Interactive lecturing: High-leverage teaching practices to energize students

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

This issue of Into Practice is adapted from Instructional Moves content produced by the Teaching and Learning Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Interactive lecturing: High-leverage teaching practices to energize studentsPaola Arlotta, Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, creates an environment of active inquiry, experimentation, and brainstorming by employing interactive lecturing in her course, Got (New) Brain? The Evolution of Brain Regeneration. An approach which spurs discussion that “often spans multiple fields of study.”

The benefits: Her interactive, Socratic teaching style engages students more deeply in the content and encourages broader participation. “I am engaging students not simply by asking a question but having them feel that they can ask me a question or challenge my views. My hope is that the collegial forum makes students feel like they are part of something bigger than just a class.”

The challenges: It takes some work to create a classroom climate where students feel safe being wrong and therefore consistently participate. Arlotta makes clear in the first lecture that students are there to learn and to think like scientists—including formulating incorrect hypotheses. She supports and affirms students for taking risks and looks for ways to build on the parts of their ideas that have merit: “There is always a way to give students positive feedback.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • Plan ahead to facilitate the inclusion of student contributions. To prevent ending class without having addressed enough of the material she planned to cover, before class Arlotta identifies four or five key topics to address. If discussion runs long on one of those topics, she makes quick decisions about how to reshuffle timing to ensure her objectives are met by the end of the lesson.
  • Sequence course materials to build student energy and excitement. Arlotta uses advance planning and in-the-moment data from students to know when it is appropriate to increase the level of difficulty or reveal surprises in the content. Tapping into the energy in the classroom to make real-time decisions for keeping students engaged, curious, and challenged may prove more effective than following a scripted lesson plan.
  • Ask questions that push students to discover information for themselves. Infusing lectures with questions that spark students toward self-discovery can help foster the generation of more productive, interactive learning spaces. Arlotta uses Socratic-style leading and “prodding” questionsto help students uncover connections in the content rather than just stating those connections herself.

Bottom line:Compelling lecturers will employ a range of strategies to cultivate active and supportive learning spaces: “I think that one obligation we have to our students at a university like Harvard is to inspire them to think big, think visionary, think outside the box…wondering is a beautiful thing.”