JVME v21n1: From Teaching to Learning: Part III. Lectures and Approaches to Active Learning

Volume 21, Number 1 Spring, 1994

From Teaching to Learning: Part III. Lectures and Approaches to Active Learning

D. C. Seeler
Atlantic Veterinary College
University of Prince Edward Island
Charlottetown, PEI, Canada, C1A 4P3

G. H. Turnwald
College of Veterinary Medicine
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74074

K. S. Bull
College of Education
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74074


The previous two papers in this series described the historical development of teaching strategies which are commonly used within schools of veterinary medicine and their strengths and weaknesses from the student's perspective of learning (1, 2) . In this paper we first explore some of the practical issues related to active learning. We then discuss ways in which the instructor can improve upon the lecture in order to increase student learning and activity within that educational format.

Each lesson plan or instructional activity reflects assumptions on the part of the instructor as to: 1) what he or she considers important; 2) how students learn, and 3) his or her duties as a teacher. We have also examined the need to actively involve students in the educational process and believe that the benefits to students include an increased ability to utilize the cognitive skills of objectivity, creative thinking, judgment, interpretation, and problem solving while enhancing their affective behaviors. If students are to develop these skills effectively, they must be actively engaged with the subject and learning process. Under these circumstances, students are more likely to undertake a deep approach to learning and improve their academic performance (2, 3) . Students will perceive this improvement in their cognitive skills and affective behaviors and as a result, their self-esteem will be enhanced (3) . As the students' academic performance improves, their motivation to participate in the educational process also increases. Finally, students who are actively engaged in this process develop an intellectual passion for wanting to understand and know the material. This fosters an attitude on the part of the student consistent with lifelong learning.

However, for this to happen, the instructor must create a learning environment which increases students' involvement in, and responsibility for, the learning process. The student must be provided with an environment in which he or she can practice and develop these skills and attributes. Increased student involvement does not mean independent study or a structureless learning environment. Rather, increased structure may be required to ensure that the educational strategies employed are successful. A number of factors must be taken into account if a faculty member wishes to incorporate active learning techniques into his or her teaching strategies. If they are not, the process of change is unlikely to be successful. First, and perhaps most important, the faculty member must take the time to examine the principles and concepts upon which active learning techniques are based, and reflect upon his or her role as a teacher (3) . It is important to understand the theory which is the basis for, and which in essence sustains, practice. Gutek (4) puts it succinctly: "Theory without practice is insufficient; practice unguided by theory is aimless."

Active learning is poorly defined. However, Bonwell and Eison (5) state "...that students must do more than just listen: They must read, write, discuss, or be engaged in solving problems. Most important, to be actively involved, students must engage in such higher-order thinking tasks as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Within this context, it is proposed that strategies promoting active learning be defined as instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing." The students become involved in acquiring information and interpreting or transforming it. In order to be able to do this, time must be provided within the curriculum.

The role of the student and faculty member changes and both must be ready to accept those changes. Students must take responsibility for their own professional development and increase their level of participation in the process. They must change from simply dealing with the use of isolated facts or subjects to becoming aware of the relevancy of the information and its immediate application to real-life situations. Students may resent and resist these changes. Faculty will need to help students make the transition. Faculty must be ready to develop new skills and attitudes as they make the shift to an active learning environment. We recommend that an instructor request and utilize the services and advice of a qualified educational consultant prior to instituting changes in teaching methodology. The shift to active learning techniques must be well thought out, planned and implemented in order to ensure that the strategies will be successful. The instructor begins the process by determining what knowledge within the discipline is worth knowing and therefore worth the students' effort. In this instance, tough value judgments must be made. In many veterinary curricula, the number of contact and student effort hours should not be further expanded. Once the faculty member has determined what he or she expects the student to accomplish, the appropriate learning objectives are formulated. Emphasis should be placed on the practical application of principles and concepts. Appropriate feedback and evaluation processes must be decided upon. These must be carefully designed and implemented. If, in fact, there is no congruency between stated learning objectives, educational strategies or evaluation procedures, the students will be quick to discern the discrepancy and react accordingly. For example, if the exams are based on lower order cognitive skills, or faculty make use of condensed notes or handouts as opposed to textbooks, the basic goals of an active learning environment will not be achieved.

