The Engaging Lecture: A mesh of old and new teaching methods.


Active learning is becoming more popular as evidence consistently shows that students achieve superior academic outcomes when taught using this method. Active learning involves creating an interactive, engaging learning environment where students are active participants as opposed to passive listeners, as they often are in traditional lectures.

While it is generally acknowledged that active learning produces quality outcomes, many academics have been reluctant to take on the technique. In some part, this is because redesigning a course is extremely time consuming.

This article by Miller, McNear and Metz investigates the engaging lecture, a traditional lecture broken up by short activities where students participate in or practice the content being taught. It allows for active learning to be incorporated into a course without the need for the academic to completely redesign the course. It works.

The researchers incorporated engaging lectures into a physiology course for dentistry students, resulting in an increase in both student engagement and performance.  While students’ grades increased across the board when taught this way, grades increased more in the final exam than in mid-term exams. This suggests that this learning method may be particularly useful in helping students retain knowledge and concepts in the long run.

Key Takeaway

Active learning can be effectively incorporated into academic courses without the course being entirely redesigned.

The study

Students involved in the study participated in a physiology course with several modules, approximately half taught using traditional lecture and the remainder with the engaging lecture. This allowed the researchers to compare results from the different modules.

In addition to using students’ grades, students were surveyed throughout the semester, using clickers to indicate how effective they thought a class was and answer other questions. Comments from end of semester course evaluations were also used to provide context and explanation for some findings.


Students achieved 8% higher grades in tests throughout the semester on modules taught with the engaging lecture. In the end of semester exam, they performed 23% higher in these modules, suggesting the engaging lecture was particularly effective in helping them retain the material over a longer time frame.

Students reported being distracted less often in an engaging lecture, and perceived the lectures to be more effective. Interestingly, the engaging lecture style did not encourage students to spend more time studying outside of class. This indicates that the improvements in grades can be attributed to different teaching technique, as opposed to students just becoming more engaged and studying harder.


The researchers tackle another common reason academics provide for not embracing active learning: that active learning takes more class time and does not allow for as much content to be covered. They question whether this is a valid issue, as it is based on the idea that “obtaining content is more important than grasping concepts”. In the twenty first century where facts and information are only a few clicks away, comprehension is becoming a critical skill. Adopting active learning is an important aspect of training our students for a modern world.

I imagine if the researchers were to summarise this research at a BBQ, they would say something along the lines of “No more excuses! You know active learning works – just do it!”

What is an engaging lecture?

The researchers stopped their traditional lecture approximately every ten minutes to include an interactive activity for their students. These included;

  • Problem sets
  • Brainstorming sessions
  • Discussions
  • Matching terminology and definitions
  • Classifying components of the topic
  • Comparing and contrasting material

Activities ranged in length from 1 to 20 minutes long. After each activity, the lecturer would call on a student (using random selection, such as the student with the most writing instruments on their desk, or the last student to arrive) to share their findings with the class.

Title: A comparison of traditional and engaging lecture methods in a large, professional-level course

Authors: Cynthia J. Miller, Jacquee McNear, and Michael J. Metz

Published: Advances in Physiology Education, 37: 347–355, 2013

DOI: 10.1152/advan.00050.2013

















The impact of a flipped classroom format on student performance

A 2016 study from Balaban, Gilleskie and Tran presents evidence of improved student performance in a flipped classroom format compared to traditional lecture format.

A flipped classroom involves students gaining initial exposure to materials through preparation before class, leaving class time for active learning activities and problem solving under the guidance of their instructor. The flipped classroom is gaining popularity, but is often not adopted due to the time investment required to prepare materials for use before class.

Results indicate the flipped classroom increases performance in comprehension, application and analysis of content, supporting deeper learning and the development of critical skills for students.

Understanding the effectiveness of different teaching formats is critical in course design, increasing potential outcomes for both students and universities.
The Study

This study was made possible by the redesign of an introductory economics course in an American university. The instructor taught the same content over two semesters, using traditional lecture style in the first and a flipped classroom method in the next. As the course in economics was a core requirement for students from a range of disciplines, the researchers are confident that findings from can be generalised and do not just represent economics students.

Exam results were used to measure student performance, with exams conducted in MCQ format to ensure objective grading. The exams contained four types of questions; knowledge, application, analysis and comprehension.


Findings showed that students in the flipped classroom achieved significantly better grades, averaging 84% as opposed to an average of 77% in the traditional lecture format. This is a difference of 7 percentage points and standard deviation of 0.58.

Interestingly, performance on knowledge questions was unaffected, while scores in analysis, comprehension and application questions all improved. This suggests the flipped classroom can assist students in developing deeper understandings and higher level skills without affecting their content knowledge.

