alternatives to lecture in classrooms

Change the Way You Teach: Alternatives to the Lecture

By Vanessa Logan, Physics Teacher at Avondale High School

Lecturing students is the classic example of education. Whether it is middle school, high school, college or beyond, this is the expectation. Students sit in desks or rows, listening to a teacher write notes on a board or walk through a PowerPoint. Some days it takes the whole class time, and some days half of class.

The Lecture: A Student’s Perspective

Now, let’s not focus on the teacher (at least for right now) in this example, and look at the students who are listening, watching and taking notes on this lecture in a high school physics lesson on forces…

Tatianna– She’s bored and she understood the equation after the first example. So, she looks at her phone and doodles on her page. Her teacher scolds her for being on her phone. She puts it away and lazily watches the teacher go through more examples.

Ana– Her mind races “what does the word ‘drag’ mean?” she thinks to herself as she scans the notes she just hurriedly wrote down. “Oh gosh… if I don’t know what that means… I won’t be able to learn”. Ana is an ESL student. She continues writing down the notes, but not understanding what is writing down. She is writing it down because it’s expected. There is no processing.

Jim– After the first example problem, Jim is lost. He raises his hand to ask a question and the teacher reviews the problem but Jim still doesn’t get it. “Why did the teacher divide?” he thinks to himself. Jim feels confused. The teacher continues and he still doesn’t get the math. He shakes his head.

The class continues, and for the last ten minutes, the class gets a homework worksheet. “This is due tomorrow” the teacher says. “It’s on the lecture. You can get started now.”

Tatianna puts in her headphones and begins working. “Wow this is easy”, she thinks to herself. Ana slowly begins, trying to make sense of the words on the page. She calls the teacher over to help. Ana leaves class with a better understanding, but is nervous to do the homework tonight. Jim looks at his friend next to him who has begun with no problem. Jim starts looking around him. “Why can’t I get started? Man, I suck at physics”. Jim doesn’t finish his homework for tomorrow. The pattern continues the next day. Tatianna gets it and is bored, Ana needs extra time and support, and Jim continues to fall behind.

Encourage Students to Process and Interact with Information

In this brief story, I painted the picture of a traditional classroom: I do (lecture/notes), we do (practice together), and you do (practice by yourself and at home aka homework).

The lecture is dead. It died many, many years ago. It’s been proven ineffective for years through countless studies. So, why do we still do it as educators? I private tutor many students who come with me with a page of notes and a homework sheet. I ask them to start their homework and they go “I don’t know what to do”. I then ask them what they did in class, and they respond: “Oh we took notes” or “The teacher talked the whole hour”.

The students GOT the information from the teacher. They wrote it down. The teacher handed them the knowledge, but did not let them process it. The students did not apply it. I would also guess that half of my students zoned out during the lecture and just copied things down they saw on the board.

Harness the Strengths of the iGen Generation

Now, let’s get real here. We teach the iGen generation. Most of these students could have Googled this information and got their notes in five minutes. They can also Google your homework sheet and get all the answers. Getting information is their LIFE. It is embedded in them. They were born into the technology/information age. For far too long, we have ignored this, prevented it, and banned it. We ban phones in schools, not teaching students how to harness the information they have in the palms in their hands. Instead, we tell them sit for an hour in chairs and copy down our notes.

We must change how our students acquire the knowledge for our courses. We are doing our children a disservice by standing at the front of our rooms and telling our children to write down things. We are doing our children a disservice by standing between them and knowledge. Why do we keep lecturing? We are afraid to change the acquisition of knowledge so it is focused on the students and not us.

Out with the Old Lecture, In with the New Strategies

What are some alternatives? Flipped Learning, Choice Based Learning, Project Based Learning, Inquiry Based Learning… just to name a few. Experiment with what works best for you and enjoy the process. It is up to us to change how students acquire knowledge.

How are you engaging students in the classroom? Share your story with us at!

Vanessa is a high school physics teacher in Auburn Hills, MI who focuses on student engagement and flipped learning. Vanessa is a graduate of the College of Wooster and The University of Michigan and a proud Teach for America alumni. She is a strong believer that schools should be a fun and comforting place for all students and that teachers must cater the way they teach to the 21st century learner. Vanessa recently won the National Science Teacher Association Maitland P Simmons Award for new teachers.

Vanessa Logan

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