There are numerous education strategies with respect to active learning from which to choose (5-10) . The intent in selecting an educational strategy is to take the student out of a passive role and create an environment where he or she can practice the skills that need to be developed. Faculty benefit from the advice of an educational consultant in this area. Factors which must be considered include: 1) curricular and learning objectives; 2) size of the class; 3) current ability of students to function autonomously; 4) current ability of the instructor to utilize these educational strategies; 5) the time and availability of faculty training programs, and 6) the physical environment. The instructor then designs exercises, assignments and other tasks through which students will learn by first-hand experiences. In many of these educational strategies, the faculty member would function in the role of a mentor. These sessions can be intermixed with lectures and laboratories which would be used for the purpose of providing introductions, illustrations, instructions or unpublished information in order to enrich the learning environment. Finally, the instructor should monitor the effectiveness of the changes which he or she has implemented, and be prepared to make changes in the educational strategy should they be necessary (11) .

It should be apparent that it is not only necessary to modify our education strategies, but faculty must be aware of, and make changes in their attitudes towards teaching and students. In order to facilitate students in their task of developing autonomy in the educational process, faculty must develop an attitude of acceptance and understanding of students' views, desires, interests, frames of reference and of the relationship which develops as the result of this acceptance. Interpersonal skills and relationships become important factors in the learning environment. Once again, students are readily able to discern whether or not the faculty member is committed to the process, and they will respond accordingly.

Improving the Lecture

The instructor may elect to retain the lecture as the primary educational technique within his or her course. In this situation, he or she must recognize the limitations of the lecture and understand that exclusive use of the lecture constrains learning (5). The challenge is to make changes in the delivery of the lecture in order to improve its effectiveness as a learning environment for students. The lecturer's task is to teach students how to use concepts and principles and how to think, not to present abstracts of textbooks or other readily available sources of information. The lecture should complement and supplement the text, not replace it. The lecture should be used to provide up-to-date information that is not readily available along with theories or opinions. Thus, lectures should be updated and revised yearly.

The first step is for the instructor to undertake a critical evaluation of the course, its structure and content. This should be done while keeping in mind the educational objectives of the institution, the relationship of the course to others within the curriculum, and the instructor's expectations for the course. He or she must ensure that the amount of material covered within the course, and each lecture, is reasonable. This is a difficult task which requires that the instructor make choices as to what the students will be expected to learn in the time available to them. The student may have at most an additional 1.5 hours in which to assimilate the material presented in an hour lecture (12) . The instructor cannot abdicate his or her responsibility to the student or the institution by simply increasing the amount of work he or she expects the students to accomplish through independent study. Once the principle concepts and corresponding content have been identified, the instructor must then develop appropriate course and lecture objectives. An evaluation process is then designed which is congruent with the stated objectives. Once again, the instructor should seek the services of a consultant from the instructional resources office. Finally, the objectives and details of the evaluation process are communicated to students in the first lecture.

The preparation of each lecture and topic is critical. It is necessary that the instructor introduce the subject in an organized and well-planned fashion. The students' ability to assimilate and retain new information is dependent upon them acquiring a conceptual framework for the subject in which to place the information. In addition, each lecture should be designed so that the student is not overloaded. Keep in mind the time constraints with respect to the student's attention span and subsequent performance. Each lecture should be organized around 2 to 3 key concepts or points. The lecture is divided into three sections: 1) introduction, 2) body of lecture, and 3) summary.

Introduction. A lecture should begin with a quick summary of the key points of the previous lecture. It is appropriate, at this time, to ask if there are any questions in regard to the previous lecture. In introducing the topic for the current session, the importance of the material should be explained and related to real-life situations, and if possible, to previous and subsequent lectures or laboratories. This time should not be used to apologize for a lack of time or for the amount of information which must be covered. Statements such as these indicate a lack of preparedness on the part of the instructor.

Body of Lecture. Only 2 to 3 major concepts should be discussed within each lecture. The instructor should decide which ideas can be effectively developed in the time available. This time constraint requires that a balance be struck between the depth and breadth of the material covered in each lecture. Excessive detail results in the students losing sight of the concepts or principles which are important. Thus, each concept should be logically developed and its importance illustrated through the use of numerous, real-life examples. Make sure that there is flexibility in the presentation and the time allocated in order that students can ask questions and provide comments. At the end of each concept presentation, summarize and provide a transition to the next concept. This permits restating the key concept and demonstrating its relationship to the next concept. This also is an excellent opportunity to provide the students with a brief break, a question period or other activity which breaks them out of their passive role. Alternatively, the lecture can be broken into several 20-minute sessions. Remember, the students' ability to concentrate is significantly diminished 20 to 30 minutes into a lecture. Mini-interactive sessions, some of which are described in this series, may also be used to reduce students' fatigue and increase their participation in the process. The instructor should be aware of the nonverbal signs students may demonstrate if they become disinterested or if they are no longer following the instructor's logic. Nonverbal clues such as sighs, loss of eye contact, clock-watching, reading, talking, paper shuffling, all indicate that the instructor has "lost" the students. The instructor may confirm his or her suspicions by asking specific questions of the students or by asking for student generated questions. In any event, these indicators should not be ignored.

