‘Is it ever OK to lecture?’ — from chronicle.com by David Gooblar


All of which leaves many newcomers to teaching — and some classroom veterans — wondering: Can’t instructors just lecture sometimes? Can’t we ever just tell students what we know?

Of course we can, but it’s important to know what telling is good for — and what it’s not. If we can better understand the problem with relying too much on lecturing — or “continuous exposition by the teacher,” as Derek Bruff, director of Vanderbilt University’s teaching center, called it — then we can better situate lectures within a mix of teaching practices.

When to “tell,” and when not to.

Telling is an excellent method of communicating specific information, and there are plenty of occasions when our students need specific information. To communicate important facts, to illustrate a concept with a story of its application, to explain the historical origins of a conflict, you can take the easiest route from A to B and just tell (i.e., lecture) your students.

What telling is not good for: teaching students complex ideas, conceptual knowledge, or difficult skills.

It’s also true that the best students — ones who have developed good note-taking skills — can learn quite a lot from a lecture. But to reach more than just the best students, we need to do more than just tell the class information and expect everyone to understand and put it to use.


A short lecture on those very topics will be that much more effective after students first try to solve the puzzle on their own. Naïve tasks work well because they reveal to students the gaps in their knowledge — gaps that your lecture can fill. 


Or take a page from the naïve-tasks concept and have students attempt the quiz before the lecture, thus revealing to them all that they don’t know. Then give students a chance to change their answers as they learn from your lecture.