On Teaching

On Teaching: The Unlecturing Toolbox

"Bored." Photo by Gunnsi. Courtesy of Flickr.com.

“Bored.” Photo by Gunnsi. Courtesy of Flickr.com.

Studies show that long lectures are ineffective, since the human attention span for lecture-listening is less than 18 minutes – and, honestly, I know this is true of my own attention for all but the best conference presentations. The interdisciplinarity of American Studies allows us to enliven our lectures by presenting songs, short videos, photos, poems, advertisements, and other art for students to analyze. Nevertheless, even the most multimedia lectures are still lectures that can end up eventually losing students’ attention.

We all need strategies for breaking up lectures and increasing student engagement. Recently, I found myself sharing some of my own strategies with a younger professor who confessed she did not always have time to write robust lectures. I believe good student activities can take less professorial time while simultaneously increasing student learning. So I present my pedagogical toolbox here in the hopes that this list may be helpful to others, and also because I hope readers will add their own suggestions in the comments section below. The more tools in all of our toolboxes, the better we each can teach.

I suspect some professors avoid these strategies because they may appear juvenile, but most of my students appreciate the way brief, well-designed tasks can focus their attention and deepen their learning. Another colleague told me she shuns in-class groupwork because “it is like herding cats” – but I suspect that fewer students veer off-task during brief groupwork than during most lectures, although that veering may be more audible in groups. In any case, I actually welcome a few side-conversations: they can increase students’ comfort speaking in class and therefore increase student learning. Students tell me they learn a great deal from listening to each other. And, thinking back on my own schooling, I know I tend to remember better what I did or said in class than what the teacher said.


I pass out index cards the first day of class and ask students to write down when they think American history should begin. This gives me clues to students’ prior knowledge while helping students become aware of historiography. It is also a little extra work. I need to remember to bring index cards to class and then collate and tally their answers, so I often do polling in simpler ways. In a class on industrialization, I ask students to raise their hands if they grew up on a farm. Then raise your hand if your parents grew up on a farm. Grandparents? Great-grandparents? Any large class can usually be counted on to illustrate major economic trends. Technology like i>clickers or socrative can help with polling or brief quizzes, but hand-raising works fine for non-sensitive questions and gives the added benefit of letting students stretch a tiny bit, enough to make a noticeable difference in student attention.


I ask students to spend two minutes writing how they think daily life changed when Americans shifted from farms and small businesses to factories and larger corporations. I rarely collect these quickwrites: they serve simply to focus student attention. After we gather everyone’s ideas in discussion, I lecture on the incorporation of America, then ask students to return to their quickwrites to add anything new they heard in lecture, thus making students aware of their own learning. This strategy can be adapted for the guiding historic question that underlies any good lecture.

A variation on quickwrites is a collected exit poll: before leaving class, ask students to hand in a brief paragraph answering a simple question, like, “How would you now explain today’s keyword to another student?”


This tool works for any big question: “What was the thesis of the book you read this week? Write that down. Then find a partner and share your ideas. See if the two of you can come to consensus.” Then ask a few groups to share their answers. This takes only a few minutes and is especially useful whenever I find I have asked a too-large question that leaves the whole group quietly fidgeting. Attempting an answer in a smaller group of two makes the big questions approachable.

Puzzle-piece groupwork

Each group works on a piece of a larger puzzle, then reports to the class to form the whole picture. Different groups can approach the same primary document from different analytical angles, or each report on a different chapter of an anthology. This takes more class time than the pair-and-shares, quickwrites, or polling, but my students tend to remember these tasks longest after the semester has ended.

Class debates

I have not had success with full debates among large classes of 60 or more students. The logistics of opening statements and rebuttal questions always seems to leave some students out. However, pre-debate exercises do work for me. “Find a group of 3 or 4 students. In your group, list reasons for and against this author’s thesis.” Then gather the groups’ ideas on the board and discuss which side students might choose to argue in a debate.

Collective pre-writing

In a structured variation to full-class discussion, I pose an essay question, then ask students to work together through the writing process of gathering evidence from our assigned reading, formulating a thesis, revising that thesis, and outlining an essay — while I record their pre-writing on the board. They learn writing skills while also having a focused discussion about the reading.


Elaine Lewinnek resized1Elaine Lewinnek is an associate professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, and the author of “The Working Man’s Reward”: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (Oxford University Press, forthcoming, 2014).



4 thoughts on “On Teaching: The Unlecturing Toolbox

  1. Where an historical discussion includes various groups of people who might have experienced things differently, the room can be divided to represent those groups. As the discussion builds, the lecturer can pretend to be like a newscaster and do short “interviews” (e.g. one question per chosen student) of people within those groups to see how they feel about the events unfolding. Combining this with opportunities for students to raise their hands to contribute can raise the energy level a bit.

    I’ve never done this but have often fantasized about lecturing to a particularly rousing piece of music — have the climax of events match the climax of the piece. The trick is finding a piece of music that somehow matches the topic being presented.

    Posted by mh | November 22, 2013, 8:37 pm
  2. These are all excellent suggestions. Here’s the thing though… college level teachers are constantly being asked to teach in a myriad of different ways without any training whatsoever. And I really do hate to see the lecture completely vilified as I think that it has it’s place in the teaching toolbox. Sometimes, it’s a useful way to convey a body of material, to show comparative work, to teach students how to walk through complex ideas.
    What I’ve noticed over time, is that the various tools I use don’t necessarily change the average score of students in my classes. Students bring their own level of commitment to college classes. And the fact that they just need to spend TIME with the material in order to learn it isn’t emphasized. I do still ask my students to memorize some things, I ask them to read and think over periods of time. I ask them to engage in the long process of writing, editing and re-writing.
    As we increasingly focus on short teaching time-spans, and the conveying of information in sound-bites, we also need to pair that technique with practices of extended learning and make clear that learning is a time-consuming process.

    Posted by Carla Tilghman | December 2, 2013, 1:29 pm
    • Yes: students need extended engagement with knowledgeable professors. A 20-minute lecture followed by a structured exercise and then another 20 minutes of lecture isn’t a soundbite — at least it shouldn’t be. I did not mean to convey the impression of watered-down learning. I did mean to open a discussion of creative lecturing strategies. While some people advocate entirely replacing the lecture with “flipped classrooms” or MOOCs, and others defend traditional lectures, I meant to advocate a middle way of engaging students within lectures.

      I find that my students remember the things they have done (researched, written, discussed, or even raised their hands about) better than they remember the things I have said. The pedagogical research (as far as I know it) echoes my own experience with deepening students’ learning by engaging them. Any good engagement is beyond sound-bites, or at least should be.

      Despite the research into active learning, I firmly believe that there is a need for lectures. Students need models of how to think and they need frameworks within which to think. Good lectures can provide both of those, then also challenge students to actually think.

      I agree that professors often lack training in pedagogy, but I am suspicious of much of the existing pedagogical training. I have learned some of my teacherly knowledge through formal training, but most of it by informal conversations in the hallways of my department, on informal groups like https://www.facebook.com/groups/angryteaching/?fref=ts , or in self-reflective forums like this one here. This discussion, this here, may be the best way we all learn how to teach.

      Posted by Elaine Lewinnek | December 6, 2013, 3:17 pm


  1. Pingback: Professoring | Elaine's blog - November 22, 2013

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