Closure. At the end of each lecture, sufficient time should be provided to summarize the lecture's key points and relate them to the overall context of the course. Time must also be provided to clarify information presented during the lecture. An excellent technique is to ask a student to provide the summary. This activity not only encourages students to participate in the process, but also provides the instructor with excellent feedback on the relative success of the lecture session. Alternatively, the instructor can designate some time for each student to summarize the key points and write one question on a 3 x 5 card to be returned to the instructor. This permits the instructor to receive feedback on the effectiveness of the session and follow up on issues in the next lecture by answering some of the questions.

It is important to note that the above approach, which represents significant changes to the lecture format, is time consuming. For this reason, it is incumbent upon the instructor to ensure that he or she has critically evaluated and prepared the information to be presented. If the instructor wishes to increase student participation in the lecture, then other educational techniques must be employed. These techniques must be well planned and executed in order to maximize their benefits to students given the time required to implement them.

Active Learning Strategies and the Lecture

There are a large number of strategies which may be utilized in the development of an active learning environment. The extent to which a faculty member must make changes to his or her current educational techniques depends upon the strategies he or she selects. It is possible to incorporate procedures into the didactic lecture format; however, care must be taken to ensure that the educational process is successful. Alternatively, the instructor may elect to discard the lecture format and provide an alternative learning environment for the student.


One way to increase student participation within the lecture is for the instructor to ask questions. However, successful utilization of this technique is not as simple as it might first appear. Questions are a valuable teaching strategy when thoughtfully implemented. They are detrimental to student learning when poorly employed by the instructor. Questions which are used to achieve well-defined educational objectives help emphasize the process of learning. Effective questioning skills can be learned, but the instructor must make the commitment to develop and practice these skills. In addition, the attitudes, behaviors and interpersonal skills of the instructor will determine the success of this technique - as with other interactive learning methodologies. Students quickly perceive behaviors on the part of the instructor which are inconsistent with, or negate, an interactive learning process. The student must feel free to ask and answer questions without the fear of an adverse response if he or she should provide an incorrect response. If this is the case, the benefits to students will be quickly lost as they withdraw from the process.

Advanced planning on the part of the instructor is required if this educational technique is to be successful. Key questions are planned in advance in order to provide structure and direction for the students. It is important that questions not be based on trivial information or used as fillers. It is necessary to decide in advance the content upon which the questions will be based and the purpose of each question. Questions should pertain to material which is fundamental to the concepts or principles being taught. It is important to determine at what level and where in the lecture the question will be asked before formulating the actual question(s). To do this, the instructor must be aware of the types of questions which can be posed, the cognitive level to which they pertain, and when to use each type of question. Lower level cognitive questions evaluate student preparation and comprehension through review and summarization techniques. High-level cognitive questions encourage critical thinking, problem solving and stimulate students to assume greater responsibility for seeking information on their own. While it is important to utilize questions of all cognitive levels, the greater proportion of questions should aim to develop the cognitive skills of comprehension, application, analysis, and synthesis.

The instructor should design each question so that students are required to utilize the very thinking skills the instructor wishes them to develop. The instructor's desire should be to stimulate discussions and other activities within the classroom. It is important to ensure that the questions are specific in nature, well phrased and concise. The task must be clear to the students. However, at the same time, there should be some flexibility in the question and its presentation. This will avoid students being forced into a guessing game for the expected answer. Open-ended questions stimulate student participation in the process. They may have more than one acceptable answer, many of which are not anticipated by the instructor (13) . Until the instructor is skilled in the process, it is advisable to write the questions down in the order in which they will be posed within the lecture. Try to anticipate in advance what the student responses might be and your reactions to them. This enables the instructor to ensure that the task will, in fact, be clear to the student. It will also be necessary to decide upon a strategy if there are no answers offered, in order to turn the situation into a learning experience.

