3: The instructional design formula I’ve come to embrace in designing any lesson plan incorporates the following steps:

  1. Anchor
  2. Content
  3. Application
  4. Future Use

I wish I could offer credit to whoever came up with this formula, but I not sure where the credit is due.  But it truly is simple and incredibly effective.

Anchor: A brief activity or question to tie the learning to the learner’s personal experiences.  Unless the learner can see themselves in the content, they may have difficulty relating to and figuring out how to apply the content to their own context. Read more in An Anchor Activity in Every Presentation.

Content: This is the information you intend to get across to the audience.  Going back to the example of the child welfare example above, keep in mind that content does not always need to be lecture-based.

Application: This is an opportunity for learners to try out the learning in a safe environment, practicing in the training room.

Future Use: Job aids or simply giving the learners an opportunity to brainstorm how they plan to use the learning when they return to their office are both examples of future use activities.

I welcome your thoughts, questions, comments or arguments about anything in this post.  Also, be sure to come back next week for Lecture isn’t a Teaching Strategy Part 2: A Parable.

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