Palgrave Teaching and Learning

by Sally Brown (Series Editor)


Many argue that the era of lectures has passed, that it is archaic to expect students to be physically present in the same room as the lecturer, passively listening to and noting what is said, and thereby absorbing content. If you sit at the back of the lecture theatre and watch what students are actually doing on their laptops and mobile devices, it is evident that few students nowadays simply sit and make traditional lecture notes with pens and paper. Nevertheless, lectures look as if they are here to stay, if only because university systems in most nations still use the lecture timetable as the building block, not only of the student experience, but also of academic staff deployment models, and this is likely to remain the case for the next decade or two at least.

We need to use some tricks of the trade (often called ‘attention recall points’), varying the activity every fifteen to twenty minutes or so to keep students with us throughout the timetabled period. These might include:
  • Giving students short tasks, either individually, in pairs or in threes, for example to answer or propose a question, to solve a problem on the board, to discuss an issue, to decide on a strategy or to resolve a dilemma.
  • Using audio or video clips to illustrate a point you are using, either self-prepared, borrowed from expert colleagues or sourced from Open Educational Resources (OERs) available copyright-free online. These should be kept brief (no more than a few minutes at a time) and care needs to be taken not to waste too much in-class time locating them on shaky internet connections.
  • Giving students a quick in-class test or quiz which they can answer either using interactive devices (‘clickers’), a show of hands, or by asking them to hold up different coloured cards or pages from their course handbooks, so you can get an immediate visual idea of what students are thinking.
  • Inviting guest inputs, for example from colleagues, visiting scholars, your own top research professors, practical specialists in the field and indeed your own students who may have particular expertise gleaned from the work environment. These don’t need to be full lectures, but can be short inputs within your own lectures of say 20 minutes, where guests can enliven a lecture and contextualise current thinking. If the guest is willing, you can video such episodes and turn them into podcasts or other reusable learning objects for use with subsequent or parallel cohorts.
  • Reading tasks: students can read about three times faster than you can speak, so intervals of silent reading can be productive so long as you are confident that students can see what they are being asked to read either on screen or within a handout, and you have made appropriate provision for students with visual impairments.
  • Reflective silences in lectures can be very powerful: 30 or 60 seconds can provide students with a chance to think about what they’ve heard and seen so far and can provide a breathing space for students who’ve been concentrating hard to zone out for a short while. However, expecting silence to be maintained for anything much longer than a minute might be over optimistic.
  • It can be useful to get students to think back for a minute or two on what has been covered. For example: ‘Think back about what we’ve been discussing so far in this lecture and work out what for you are the most surprising/perplexing issues’, ‘Check you are clear in your mind how this theory can be applied in practice, and be ready with your questions in a minute’s time when I ask you for issues about which you need further clarification’.

Some things it’s best to avoid

  • Using the whole allotted time talking at the students without making space for interaction.
  • Making jokes that don’t translate into other cultures or that could be regarded as offensive, sexist, racist, ageist and so on.
  • Picking on individuals to answer questions, particularly if their personal or cultural circumstances make it difficult for them to speak in front of peers.
  • Overreliance on your written lecture notes, meaning you can’t look at your students frequently enough to gauge what’s going on.
  • Using screen shots from websites where the text is too tiny to be visible.
  • Expecting students to read from the screen material that is only flashed up for seconds.


Brown, S. and Race, P. (2002) Lecturing: A practical guide. London: Routledge.

Race, P. (2014) Making lectures inspiring, in P. Race, Making Learning Happen: A guide for post-compulsory education, 3rd edn, London: Sage.

For more about lecturing, see Chapter 4 of Brown, S. (2015) Learning, Teaching and Assessment in Higher Education: Global perspectives.