Prof. Mark Zoback lecturing. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford CTL.

What is a lecture course?

A classic lecture course was, at its most basic, the image many have of “college”: an instructor speaking from a podium to hundreds of students in a huge auditorium who listened silently and take notes.

Fortunately for faculty and students everywhere, that cliché is becoming obsolete. Many lecture courses today are a much richer and more engaging learning experience.

For a successful lecture class, it’s best not to just talk through fifty minutes of material and expect students to remember it. Instead, focus on the most important ideas so you can teach them in depth. “’Less is more’ is the important lesson,” says Berman.

Also, for best learning, start by posing a real-world example or problem. As the students grapple with it, they will ask you for the concepts and formulas they need to solve it, says Bucknell engineering professor Mike Prince. Studies back him up: when you teach that way, student learning is much higher.

Why teach a lecture course?

Lecture courses have always had a huge advantage: you can teach many students at once. What you say and present can reach a hundred students as easily as ten. Sometimes, lecture courses are the only option for a department to deliver large introductory courses or courses required for the major.

The challenge, and what many instructors enjoy, is incorporating active learning techniques in lecture to help students really internalize and practice the concepts of the course.

Of course, many lecture courses have affiliated lab or discussion sections. Students will attend these to discuss readings, try out techniques, or go over difficult concepts with TAs. So another important challenge of a lecture course is to coordinate sections closely with the lectures.

Developing a lecture course

To develop an effective lecture course, we recommend these steps:

  1. Design/redesign your course thoughtfully with our Course Preparation Handbook and Course Design Aids. Stanford instructors can meet with a CTL consultant for course design support.

  2. Create a syllabus that’s not just a list of readings and assignments, but a robust statement of learning goals and outcomes.

  3. Practice effective lecturing with this Checklist for Effective Lecturing. Get coaching on your presentation skills from Doree Allen or Tom Freeland from the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking.

  4. Coordinate with your team of TAs and co-instructors, if any. Especially when you have a large team of them, it’s essential to keep them all in step.

  5. Get feedback on your teaching midway through the term, so you have time to make changes in the same quarter.

  6. After it’s over, reflect on your experience and interpret your end-quarter evaluations thoughtfully.

Tools for lecture courses

Here are some tools for teaching a lecture course. The links will take you to other pages in Teaching Commons where you can learn more.

How to communicate with students

Since lecture courses are often very large, it’s especially important to communicate clearly with students. Good communication begins with an excellent syllabus, which explains everything about how you run your class and sets out your expectations. Then, you’ll probably use email and/or a Learning Management System, or LMS (e.g., CourseWork), to give assignments and collect student work.

Learning Activities

Students in lecture classes often do these things outside class:

During class, you should also incorporate active learning techniques. Learn more at


Assess your students’ learning with these methods:

Learn More

Case Studies

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Students Walk and Talk Like Ecologists

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UN simulation exercise teaches real-world skills

Scott Sagan, Gil-li Vardi

Class in session: instructor Stephan Sonnenberg speaks to students. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford CTL.

Studying Human Trafficking Through Medical, Legal, and Historical Lenses

Rebecca D. Walker, Stephan P Sonnenberg, Katherine R. Jolluck
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Using Improv Techniques to Learn Public Speaking

Adam Tobin, Matt Abrahams
COM 42 (Continuing Studies)