A consistent theme of faculty at colleges and universities is that they are not aware of the educational research that currently exists or how it applies to their teaching. The purpose of this section is to provide summaries of research articles that can inform classroom practice. Explore one of the following.

  • Talk six minutes less and students learn more!
  • How dense should information in a lecture be?
  • How to make lectures more clear.

Ruhl, K. L., Hughes, C. A., & Schloss, P. J. (1987, Winter). Using the pause procedure to enhance lecture recall. Teacher Education and Special Education, 10, 14-18.

In this study an instructor paused for two minutes on three occasions during each of five lectures: the intervals ranged from 12 to 18 minutes. During the pauses, while students worked in pairs to discuss and rework their notes, no interaction occurred between instructor and students. At the end of each lecture, students were given three minutes to write down everything they could remember from the lecture (free recall); 12 days after the last lecture, the students were also given a 65 item multiple-choice test to measure long-term retention. A control group received the same lectures (using the same anecdotes and visual aids) and was similarly tested. In two separate courses repeated over two semesters, the results were striking and consistent: Students hearing the lectures while the instructor paused did significantly better on the free recall and the comprehensive test. In fact, the magnitude of the difference in mean scores between the two groups was large enough to make a difference of two letter grades depending upon cutoff points!

The implication of this research is staggering, for it essentially says that if we talk six minutes less, students learn more. Undoubtedly these counterintuitive results stem from two things: 1) the short lectures (12-18 minutes) are consistent with the research that suggests that students’ ability to retain information falls off substantially after 10-20 minutes; and 2) by engaging in an activity that reinforces the information presented, student learning should be increased. This study of Ruhl and others clearly suggests that we have an opportunity to include short, active-learning activities into our lectures with no loss to the content learned. Indeed, students seem to learn more from the process.

Russell. I.J., Hendricson, W.D., & Herbert, R.J. (November, 1984). Effects of lecture information density on medical student achievement. Journal of Medical Education, 59, 881-889.

Concerned about the explosion of information available in medical texts and the perceived need by lecturers that they must cover even more material in the limited time available, the authors studied the effect of information density on student retention. They prepared three different lectures on the same subject. Ninety percent of the sentences in the high-density lecture disseminated new information. By comparison, only 70 percent of the medium and 50 percent of the low-density lecture presented new information. During the remaining time, the lecturer reinforced material by restating key ideas, highlighting the material’s significance, providing illustrative examples, and relating the material to the student’s prior experience. The lectures were presented to a total of 123 students randomly distributed into three groups, which showed no significant difference in cumulative GPA’s. Finally students were given a pretest that showed no significant difference in their knowledge base, a posttest (1) immediately after the lecture, and an unannounced posttest (2) 15 days later.

Statistical results clearly showed that students in this study learned and retained lecture information better when the density of new material was low. The implication is that the amount of new information that students can learn in a given time is limited and that we defeat our purposes when we exceed that limit. [Who among us has not gone over the allotted class time by a minute or two to provide “just one more thing”?] This study suggests, however, that we would be better off presenting only the basic material necessary to achieve our learning objectives: approximately only 50 percent of the material presented in any lecture should be new. The rest of class time should be devoted to material or activities designed to reinforce the material in students’ minds.

This study is significant since one of the chief barriers always presented by faculty to the acceptance of active learning is that “there is simply too much content to cover.” Apparently less new content and more time reinforcing the facts and concepts presented [which could include active learning] will lead to greater student learning.

[The following is abstracted from Chilcoat, G. W. (1989). Instructional behaviors for clearer presentations in the classroom. Instructional Science, 18, pp. 289-314. Chilcoat did a meta-analysis of ninety-five articles, thirty-five of which presented research at the college/university level. Each study showed that the behavior suggested had a significant effect either on student achievement (learning) or perception at the p

It is imperative that teachers provide lectures that are as clear as possible so that students can make sense of what is being presented. Understanding allows students to retain, recall and apply material in other circumstances. Failure to understand often leads students to incorrectly interpret material or, in frustration, to ignore what has been said. In the past, many instructors believed that comprehension was entirely the students’ responsibility. As we become more knowledgeable about cognitive research, however, it is apparent that much of that burden is the responsibility of the instructor as well. The question, of course, is how do we explicitly make our lectures more clear to students? Chilcoat’s synthesis of the research suggests the following.

