Making Lectures Interactive

How do I make my lectures interactive?


To engage students in class add interactivity to the instructional sequence of activities before, during and after class. Below is a sample instructional sequence that includes activities to be used before, during and after class.

Before class: Post an online quiz on Blackboard. The pre-class quiz should help students demonstrate what they have learned from the reading assignments, and to prepare for the in-class activities to come.

During class: Try the following strategies.

  1. Concentrate your lectures around the fundamental concepts of your discipline for 20 minutes (the maximum attention span of most audiences is about 20 minutes, according to research).
  2. Display a question. The quality of the question makes all the difference in how successful the interaction will be. Try to develop questions that are not just knowledge recall. Try composing a short conceptual question that is qualitative rather than quantitative.
  3. Ask students to work together in pairs or small groups for about 2 minutes. Allow time for students to engage the concept, grapple with it and explain their understanding of it to others (research shows this improves comprehension and retention). Good questions generate good discussion. If you don't hear students haggling about how to figure out the problem during this time, the question may be a simple knowledge-recall question, or perhaps it is so difficult that they don't even know where to start.
  4. Students use clickers to submit answers, which are then displayed back to the class in a histogram, pie chart, or bar graph.
  5. Lead a "post-question" class discussion. The first part of this discussion may focus on the question itself. Students may have misunderstood a particular vocabulary word, or have been bothered by the way a question was worded. A student may respond, "You had the word never, so I ruled it out." This preliminary discussion helps clarify the question so students can work out the solution. The instructor may want to verbalize the solution for the students in order to model the thinking students should emulate.

After class:

  1. Publish the SRS questions on the course website via Blackboard, along with your commentary. This gives the instructor the opportunity to clarify concepts and misconceptions and to stress the core concepts your students must master.
  2. Students can review the questions and commentary to prepare for quizzes and exams. Students who may not have understood the point of a question from class can take the time to work through the question at their own pace.

What makes a good question?


A good teaching question possesses four properties:

  1. It is something you can "figure out": A good teaching question requires students to do more than just memorize information from a lecture or book. It should be something the student must "figure out." Since the experience of "figuring it out" is essentially a learning process, a good thing to ask yourself about a question is: "How much can students haggle with each other over that question?" If it is a good question, then there will be lots to talk about. On the other hand, a simple recall question such as, "How many membranes does a mitochrondria have?" will not result in meaningful discussion. Avoid questions whose answers can be found on specific pages in your textbook.
  2. It demands the application of core course principles: A good teaching question requires students to apply core course principles to deduce a response. It is more a matter of "how can you solve this?" than of "what do you know?"
  3. It has an educative component: A good teaching question is educational. Even students who get a question wrong can learn something from their attempts to solve it. Likewise, the question is such that the teacher will learn about the student from the attempt.
  4. It is appropriate to the learning goal: A good teaching question requires students to engage in the kind of activities practiced by people in the field or discipline.

What are "best practices"?


  1. Limit straight lecture time to 20 minutes (the attention span of most audiences, according to research).
  2. Allow students time to engage the concept, grapple with it and explain their understanding of it to others (research shows this improves comprehension and retention).
  3. Break up your lectures with activities that require students to look for connections, evaluate arguments, make use of the information they are learning.
  4. Require students to do more than just remember what you have taught.
  5. Use the SRS as an assessment technique: use student response sessions to identify course concepts the class needs help mastering.  
  6. Teach by questioning; avoid teaching by preaching.
  7. Use questions as a "teaching tool," not just as an assessment.
  8. Concentrate your lectures around the fundamental concepts of your discipline. After a 20 minute lecture, give students a concept test. These short conceptual questions generally require qualitative rather than quantitative answers.
  9. Have students turn to their neighbors in class and discuss the logic of their responses to questions.
  10. Align your teaching methods with the learning outcomes you want to achieve.
  11. Require students to master a concept.
  12. Instructors sometimes ask students to memorize models. Instead, require students to predict outcomes based on a conceptual model.
  13. Give students the results of an event and ask them to decide what the model says would have caused this outcome.  
  14. Ask students how they would change the model to make the outcome now fit the conceptual model.
  15. Have students engage in thinking done by specialists in your field.