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It puts kids to sleep. And just so ya know . . . that’s a bad thing. (Plus 18 ways to make it better)

Shocker. Lecturing to students puts them to sleep.

Who could have guessed?

Well . . . I should have. But I didn’t. During my first few years as a middle school teacher and later, during some time I spent teaching in a college social science department, I lectured.

A lot.

Early on, I didn’t know better. I was taught that way in both K-12 and in my college content courses. There were no real alternatives provided in my ed classes. And I started teaching long before established mentor programs. It was just the way things were done.

By the time I had moved on to higher ed, I had figured out – with some occasional PD and lots of help from some great educators – that there are other alternatives to constant direct instruction. But I was subtly and then very overtly encouraged to lecture rather than use some of the methods that I knew worked because “you’re not teaching middle school anymore.”

Those memories came flooding back recently while I was reading an older article focused on higher ed teaching titled 20 Terrible Reasons for Lecturing. Several of the reasons listed are almost word for word to what I heard:

  • Lectures should last an hour. If I can stay awake for an hour, so can they.
  • It’s the only way to make sure the ground is covered.
  • Lectures are the best way to get facts across.
  • Lectures are inspirational – they improve students’ attitudes towards the subject and students like them.
  • Lectures make sure that students have a proper set of notes.
  • Students are incapable of, or unwilling to, work alone, so it’s good for them.
  • The criticisms one can make of lecturing only apply to bad lecturing.
  • The value of lectures can only be judged in the context of other teaching and learning activities which make up the course.

Mmm . . .

Sound familiar? I used to say stuff like this. You may have heard others say stuff like this. Maybe, just maybe, you’ve said it yourself.

And just for the record, it’s not just higher ed.

So why do we lecture so much? And why do we continue to believe that it actually works? What does the research tell us about the effectiveness of lecturing?

Alfie Kohn, of The Homework Myth and other ed related books, does a great job of addressing those questions in a Washington Post article from last week.

Head over to read more. Spoiler alert . . . too much lecture and direct instruction is a bad thing. Along with a variety of other citations, Kohn cites research by Donald Bligh:

The heavy reliance placed upon lecturing and its frequent use as an all-purpose method are unjustified in the light of evidence. It’s possible that thought may take place during lectures but . . . the traditional style of continuous exposition does not promote it in such a way as to justify lecturing to achieve this objective.

Kohn continues:

To question the effectiveness of lectures is not to deny that teachers know more than students do, a common straw-man objection offered defensively by traditionalists.  Rather, it suggests that having someone with more information talk at those who have less doesn’t necessarily lead to that information’s being retained by the latter.

And the more ambitious one’s goal, cognitively speaking, the less likely one is to reach it by having students sit and listen.  This is true because we are not empty receptacles into which knowledge is poured; we are active meaning makers.


How “ambitious . . . cognitively speaking” should we be? Our state standards, and those of the National Council for the Social Studies, seem pretty clear. Historical thinking. Problem solving. Using evidence. Working with others. Communicating solutions. Our end in mind is active, engaged, and informed citizens.

That’s pretty ambitious.

Kohn highlights the book Teaching With Your Mouth Shut by Don Finkel that looks like it offers some practical suggestions. I probably need to track that down.

In the meantime, Kophn does provide some of his own advice. Kohn’s basic rule of thumb?

The longer the period during which teacher and students are together, the less time, proportionately, that the teacher should be talking.

His other suggestions:

  • Devote more time to discussion.
  • If there is a body of knowledge that students must master, provide more of it in readings between class sessions – and even in short readings during class sessions.
  • Lecture only occasionally and briefly in order to frame the interactive activities where the real learning happens.  For example, offer deep questions for students that they can (a) think about silently for a moment, (b) discuss for a few minutes in pairs or small groups, or (c) reflect on in writing.
  • Work to elicit students’ questions about what they’ve read and heard – and also their observations (“What do you notice?”) so they construct connections and distinctions rather than just listening to yours.

There are all sorts of strategies that you can use to elicit student questions and discussion, that help frame interactive learning. How about some of these?

Sites like the Stanford History Education Group, the National Archives, EDSITEment, and the Library of Congress offer even more specific examples of what it can look like when we don’t lecture.

But I’m always looking for new ideas. What do you do rather than lecture?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Work with Me page.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on My Wired Life and commented:
    Having recently made the jump to a position in higher ed, I found this post especially relevant. Even college students benefit from active learning! Thanks for the post and ideas, Glenn!

    July 18, 2017
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the repost!

      Higher ed? I’ve lost my MNHS connection! Are you at the U of Minn or somewhere else?


      July 18, 2017
  2. One of my favorite instructors was my senior history teacher. We had a lot of in-class discussion and argument and even roleplaying model sorts of things. Made the class that much more interesting.

    July 18, 2017
    • glennw #

      Thanks for the comment! There are a lot of great history teachers – we need more like the one you had as a senior.


      July 18, 2017
  3. Kevin Roughton #


    You know I agree with you on the importance of involving and engaging students but I think we’re making a huge mistake when we blame the method of lecture for what is, in reality, just bad lecturers. I find it telling that none of these studies allegedly proving lecture doesn’t work have anything to say about the presenter.

    A good presenter (see: Steve Jobs, Serial, etc.) can hold an audience for hours. That’s what we’re not doing. History has always been told. We’re just not telling it well.

    July 18, 2017
    • glennw #


      I don’t disagree. Several years ago, I wrote a series of posts on interactive lectures:

      One of the citations:

      “Jason Stacy, the author of The Guide on the Stage: In Defense of Good Lecturing in the History Classroom, is not suggesting that the typical, traditional lecture is good for kids. In fact, just the opposite:

      The problem . . . is not lecturing, but bad lecturing”

      But I’m going to suggest that what you and I would consider to be interactive and engaging direct instruction is hard. And that if done well, it’s not really a lecture. It’s asking students to think and interact and solve problems while instructor tells a great story. The lecture becomes more of a collaborative activity with back and forth between teacher and students. (My kids love Serial btw! Perfect example.)

      I’ve got no real problem with that. I just see too many people who aren’t willing to work that hard and are okay with the kind of lecturing that we all hate / hated. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday lecture, study guide for homework, grade study guide on Thursday, test on Friday that is a copy of the study guide – that’s the kind of schedule too many kids experience.

      So . . . yes. We need to commit to learning / honing the skill of telling the story better.

      Thanks for the reminder!


      July 18, 2017
      • Kevin Roughton #

        100% agree. Just don’t want the baby tossed out with the bathwater!

        July 20, 2017

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