A common problem which occurs when questioning students is the lack of time provided to them in order that they may collect their thoughts and respond. The instructor should provide a wait time of at least 10-20 seconds depending on the type of question posed. When students do respond, the instructor must be interested in the student and his or her response. It would be appropriate for the instructor to develop active listening skills to facilitate the process. Do not respond too quickly to an answer. However, it is imperative that the instructor respond to all answers in a positive fashion even if they are incorrect. Positive reinforcement, over time, will increase the students' willingness and desire to participate in the process. Make sure that you, and the other students, understand the response. If necessary, ask for clarification. Similarly, if the initial response appears to be superficial, the instructor may use a questioning technique called probing to determine if the student understands the material. The probe can be directed to the student who provided the initial response or to another student within the class. Probes may also be used to analyze student statements, help students deduce relationships or require a student to clarify or elaborate on his or her comments. If a response seems out of context, the instructor should pose additional questions to refocus the students. This technique may also be utilized to redirect students to another topic during the lecture. If there is no response, or an incorrect answer is given, the instructor should use rephrasing techniques and not answer the question. In rephrasing, the question may be reworded or clarified, additional information provided, or the original question can be broken down into smaller components. The intent is to turn the situation into a learning experience for the students.

Questions can be utilized in small or large classes to a greater or lesser extent within the lecture period. In some lecture settings, the use of questions is the primary teaching technique. Most readers will be familiar with the Socratic technique, which was depicted within the movie The Paper Chase. This technique is an instructor-directed form of instruction in which questions are used as the sole method of teaching. The technique is assumed to help emphasize the learning process by placing students in the position of having to recognize the limits of their knowledge, and hopefully, motivating them to learn. Care should be taken to ensure that learning occurs due to an increase in the students' interest in the subject and not through fear. The Socratic method consists of the use of systematic questions, inductive reasoning, and the formulation of universal definitions. Students are presented with a scenario and the instructor systematically poses a series of predetermined questions. The questions are designed to channel the students' thought processes along predetermined paths. The students are required to utilize information that they possess to solve difficult problems or issues posed by the questions. Subsequently, inductive reasoning techniques are used to help students move beyond the details of the scenario to understand its broader implications and the basic concepts to which they portend. Once the general concepts are understood, the instructor uses questions to help the students develop a general explanation or universal definition of the concept(s). The idea is for the students to develop an explanation which would cover all possible scenarios. In doing so, the students are able to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the material. This technique can be a very effective teaching methodology, but it requires significant preparation and commitment on the part of the instructor if it is to be successful.

Modified Lectures

Other modifications to the lecture format may be utilized by the instructor in order to increase student participation in the learning process. One technique is termed "pausing for enhanced retention and comprehension." The instructor pauses every 12-18 minutes and provides students with 2-3 minutes to work in dyads in order to clarify and assimilate the material just presented. The process is reinforced by a 3-minute period at the end of the lecture in which students are asked to record everything they can remember through free recall. It has been demonstrated that student performance on subsequent examinations is significantly improved upon when this technique is used (5) .

Guided lectures are designed to help students synthesize lecture material and develop their note-taking skills. Students should be provided with the lecture objectives in advance of the session. In this setting students are required to listen to a 20-30 minute lecture and not take notes. At the end of the session, the students are given 5 minutes to record everything he or she can recall. At the end of this period, the students are asked to form dyads or triads, reconstruct and discuss the lecture, and in the process complete their notes. During this time, the instructor is available to clarify any issue or question which might arise within the groups. The entire process can be facilitated through the use of study guides, well-designed questions and pre- and post-session mini-tests.

Feedback lectures are designed around a supplementary study guide that provides the students with learning objectives, assigned readings, pre- and post-tests, and in some instances, an outline of the lecture notes. The format of the contact session consists of two 20-minute mini-lectures which are separated by a study session. During the study session, students form dyads or triads and discuss the questions provided by the instructor or the study guide. Eighty-eight percent of students surveyed indicated that they preferred this format over the straight lecture (5) . The disadvantage to the instructor is the extensive planning and preparation required to implement this teaching strategy.

Responsive lectures provide a forum in which students may generate open-ended questions for the instructor on topics pertinent to the subject. These sessions can be held on an occasional to weekly basis depending upon course structure and available contact time. In the initial phase of the lecture, the students generate a series of open-ended questions and a reason for each question's importance. The instructor lists the questions on the board or overhead as they are generated. Once this is complete, the students are asked to rank the questions in order of importance from their perspective. The ranked questions then become the outline for the remainder of the lecture. This type of educational forum can place significant demands upon the instructor and is not for the faint of heart. If the instructor finds that the process is too wide open for his or her taste, then the students can be asked to generate or submit the questions in the preceding lecture period. Alternatively, the instructor can stop half-way through the lecture and ask the students to form groups of 3-4 individuals. Five minutes is then provided for the groups to each decide upon one question which they would like the instructor to answer. This technique permits the students to sort the information and become actively involved in discussions, thinking and peer teaching.


