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Lecture: Still a Great Tool!

In the past years, educators of adults have pushed hard for learning to become more active, more interactive, and more self-directed. And research would seem to indicate that the more active a learner is, the more likely the learner is to remember what they’ve learned. A bit of common sense would tell us that. In any adult teaching/learning time, who almost always learns the most? Why, it’s the teacher, of course! Why so? Because the teacher has been the most active in working with the material to be taught. And so it makes sense to us that if we really want our learners to learn, the more active they can be in the process of learning, the better. The phrase that has gained traction is that the teacher often needs to be more of a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.”

Perhaps unwittingly—or maybe even “wittingly”—some have come to think that lecture has no place in adult education. The reality is that a well-done lecture can be quite powerful, an excellent tool in the adult educator’s toolbox. Indeed, there are times when it’s the best tool to use. 

When might lecture be the go-to tool for the adult educator?

Perhaps lecture’s primary use is to convey information to people who know nothing (or very little) about the material that will be covered. To use an example that pastors will appreciate, the only way to learn the Hebrew alphabet is through lecture. When we begin Hebrew, we know nothing about it, including even the alphabet (which bears almost zero similarity to the English alphabet).

Lecture also allows the instructor to cover lots of material. True, the learners will likely remember very little of what’s lectured, but if it’s not critical for the learners to remember the material, then lecture might be a valuable tool. If you’re beginning a Bible study unit on the book of Job, perhaps you might employ a lecture to briefly familiarize the learners with some of the ideas about the authorship of Job, the time it might have been written, etc. Most of us would likely deem those issues to be less-than-critical regarding the book of Job and would regard the content of the book to be more critical. If you have some reason that you want people to remember the issues of authorship and the date of writing, then you would want the learners to work with that information somehow.

One of lecture’s great strengths is that it allows the teacher to touch the emotions of the learners. By telling a story or by altering tone of voice (combined with facial expressions and body language), the teacher can touch the emotions of the learners, sometimes in a profound way. (Think of the way Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. touched so many emotions in his “I Have a Dream” speech.)

And yet, a lecture can be, well, boring. How can you use lecture well? What are some ideas to make lecture as strong as possible? Here are a couple thoughts:

  • Encourage learner activity even while lecturing. Do so by sprinkling some rhetorical questions throughout the lecture. (E.g., “We’re told that 'Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart' [Luke 2:19]. If you had been Mary, which of the events might you have particularly treasured?”)
  • Realize that silence is your friend. (If you want to get everyone’s attention back to you, simply stop talking for 5-10 seconds.)
  • Tap into your “inner actor.” Within the boundaries of your personality, make full use of voice intonation, facial expressions, body language, etc., in ways that are consistent with the words you are saying.
  • Be wise with how and when you use it. If you lecture too much, people will be tempted to tune you out, consciously or subconsciously. An exception might be if you’re a very good lecturer, but the reality is that there aren’t many of those people. Some good lecture points sprinkled throughout a lesson can be powerful, cementing information in people’s heads and/or touching their emotions in a way that can make the learning memorable.   
  • Less may be more. This article has approached lecture from the perspective that it’s a rather lengthy thing (i.e., several minutes or more). However, it can also be very short, just one or two sentences.

While there might be a few people who learn best by
listening to a lecture, most of our learners will learn more fully if they are
more active in the learning process. That’s simply the reality. And yet, when
used well, lecture is a powerful tool in our teaching toolbox.

Professor Thomas Kock