In Defense of Lectures in the Social Studies Classroom (& How to Effectively Use Them)

I love me some quality professional development. I really do. My school allows us to attend the California Social Studies Conference every year and I nerd out over the different workshops. At heart, I just love to learn.

Yet I’ve noticed there’s a growing trend at these conferences and on social media that hates on lectures. It’s so strong that for a time I even considered myself failing my students for giving lectures. I heard person after person tell me things like “they’re too teacher centered” or “they’re too boring” or “students don’t learn that way.”

But you know what? Lectures are kind of how the world works. If you go to Church on a Sunday, what will you hear? A lecture. If you go to professional development in the business world or attend conferences, what do you hear? Lectures. If you go to college, what will you hear in almost every single class for your first few years? Lectures. In business meetings, what is your boss or coworker giving you? A lecture.

Sure, they’re disguised as other things in the real world. We call them “presentations” or “messages” or “professional development.” But you know what they really are? Lectures. And if we don’t teach our students how to learn by listening, writing, and processing information, I believe we’re doing them a disservice.

Now here’s the thing: lecture absolutely can be ineffective. Absolutely. We all know what an ineffective lecture looks and sounds like when we’re on the receiving end. They can be boring, unhelpful, overly long, and a waste of time. I’m not defending all lectures in the classroom. I’m defending effective lectures.

How do effective lectures benefit students? Well, they appeal to auditory and visual learners. Writing things down is also kinesthetic (not strongly, but it’s there). Writing things down allows students to remember information. Listening to you, the expert, allows students to retain and understand the content oftentimes better than if they’re reading it on their own. Lectures provide a baseline of information so your students have the tools they need to explore further with projects, activities, and other student-centered lessons. Lectures allow students to ask questions, collaborate, and hear memorable stories. Effective lectures are helpful.

So what’s an effective lecture? I follow a few simple guidelines below to keep my lectures fresh, effective, and beneficial to students.

  1. Keep them short but impactful. Younger students, like those in grades 9-10, need shorter lectures. 15 minutes tops. They lose interest and stop learning after that. Older students, like juniors and seniors, can handle up to about 25 minutes. But honestly, that should be the absolute max. I keep mine about 20 mins for seniors studying Econ. Sift through your slides and delete anything unhelpful. Get rid of anything that’s not on the assessment or related to the EQ. Make sure everything on your slides is actually important.
  2. Minimize the amount students write down. Honestly, I make fill in notes. My students write enough to keep them processing information but not so much that we’re sitting there waiting for that one kid to finish. I also like fill in notes because they’re more organized for students to find and reference later. However, I know some teachers want to focus on teaching students to take effective notes. In that case, don’t put a ton of info on each slide. Keep it to the point and ask yourself “if I were a student reading this later, would I understand what I wrote down?” That’ll add a layer of clarity to what you’re putting on your slides. You can add more information by telling stories or giving examples verbally while students are writing.
  3. Start with an Essential Question. It’s the “point” of the lecture- the thing you want your students to walk away understanding. It’s always open ended and includes the student learning objective for the day. I always have a student read it before we begin and then we come back to it at the end of lecture to discuss or write a response to it. This is adapted from the AVID strategy of note taking called Cornell Notes.
  4. Tell stories. Or give examples. When I’m lecturing about Stalin’s rise to power, you better believe I’m going to tell stories about how he liked to play god by randomly crossing people off his “kill list” during his purges. When I’m lecturing about demand, I’m definitely going to include data, statistics, and current events related to consumerism. I’m not going to write them on my slides but I’m going to say them and students will listen because it’s actually interesting. It sticks with them. And funnily (a word?) enough, even though kids don’t write these things down, they’re often the examples students give in the free response section of my exams.
  5. Don’t just talk for 20 minutes. Every 2 or 3 slides, I love to include Think-Pair-Shares or Think About It slides where students process the information on their own, through writing, or verbally with their partner or as a whole class. They think critically by coming up with their own examples or interpret political cartoons I’ve thrown on the slide or an endless list of possibilities. It does wonders for student engagement and even more for student retention.
  6. Reinforce or build on the content in other ways. I view lectures as a way to build a foundation. But everything we teach should be taught in multiple ways. After my lecture, students will practice supply and demand problems or research an interesting topic related to the Holocaust, or read primary sources about Stalin’s cruelty or begin a partner project. Again, endless possibilities but it’s all about the transfer of ownership of the information from teacher to student. I especially love seeing my students dig deep and teach me things I didn’t even know.

So there you have it. At the end of the day, lecturing doesn’t make you a bad teacher. Effective lectures are helpful and prepare students for the real world.

Any other tips and tricks to keep your lectures effective? Drop ’em in the comments!

With love,

Mrs. P

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