Brainstorming techniques may be used by the instructor in order that students may participate in, and help create, the lecture. This technique is less time efficient for information transfer than the lecture, but it actively engages students in the learning process. The instructor must have a clear idea of what he or she wishes to be revealed or discovered in the process and plan accordingly. In some instances the instructor may need to interject points in order to keep the process on track. However, it is important to guard against excessive manipulation of the process once it has started. In addition, the instructor must be flexible enough to depart from his or her preconceived ideas when necessary. The instructor initiates the process by asking students to tell him or her everything they know about a topic. Everything goes, and no evaluations are made of the suggestions or comments put forward by the students. The points are recorded by the instructor, as they are made, on a chalk board or on an overhead projector. During the process, the ideas are then categorized or placed in groupings by the instructor with the students' guidance. The lecture becomes a process of arranging and reordering ideas and concepts regarding the topic into a coherent and rational pattern. The final creation reflects what the students and instructor consider important about the topic. During the lecture, the students have spent their time thinking about and organizing the salient concepts or points of the topic as opposed to simply recording information.

Tests and Quizzes

Research has demonstrated that after a lecture, students recall 62% of the information. However, only 45% is recalled by students after 3-4 days and in 8 weeks only 24% of the information is recalled. If a quiz or exam was administered after the lecture, recall was doubled at the 8-week period (5) . It is interesting that many faculty members appear to ignore the potential impact which tests can have upon learning. This may relate to the fact that tests or exams require time which faculty would prefer to, or must, allocate to other activities. In addition, within schools of veterinary medicine, exams or tests have more often been used for summative evaluation, not formative purposes. Regardless of the reason, faculty should reconsider the use of tests within their courses.


We believe that student involvement in the educational process should be increased. In doing so, students will recognize and accept their responsibility for lifelong learning and continued professional development. Increased involvement does not mean additional requirements for independent study on the part of the students. Rather, educational strategies which take students out of the passive role and place them in an active, thinking mode should be used. In order to implement active learning techniques, or improve upon the learning environment, faculty need to learn new educational strategies and develop new skills. In initiating the process of change, we believe faculty members should utilize the services of an educational consultant. In this paper, we have examined some of the issues the instructor must consider to incorporate active learning techniques into his or her course. We have examined ways in which the instructor can improve upon the lecture, from the students' perspective of learning.

References and Endnotes

1. Turnwald GH, Bull KS, Seeler DC: From teaching to learning: part I. critical issues and historical perspectives. Jour Vet Med Educ 20(2):37-39, 1993.

2. Turnwald GH, Bull KS, Seeler DC: From teaching to learning: part II. traditional teaching methodology. Jour Vet Med Educ 20(3): 148-156, 1993.

3. Entwistle NJ, Ramsden P: Understanding Student Learning. London: Nicols Publishing Co, 1983.

4. Gutek GL: Philosophical and Ideological Perspectives on Education . Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1988, p 1.

5. Bonwell CC, Eison JA: Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom . Washington, DC: George Washington University, 1991.

6. Huczynski AA: Encyclopedia of Management Development Methods . Aldershot: Gower Publishing Co, Ltd, 1983.

7. Bouton C, Garth RY: Learning in Groups . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc, 1983.

8. Brubacher M, Payne R, Rickett K: Perspectives on Small Group Learning - Theory and Practice . Oakville: Rubicon Publishing Inc, 1990.

9. Weimer MG: Teaching Large Classes Well . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc, 1987.

10. Crow ML: Teaching as an interactive process. In Improving Teaching Styles . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc, 1980.

11. Seeler DC, Brace J: Faculty development: program for change. Jour Vet Med Educ 19:34-36, 1992.

12. Talbot RB, McGovern PT, Carrig CB, McGrath CJ: Preparation versus delivery. Jour Vet Med Educ 10:16-18, 1983.

13. Forrestal P: Talking: toward classroom action. In Perspectives on Small Group Learning - Theory and Practice . Oakville: Rubicon Publishing Inc, 1990, pp 157-167.