To Lecture or Not to Lecture? That is Not the Question.

Sometimes I am told that I am anti-lecture because I spent much of my career writing active learning pedagogy. That is absolutely not true. I lecture, I enjoy a good lecture, and I see real value in lecture in the college classroom. In fact, experience has shown me that truly great lecturers are usually great analytical thinkers.

But I personally find this whole debate about lecturing a non-starter. If you read carefully, most people who advocate for the lecture, and presumably against active learning, actually argue for high-quality lecture and combinations with active learning methods. And people who advocate for active learning do not discount the lecture and pretty much arrive in the same place–advocating a blend of the two.

In the final analysis, quality teaching is whatever works in building ever more sophisticated thinking in the majority of students. In my 4 decades of teaching, I have found that no one method has a lock on that goal.  The problem as I see it is instructors’ lack of diversity in methods, not the use of a so-called “bad” method.  Research shows that the higher education classroom is over 75% dominated by the method of lecture. On the other hand, the high school classroom has migrated over the last 40 years to a very active learning space.  Is it better?  No one makes that argument. But the truth is that neither classroom has been well-served by taking one side of this useless debate.


For example, in high school classrooms today, you see students going from one small group assignment to another with no lecture in between–because of the mantra that active learning is supposed to be good and lecture bad. But what is the result? Many students come to college lacking mastery of knowledge or any sense of the discipline. The students seem to think that the classroom is like a series of “fun” games. I like fun too, but learning is also work. Students seem to be mystified by the idea that they are supposed to do something to further their education outside the social group of the classroom–such as individual study. And individual work is necessary if you are going to read, research, and write–skills essential to graduating and functioning in the real world. But these skills have truly lost ground in recent years in the secondary space.

Now the same students come to college and find that the classrooms are, as I said, dominated by lecture. The knowledge being conveyed is more sophisticated but the involvement of the student is pretty low, if the classroom follows that usual pattern of 75 minutes of straight lecture, 2 days a week. This college classroom is an information space, where building the fund of knowledge is emphasized, but not necessarily the student’s ability to do something with it.

The interesting parallels in these two scenarios is the following. First, each creates a lot of student dependency on the instructor. Independent learners and confident students are not necessarily being nurtured. Second, if the instructor is not careful, each method can easily and quickly deteriorate into a superficial educational environment with limited learning. So let’s take a look at the advantages of each method when it is done well.

  • It provides quickly and efficiently a fund of knowledge upon which the student can rely to proceed with in-depth study.
  • It models problem solving, analytical skills, evaluative judgments, and passion about the knowledge set forth and the discipline itself.
  • And it creates a narrative glue that holds together all of the active learning sessions, readings, research, and other in-depth study opportunities where students demonstrate their own analytical thinking and expression.
Active Learning:
  • It asks students to use knowledge acquired from lecture and reading to do analytical thinking for themselves.
  • It gives students opportunities for both individual and collaborative in-depth learning, both in and out of the classroom.
  • It provides detailed steps and practice in the classroom for how to do analysis, research, reading, study, and writing to assure that all students know what to do outside the classroom and on their own.
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Patricia Don

Author: Patricia Don

COO and Co-founder of Globalyceum Pat Don was a history professor at San Jose State University, 1996-2013, and before that a K-12 teacher, 1977-93. She holds 4 teaching credentials, a Masters degree in education, and a MA/PhD in Early Modern European and Colonial Latin American history

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