Engaging a Large Lecture Class

Lecturers face a very human challenge: research shows that most students' attention diminishes after ten minutes of listening and that keeping their attention is crucial to helping them learn. What they learn in lecture is not only what we know, but also how we know it. The lecture, as Wilbert McKeachie describes it, portrays "a scholar in action," synthesizing information, identifying problems, and making hypotheses. Below are strategies and suggestions to help you engage your students in a large lecture class, and thus facilitate their understanding of course content and disciplinary method.

  • Establish your expectations for engagement or participation from the beginning of the course, letting students know that you expect them to answer questions and solve problems during lecture. Explain your reasons for wanting them to be active.
  • Arrive early, and circulate among your students as they arrive to class. If you can, learn their names, which will further reduce their feelings of anonymity. Invite your students to office hours throughout the semester.
  • Show your enthusiasm for the course material by making eye contact, using facial expressions, choosing vivid language, and moving around the room or lecture hall.
  • Provide an outline of the lecture rather than your notes, so that students must focus on filling in details and making connections among ideas.
  • Pique students' interest by raising a question or stating a problem in your introduction.
  • During the lecture, change material or vary your delivery every fifteen minutes: 
    -introduce visual materials like maps, tables of data, or film clips
    -punctuate the lecture with questions and poll students to find out their answers
    -make reference to the readings, clarifying their relevance or importance
    -distribute handouts with passages for students to analyze or problems for them to solve 
    -invite AIs or other guest lecturers to make short presentations on their areas of expertise
  • Use PowerPoint to help you make an argument, not to make your argument for you. Try using images--pictures, graphs, diagrams--rather than text to stimulate thinking.
  • Use Canvas to spark debate. Ask students to post comments and replies to a web-based discussion board; make specific reference to those exchanges in lecture.
  • Allow students to process information and ideas by using examples, developing analogies and metaphors, providing periodic summaries and frequent signposts, and taking pauses.
  • Assign a one-minute paper during or at the end of the lecture in which students identify a question or work on a problem the lecture has raised. 
  • Generate future participation by asking them to voice their questions or explain their solutions in precept or lab.
  • Finish the lecture forcefully, rather than trailing off (or running over). Try offering a summation, reading a quotation, or stating a new question. A strong conclusion will provoke further thought. 

Resources and Further References:

Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2001.

McKeachie, Wilbert. Teaching Tips. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. "Tips for Teachers: Twenty Ways to Make Lecture More Participatory." 2002. Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University. 24 October 2003. 

For additional pedagogical resources, visit the Graduate Students and Faculty webpages.