Top Takeaways:

  • Students only retain 10-20% of what they hear in a lecture three days later. An active learning environment is more beneficial to all students, but when planning a lecture, best practices include being well planned, having a specific focus with objectives, incorporating student engagement, using visuals or props, and taking breaks to check for understanding.
  • Lectures can be made more active by capturing students’ attention, connecting to student experience, encouraging participation, and trying a flipped classroom approach.
  • Active discussions are most successful in small groups when students are assigned specific roles and the instructor uses guiding questions to prompt students.


To practice active lecturing and discussion effectively, it’s best to build this into your course during planning, not on the fly; however, it is possible to incorporate some of the following techniques into a course already in session.

Moving Beyond Lecture

Research has long found that students don’t retain most lecture material. For example, Edgar Dale’s 1969 research found that students only recalled about 25% of lecture content three hours after the lecture, with that recall dropping to 10-20% three days after the lecture. Donald Bligh’s 2002 research found that students retained less than 10% of a lecture after three days. Even more problematic is the evidence that, while all students learn better in an active learning environment (a classroom that replaces lecture with discussion, group work, and other forms of student-centered interactivity), lectures favor students who are “white, male, and affluent” (Paul). The challenge to create an active lecture is really the challenge to help students connect with the material in a meaningful way so they remember it and can use it in future contexts.

Creating a successful, engaging lecture requires the following:

  • A Plan: What specific objective do you want to meet during this lecture? How does this lecture build from past and into and future lectures?
  • Focus: What 3-5 points will help to break the objective into manageable concepts or skills? How is this lecture unique, breaking away from their reading and other learning materials?
  • Engagement: How can you transform your lecture from a passive experience to an active one for students? How might they participate in the lecture?
  • Visuals or Props: Which images, videos, or physical specimens will help students connect with the material?
  • Breaks & Check-ins: How much time will your lecture require with breaks for questions and check-in periods for understanding?

Activating your Lectures

When planning your lectures, consider how you might incorporate one of the following active learning strategies to help your students make meaningful connections to the content:

  • Capture Students’ Attention: Use questions, stories, or problems to engage students in the lecture. If students see the topic as a problem to solve, a story they can relate to, or a question to find the answer to, they are more likely to pay attention.
  • Connect Content to Students’ Experience: If students are able to relate course material to their lives or their community, they will be more likely to remember and transfer these concepts to future situations. Develop questions and scenarios that help students make these connections, or ask students to develop them as part of class participation.
  • Encourage Participation: About every ten to twenty minutes, when students’ minds will naturally begin to wander, build in ways for students to participate. Ask students to turn to each other and discuss, answer questions, or create models of what they’re learning in text or image form. Have them move around, go to the board, and create examples of what they’re learning. (Wiersma)
  • Flip your Classroom: Instead of using class time for lecture, faculty teaching flipped classes engage students in active learning assignments during class sessions and assign lecture material for homework.

Creating Active Discussions

How can classroom discussions be focused, engaged, and productive? Finding relevant ways to encourage student engagement without it feeling like wasted time can sometimes be a challenge. The following techniques can help organize effective discussions:

  • Assign Roles: Sometimes discussion happens as a full class, but often it’s a good idea for students to work in pairs or small groups. This ensures that every student has an opportunity to fully engage with the course content. It also allows students who may not otherwise participate (such as introverts or students who aren’t as confident about the subject matter) to connect with the content and their peers. Best practice is for groups to be no larger than four students, but it’s okay if groups are slightly larger as long as every student has a specific role to play in the group. Roles may include notetaker, presenter, researcher, timekeeper, facilitator, artist, mathematician, summarizer, Devil’s Advocate, etc. (Barkley 52).
  • Use Guiding Questions: Keeping the objectives of your class session in mind, what open-ended questions might guide students to reaching the goals of the session so that discussion is a process of discovery for them? For example, if an objective in a Pacific Northwest geography class is to understand patterns of human migration to the west, a guiding question to help spark discussion might be, “What factors are currently motivating people to move to Portland?” Questions like this promote critical thinking and encourage curiosity, so that even if students don’t know fact-based answers to that question, they will be willing to explore possible answers as they seek out facts to shape their understanding.
  • Use Liberating Structures: Liberating Structures are highly structured activities that promote relational coordination and trust. Liberating Structures are especially useful when trying to establish class cohesion and a positive learning climate. The website Liberating Structures provides a detailed explanation of what Liberating Structures are and how to use them in your classroom with small or large groups of students to encourage team decision-making and leadership.

Checking for Understanding

When using lecture or discussion in the classroom, it’s often difficult to tell what students have learned without testing them. Quick and easy formative assessments can gauge what students know without burdening you or them with a formal test. Edutopia’s Todd Finley outlines 53 techniques for actively engaging students during a lecture or class discussion while checking for understanding.

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