I love labs, model-building, and inquiry-based activities like any good secondary science teacher – but I also still really enjoy lecturing. Lectures don’t have to be boring like the 300+ person lecture hall courses you took in college. You CAN make lectures engaging – and I am here to share with you my 4 best strategies (plus a bonus tip for all of you currently still teaching virtually #blessyou) for doing so.
But before I begin, I want to share WHY I still lecture and find it to be both an engaging AND effective instructional method for my students. I promise I have read the research, and I understand that although students often PERCEIVE they learn more from direct instruction (like lectures) than they do from active learning experiences (like guided inquiry labs, for example), they actually RETAIN more information and a deeper understanding when engaged in active learning methods.
However, I also know that our high school students are still kids. They are still growing and developing their cognitive muscles. While I believe they learn best when we stretch them and really push them out of their comfort zones (Ex. like with inquiry-based teaching methods and other active learning strategies), I also know that their minds get tired. They don’t have the stamina for 45-90 minutes of critical thinking.
Additionally, while I LOVE to keep my students on their toes, regularly changing up what we do throughout the class period (you can see an example of how I like to chunk my class period in my “anatomy of a class period cheatsheet” here), I also know from experience that my students really appreciate consistency and rhythms in the classroom. They need moments of “rest”, so to speak, where they can learn within their comfort zone – and I really feel like lecture provides that for them.
I also think we still have a LONG way to go convincing students (and parents) that they actually do learn more from active learning experiences. Anyone ever have a student (or parent in a conference) declare that YOU NEVER TAUGHT THEM THIS, when in fact you spent 3+ days investigating it with them? It’s like it doesn’t “count” to them as you teaching the concept unless you directly instruct on it. This is just yet another reason why I continue to incorporate lectures in the classroom.
Most of all, if there is anything that I’ve learned in life it is that balance is key. Our students all learn in different ways and have different cognitive stamina, and to best serve every student, we need to incorporate a variety of instructional methods. I believe if we make lectures engaging, direct instruction can be one of those effective methods we incorporate.
Now that I’ve made my case for lecturing, let me share with you my 4 best tips to make lectures engaging!
A note to virtual teachers: I know lecturing is an ENTIRELY different ballgame in this setting. These 4 tips are specifically from my experiences teaching in-person, and I am aware they aren’t nearly as easy (or really as effective) when used virtually. But I have a few suggestions at the end of this post specifically for you!
Tip #1 to Make Lectures Engaging: Ask more than you tell.
This is absolutely CRUCIAL. Ask more questions than you tell information!!! Lecture doesn’t mean just talking at your students. To me, lecture is really a format of distributing information through a facilitated discussion with my students. All of my lectures are two-way conversations between me and my students.
This conversational lecture style is established two ways (1) with questions, and (2) with consistency. You have to set the norm that you will always be asking them questions and expecting them to respond. You also have to encourage their questions. By doing this consistently your students will learn that lecture does NOT mean the teacher talks while we write in silence. You will be redefining lectures for them!
I recommend as you make your slides or your own reference notes/outlines you go ahead and brainstorm questions to ask in advance. As you get more comfortable with your students and this style of lecturing, questions will come more naturally to you. But it is helpful at first to have a few ideas.
I find questions are the EASIEST to come up with when we have done an inquiry activity FIRST to introduce the content and actively engage with it. This makes it so easy because throughout the lecture you can constantly refer back to the original activity and ask students questions to make connections.
For example, before lecturing on wave behaviors I have students complete these lab stations. Each one is a demo I used to do in a lecture that I converted into a station activity. They complete each station and record their observations. Then when we lecture through the behaviors afterward, I ask them at which station did they experience each behavior, and it starts a conversation from there!
Not sure where to begin? Here are my best tips for how to engage students in discussions in high school science. When you start thinking of direct instruction as a method for facilitating discussions, it will make lectures much more engaging for your students.
Tip #2 to Make Lectures Engaging: Incorporate real world examples, phenomena, and video clips as much as you can.
Your notes should be FILLED with examples you can reference throughout the entire time you are lecturing. I still like to have PowerPoint slides for all of my lectures and keep examples in the notes section for each slide. You should constantly be bringing in these connections for students.
The best thing for us secondary science teachers is that our content makes it SO EASY to do this!! You can look up simple demonstrations, YouTube videos, and scientific articles and facts. There are so many ways to make the content relevant to students.
Best of all, the more you do this, the more, in turn, your students will ask questions and your lecture will become that two-way conversation we discussed in Tip #1!
Tip #3 to Make Lectures Engaging: Break up lecture with active learning experiences.
CHUNK. CHUNK. CHUNK. I love to break my class period into chunks, and I try to switch up what we are doing every 15-20 minutes. ESPECIALLY if you are teaching 90-minute class periods – do not let yourself lecture for too long!
Break up your lectures with active learning experiences. I will often even put slides into my lecture notes with the title of an activity so I remember to STOP and do it. These active learning experiences help SO much with students’ ability to retain the information by giving them MEANINGFUL connections to the material!!
Looking for a practical goal? Try to avoid more than 15-20 minutes of lecture at a time. I shoot for 15 minutes but know that if my students ask more questions, this will be stretched a bit (which I am fine with!)
Active learning experiences could be activities, labs, building models, guided inquiry instruction, or even just some practice problems. ANYTHING that gets them engaged with the content you just covered is a win. I love to do this with stations, and you can read just about everything you ever needed to know about using stations in high school science here.
Tip #4 to Make Lectures Engaging: Embed practice problems or application questions.
Last but not least, any easy way to break up direct instruction and make lectures engaging is to embed practice problems and application questions. This, again, gets them interacting with the content and critically thinking about it.
I especially love any sort of challenges or problems where they can think-pair-share through them with a peer (think about it on their own, pair up with their neighbor, and then share their thoughts together.) I try to create opportunities in my classroom for students to interact with each other and practice communicating face to face because I feel like technology has really diminished that skill in adolescents over the last few years.
Speaking of technology, I know many of you may still be virtually teaching in some capacity, and that makes lectures especially difficult. I recommend having students watch lecture videos on their OWN time (if you can) and then using whatever designated time you are gathered together for active learning strategies. I would still embed questions and practice problems as much as you can (without answers) that you have students work through as they listen that you can then go over later when you are “together” so to speak.
Also, you all have BLOWN UP my inbox with your love of Nearpod. I don’t have any personal experience using it, so I feel ill-equipped to write more about it, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it after so many of you have raved about how it has transformed lectures for you!
I hope these tips help you to make lectures engaging in your classroom. I’d love to hear other strategies that have been successful for you! Share them with me here!