Lecturing – Alive and Well?

It wasn’t until recently that I learned to appreciate the value of a good lecture. Attending university (x2) had made me resent them. But now that I understand how they can be done well, I’m excited to learn more!

Nerd Nite 101

Last year, I became obsessed with Nerd Nite in Edmonton. This event happens all over the world, and the setup is always the same. Each month is themed, and three experts in their given fields have 20 minutes each to deliver a lecture and follow up with a short Q and A. This month, one of the presenters spoke about their experience with bondage. It was one of the most interesting lectures I have heard. He shared bondage’s history, present interpretations, examples, personal photos, and even brought in props. He helped us see that bondage is so much more than “erotica.”

A bonus? The pacing of the lecture didn’t overwhelm the audience’s cognitive load. He presented exactly enough information (at the right time) while adding humor, passion, and credibility. It was clear this guy knew his stuff, and even though he was an expert, he didn’t speak to the audience as if they were, too. The presenter made people feel comfortable through his cadence and style to process what he was saying.

I have Nerd Nite to thank for restoring my faith in lecturing. After all, any form of teaching can be bad or good. What is interesting about the lecture is that most people have visceral opinions about it. It appears as though the university lecture has been shunned in the age of active learning. But I think it can still play an important role in the right learning conditions.

Sell it to Me

I don’t think lecturing is always the best fit for student learning. But there’s a reason events like TED Talks and Nerd Nite exist. It’s also why people like Tony Robbins can sell out whole arenas with the promise of a life-changing lecture. What’s different from these lectures and the stereotypical “university lecture” is that they engage the audience. They chunk the content into short blocks (no longer than 20 minutes) and usually provide activities for people to process what they learning. In fact, in his book, Dynamic Lecturing, Todd Zakrajsek shares that the key to a good lecture is engagement.

As he explained in a podcast episode, people still read texts because they are interested in what they can learn. A lecture is similar to a text, but it offers affordances other than the written word. A speaker can inspire, inform, and invigorate learners to action through their words and gestures. It can bring the words to life.

It is common to hear that lecturers should not present longer than 10 minutes on a topic. Recent research by Wilson and Korn, however, suggests there are a number of considerations. For example, what are the learners’ levels? Lecturing to a novice audience will be different from an expert audience. Are they engaged? If so, maybe they are comfortable with a longer lecture at that time. While there are many factors, I still think best practice is to spend no more than 10-15 minutes lecturing, because after that students’ attention tends to fatigue. The next step isn’t to let students to take a break, but to apply what they are learning.

Planning Pointers

To plan a lecture, consider some of these pointers:

Consider the goals of the lecture: When designing a lecture, consider its purpose and the main takeaways. Then, you can determine active strategies to help learners engage with the content and make sure they are reaching the goals and point of meeting in person.

Consider the capacity of learners: You love talking about your content because you’ve had time to research and update your delivery. However, this may be the first time learners are hearing these concepts. Consider when to pause so that students can process the material. Remember to “read the room” and pivot when learners are nearing saturation point.

And when you’ve done all the planning you can take, go for it! Try the following strategy when you’re ready.

Film yourself: I borrowed the Swivl and recorded myself presenting. At first, it was a little awkward, but eventually I forgot about it being in the room. When I reviewed the recording, I learned that I didn’t let students “pause” long enough to answer my questions. I didn’t want learners to feel bad, so after about 5 seconds, I usually answered the question myself. Obviously, this doesn’t help learning, but I wouldn’t have known about it if I hadn’t recorded myself.


Wilson, K, and Korn, J. H. Attention during lectures: Beyond ten minutes. Teaching of Psychology, 34(2), 85-89.

Lecture Image from Unsplash.com: https://unsplash.com/photos/R6xx6fnvPT8

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