Resurrect Lifeless Lectures: Tips For Turning Listeners Into Learners

Marcia McNutt - PopTech 2010 - Camden, Maine

You want me to do what?

Include audience engagement and participation in my presentation? You’ve got to be joking. I’ve got too much content to cover!

We’ve all heard that excuse from presenters. They fear if they don’t cover all the content, the listener won’t get all of the information. We love to explain things, regardless if the listener is getting it or not.

Let’s not confuse good explaining with good learning.

Active Engagement Improves Learning

The evidence is clear and momentous.

Professors John Hattie and Robert Marzano have researched and examined thousands of studies about active learning. Their findings show that active learning improves a student’s achievement by a grade and a half. Those in the control group of listening to a lecture fall behind.

Active learning works for every age learner: child, teenager or adult.

Seems odd doesn’t it? If the speaker does not say everything they know about a subject and replaces some of the lecture time with audience participation, learning and retention improve.

Which Active Participation Methods Work?

Any audience participation activity will not work.

It has to be an activity that causes the learner to make their own meaning of concepts being presented. Ideally it needs to be an open activity that causes the learner to think and articulate their thoughts.

Simple Activities To Consider

The two most powerful times in a lecture are the beginning and the end. The listener’s attention is on high alert.

Here are three simple activities that don’t take up a lot of time but increase learning.

1. Meet Your Expert Group

After you’ve done your traditional opening, involve your listeners in a two-minute activity. This works great in any room setting from theater to rounds.


“There are some others in the room that are important today to your learning. They already know a lot about this topic. Some are experts and could be presenting instead of me. Look to your left, your right, in front of you and behind you. Those are your learning experts. You’ve got 90-seconds now to introduce yourself to them and uncover one fact they already know about the topic. Go.”

Debrief if you have time by sharing a couple of the insights from the “experts.”

2. Connecting Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve completed your opening and you’ve listed your learning outcomes, help your listeners connect to your outcomes.


“Turn to the person on your left or right. You have two-minutes to introduce yourself and then tell the other person which of these learning outcomes is important to you and why.”

3. One-Legged Summary

This is a great way to end a presentation.

Ask participants to get into pairs or triads. One person acts as the interviewer and the other is the interviewee. The interviewer asks the talker for one important take away and what he or she plans to do with that information. The talker must stand on one leg while answering the question.

Why stand on one leg? It helps keep the answer short! You’re also involving the body in recalling information.

Then they reverse roles. Ask the participants to give each other a high-five or knuckle bump when they are finished.

Why these work?

  1. They connect learners to each other and to the topic.
  2. Participants link what they already know to what they are going to learn.
  3. Participants align with a learning goal (the objective).
  4. Participants feel safe after meeting each other and therefore are open to learning more.
  5. These methods honor and acknowledge what participants already know about the topic.
  6. Learning becomes desirable because humor is a great learning aid. People want more when it causes smiles and laughter.

What do the following words mean to you: hands-on, interactive, learner-centered? What are some other simple tips you’ve experienced that resurrect lifeless lectures using active learning?

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