Class preparation time was consistent across semesters, indicating that the flipped classroom method did not inspire students to spend more time preparing for class than they would have otherwise. This supports the researchers’ conclusion that the active learning methods used in class explain the difference in grades.

While students at all grade levels saw an increase in grades, students in the top 25% of the class achieved the largest increase in grades. This is an interesting finding for instructors seeking ways to engage and continue developing their high performing students.

Key takeaway

While the flipped classroom requires a significant time investment to establish, the evidence is very clear that this method produces superior academic performance in students.


Title: A quantitative evaluation of the flipped classroom in a large lecture principles of economics course
Authors: Rita A. Balaban, Donna B. Gilleskie & Uyen Tran
Published: The Journal of Economic Education

Berkeley or Bust? Estimating the Causal Effect of College Selectivity on Bachelor’s Degree Completion (Summary)

Author: Shomon Shamsuddin

Published: Research in Higher Education (2016) 57:795–822

DOI: 10.1007/s11162-016-9408-0

This study finds that students who attend more selective universities were more likely to graduate, irrespective of factors such as prior academic performance or socioeconomic factors.


Many students will attend university and not graduate. At American universities with relatively low admissions standards (accepting over 75% of applicants), one in every two students will not graduate.

Completion of a degree is associated with higher earnings over a lifetime, assisting in paying back any debt incurred at university. However, students who don’t graduate are often left with debt accrued without the graduate wage premium to help pay it back.

Students from low income backgrounds are more likely to attend less selective universities than they have the capability to be admitted into, so this issue is particularly relevant to these students. Attending the most selective university possible for each student would make graduation more likely and reduce the risk of leaving university with no degree and debt.

The Study

The study used data from a longitudinal study which began in 1997, tracking participants every year until 2010. It used regression techniques to analyse characteristics and backgrounds of the students, in addition to the universities they studied at.

The study focusses on American public universities where most American undergraduates attend, excluding elite Ivy League universities which educate 1% of the country’s undergraduates.

Selectivity of a university was measured by the average entry score of admitted students, as the researcher notes that more traditional measures of selectivity (such as the proportion of applications accepted) can easily be manipulated by universities.


The data confirmed that attending a more selective university was associated with a higher probability of graduating. While there was no doubt that probability of graduation was higher at these universities, the results were not precise enough to give a clear indication of how much more likely.

High school academic performance, mother’s education levels, race and gender were all considered, and graduation rates were higher even without these factors.

While the study can’t explain why degree completion is more likely at more selective universities, Shamsuddin presents several possible factors which may contribute to this result. The key difference measured between universities was selectivity, so it is possible that networks of driven and capable peers play a role in helping students through university. It is also possible that more selective universities have more resources available, being able to provide more support to students, and attracting better quality staff.

Key Takeaway

Completion of a university degree can have serious financial consequences for students, and low graduation rates make this an important issue.

These findings are particularly valuable for students from low income backgrounds, who are currently more likely to attend less selective universities than they are capable of, but may want to take this new information into account when choosing a university. By enrolling in the most selective university their grades will allow them to, students can increase their likelihood of graduation and earning the higher wages associated with a degree.


The Unwritten Rules Of Engagement: Social Class Differences in Undergraduates’ Academic Strategies (Summary)

Author: April Yee

Published: The Journal of Higher Education, Volume 87, Number 6, November/December

2016, pp. 831-858


Yee’s study examines how students from different class backgrounds approach learning in their first years of university. Her research involved reliving the exhilarating and awkward experience of attending university for the first time, shadowing  undergraduate students through their classes, study and social situations, in addition to conducting interviews (for the uninitiated, this is ethnographic research).

The students all understood that studying at university would be different to high school, as their teachers would not be as proactive in pushing them. However, students from different social classes drew different conclusions from this knowledge. Students from middle class backgrounds concluded that it was their responsibility to approach their teachers for help, and often did so. First-generation students (students from a lower social class who were the first in their family to attend university) interpreted this to mean they would need to work harder and more independently, and were reluctant to approach their teachers for help.

The students were all actively engaged in their education, attending classes, studying and completing assignments to achieve academic success. When challenges arose, middle class students would often approach their teachers for help, while the first-generation students used independent strategies, such as reading the material again.

The middle class students achieved higher scores than the first-generation students, which Yee attributes to the middle class students using a wider range of academic strategies to achieve success.

Yee notes that students who interact less with their teachers may be incorrectly perceived as disengaged. To achieve an equal playing field for all students, she calls for higher education professionals to expand their definition of student engagement to include students who are working hard independently.