1. Provide a preview of information prior to an explanation.

Research suggests that this can be done effectively in one of three ways:

An overview, designed to familiarize students with what is to be learned, can both facilitate student achievement and create positive student perception of a lecturer’s presentations. Specifically an overview should be short and precise, providing a statement of the overall idea to be presented, the importance of the information to be learned, and a statement that outlines the structure of the content to be presented.

A second preview is called a set induction, which consists of two parts. Prior to the presentation, students are given a commonly known referent in the form of an analogy. During the presentation, new information is constantly referred back to the introductory analogy. This procedure allows students to link unfamiliar material with a concept they already understand. Research suggests this approach encourages student involvement, creates a positive student perception of the lecture, and increases student achievement with regard to both short term and long term retention.

The third preview strategy is the advance organizer, which is an introductory statement at an higher level of abstraction than the detailed, related information in the presentation. The advance organizer, therefore, provides an appropriate conceptual framework, depending upon the age and level of the students, for understanding the material to follow. Also, the organizer should provide a link between students’ previous understanding and the material to follow, giving concrete examples wherever possible.

2. Organize information within a step-by-step lesson sequence.

Chilcoat notes, “students tend to get lost in verbal mazes.” When exposed to too much material at one time, student learning is reduced. The teacher, therefore, should carefully structure the lecture sequentially, arranging information logically, and breaking down material into clear, coherent, and explicit steps. “It is important that the presentation begins with information that is simple, concrete, familiar and explicit, then progresses to information that is increasingly complex, abstract, unfamiliar, unexplicit and long (p. 302).”

3. Assess student learning when information is being given.

The instructor should actively and frequently determine if student understand the material that has been presented. Specific strategies to engage students could include discussion questions, written responses (summaries, analytical lists, “what didn’t you understand?, in-class journals”), formative (ungraded) quizzes, thumbs up/thumbs down, written problems, etc.. Whatever the technique, the goal is systematically and explicitly to see if students understand what was being presented.

4. Signal transitions between information.

Transitions are statements that are used by the lecturer to move from the introduction to the body of the presentation, between major points and subpoints, and from the body to the conclusion. Transitions allow students to switch attention between topics, maintain focus and reduce confusion. The key is to make the transition explicit, then to relate the previous information to the new information.

5. Use multiple examples to illustrate information points.

Well chosen examples illustrate and clarify the conceptual material being presented by making the abstract concrete and understandable. Multiple examples lead to increased student learning and retention of material. When providing examples, teachers should 1) use examples that are appropriate for the level of the student; 2) carefully explain why the example is significant and relevant; and 3) use examples in close proximity to the conceptual material being presented, and 4) obtain student feedback to see if the examples are understood.

6. Stress important points during explanations.

Lecturers need to draw students’ attention to the material that is most crucial in the presentation being given. It is particularly important to stress anticipated difficult points, because detailed, redundant explanations for difficult concepts can lead to increased student learning. Other techniques include 1) writing and underling key concepts on the blackboard; 2) enumerating points; and 3) using voice inflection or pausing after a point; or employing verbal signals such as “It is important to remember”.

7. Provide for brief pauses at appropriate times during the lecture.

As a result of rapid teacher-talk students often are not given adequate time to process information. This has two consequences: 1) students have trouble taking good notes and 2) they often cannot make sense of what is being said. Research suggests that the amount of notes a student takes correlates positively with achievement. Yet, while teachers talks at a rate of 120-240 words per minute, many students are only capable of taking notes at a rate of 20 words per minute. In addition, one study (Ruhl, 1987) demonstrated that pausing periodically for a much as two minutes so that students could compare notes, led to a significant increase (both statistically and educationally) in both short-term and long-term recall.

8. Eliminate additional unexplained content nonessential to current explanation.

Research shows that presenting less is more effective.

9. Review information frequently.

Periodically during a presentation, but particularly at the end of difficult material. lecturers should review and summarize the main points. In addition, reviewing the entire presentation at its end, summarizing main points, is particularly effective. It is also effective to have students review what has been presented through the active learning techniques discussed previously. These reviews, carefully presented, demonstrably increase student learning.

Additional References of Interest

Cashin, W.E. (1985). Improving lectures. IDEA Paper No. 14. Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University, Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development.

Hartley, J. & A. Cameron. (1967). Some observations on the efficiency of lecturing. Educational Review (Birmingham Institute of Education), 20, 30-37.

McLeish, J. (1968). The lecture method. Cambridge Monographs on Teaching Methods. Cambridge Institute of Education.

Copyright: Bonwell Associates. This material may be used for faculty development as long as attribution is given. It may NOT be published either in paper or electronic form without permission.