Stop Lecturing: Five Alternative Teaching Methods

by Natalie Taylor Hart

Teaching artists come from a range of backgrounds: some from more academic settings and some from the professional sphere. We have expertise in our disciplines, but sometimes we lack a history of training in the methods and theory of teaching and learning. By blending educational methodologies with disciplinary methodologies, we can often become more effective teachers and help our students become more successful. If lecturing is your teaching comfort zone, it may take a little thought to rework your class, but the potential benefits are compelling.

Though still a staple instructional technique, lecturing has shortcomings. It doesn’t ask for a high level of engagement from students. Students may not understand when to listen versus when to record perfect notes. Listening to a lecture is a more passive activity and may not encourage students to think in the higher tiers of Bloom’s Taxonomy. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out that traditional teaching methods like lecturing and cold-calling fall short of inclusivity in the way that they demand high stakes or little engagement. Here are five teaching methods geared toward fostering deep engagement in your students in lower-risk ways.

1: Flipped Classroom
The flipped classroom approach involves providing readings, lecture (or screen capture) videos, narrated slides or other forms of direct instruction for students to consume outside of class and then using class time to apply and extend the learning. Activities like debates, group problem-solving, discussion or practicing the targeted techniques allow students to apply the information in real or hypothetical situations. Examples of classroom activities: a design project targeting a particular “problem;” a case-study of a stage management issue where students create and evaluate solutions; or scene work where students practice a specific technique. In the process of this application, they will find gaps in understanding that you can clarify in class.

The benefit of the flipped class is that students are first introduced to the information when they can set their own pace to understand (lower order thinking) the material. They do their applied work (higher order thinking) when you are available to support them. (No more 2 AM emails!) This method does take time to prepare. Instructors must create and frame the content that students access outside of class and create structured activities for the classroom. Those structured activities could be short explorations or components of a larger ongoing project. As a starting point, try flipping a few class sessions rather than a whole course.

2: Think-Pair-Share
In this model, the professor poses a question to the students and gives them a defined period of time to think about their answer, two minutes, for example. Next, the students pair up in groups of two to four and discuss their answers. The last step is sharing group responses with the class as a whole. In a twist on this method, students can Write-Pair-Share so that they have written responses to start with. 

This method can provide tremendous benefit to class discussions. The purpose of this exercise is for students to generate written or oral text around the stated problem. They are much more likely to participate in discussion having this text to offer. This is a great way of reaching out to students who are less likely to speak in class if not directly called on. 

The best questions for this method are more open-ended so that students generate a variety of ideas rather than coming up with a single answer. This method can start your class or can be extended into a longer discussion. You can send students back to their groups to respond to the discussion generated by the first round. And this method can even be implemented spontaneously in class, especially if it feels like everyone wants to talk at once. Try this as a way to begin class in a focused manner.

3: Collaborative Creation
As a performing artist, I believe that wonderful syntheses happen when people work together in a structured environment. I love to challenge my students to create something written or visual together in order to watch their understanding deepen, their creativity being explored, or a process being examined. I approach collaborative creation in two ways depending on my goal. 

Sometimes, I impose fewer parameters on the assignment in the beginning and then ask students to reflect on their process in order to gain insight on the decisions they made. In one 100-minute class period where juniors and seniors of all majors were studying mask traditions of Europe, I used creative collaboration to help students see connections between beliefs and creative visual representations. I put them in groups and had them make a list of every word they could think of related to Easter (as this was the next holiday). I took up the pages, shuffled the groups, and handed a page to each group. Next, I told them to forget about the existence of Easter. I dramatically unveiled a table of Dollar Store Barbie dolls and craft supplies and told them to create a European-style masked festival character with a backstory using the page of Easter words as text. After a period of play dough-based merriment and character presentations, I asked them to reflect upon the past hour and consider the decisions they made during that time. Though they didn’t feel like they were thinking, students became aware that they were making decisions according to the process of design that we had discussed in class. Through this activity, I asked them to experience creativity first and then to reflect upon it in order to analyze its processes.

In another course, I set strict guidelines to get a more specific result. I created a course called Script Analysis for Designers this year. I wanted students to interact collaboratively and to have something concrete to keep when they finished the class. I assigned students into groups where members rotated responsibilities from week to week: serving as dramaturg, a designer, or a technician. I gave very specific instructions on how to interact within the group and what work each role would produce. Students created work for their individual roles as homework and then compiled all of their separate work into a show concept as a team. Structuring the group with defined roles and responsibilities made it impossible for anyone to coast through on the work of their teammates—the classic reason students give for hating group work. Each group turned in an illustrated article-style collection of dramaturgy, design research and conceptual ideas for each play that we read. Students felt like the work was relevant to their own goals because the groups modeled an authentic creative team.

The method above emphasized the creation of a product, but it is related to group learning methodologies developed in science disciplines, particularly Team-Based Learning and Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL). Methods like these require advance planning and are best considered when you are designing the course.

4: Peer Teaching
Peer teaching includes activities where students provide direct instruction or feedback on work to other students. It has several advantages but, notably, it does not replace instruction from the professor (disciplinary expert). Students who practice teaching gain a deeper engagement with the content. Peer teaching can help students get feedback more immediately though the feedback will have less depth. It can reinforce ideas by asking a variety of people to articulate or listen to them. 

In Peer Teaching, students might prepare lessons/presentations/handouts/etc. on a portion of the material covered in the course. This can have mixed results. Some students will prepare well, others poorly. As the professor, you are responsible for providing quality instruction. How can you use each student’s expertise and interests so that they bring more passion to the content? Consider how you would correct or make up material if a presentation fails to meet expectations. Can you preview the material to assure classroom time isn’t wasted?

Another way that to organize peer teaching is using peer review. Students submit work anonymously, in a pair or in a group, to receive feedback on their work. This is a helpful way to catch problems in earlier drafts and to provide a variety of perspectives on work, such as in a design critique. Peer teaching is more effective with advance planning, but smaller activities can be added to a course midstream. If your course is feeling stagnant around mid-terms, a Peer Teaching activity can help to rebuild a good group dynamic.

5: Project-Based Learning
I love to teach through doing. It helps students to engage deeply with the material because they must produce something and they will be pushed toward higher orders of thinking (application, analysis and synthesis). When teaching through projects, the instructor serves more as a facilitator, coach and critique leader. It is best to consider projects when designing the course, but small projects can be added if they fit within the schedule and the grading scheme. The first step is to define the assignment and your expectations. 

When designing assignments, it is best to create structure in every area except the space where you want creativity to blossom. Even if you don’t care if the paper is single-spaced or double-spaced, create a standard. This helps students focus their energy and attention to the areas that need creative thinking. Without structure, students have a difficult time imagining the shape and scope of the final product.

Make sure that your assignment has framing, parameters and expectations. The framing device could be a prompt or a goal. It could help students put themselves into the mindset or the imagined circumstances that would pose a need for this project or to imagine themselves in a hypothetical position or to create a hypothetical audience. Examples: “You are an associate designer and your job is…” “Create a research question that you might take to an employer based on your experience with…” “Imagine that you want to convince someone to…” Good framing helps students make decisions about the shape and scope of the project. Parameters are the elements that make up the project or rules that you want students to follow. Is grammar important? Is this a formal paper? Is length important? Will there be a presentation? This is the area where structure helps students understand your expectations. Lastly, it’s helpful to provide a rubric or a grading scale at the time that you assign the project so that students can see your expectations quantified. 

If these three elements are well-defined, then you have set standards or expectations for the project. Now, you can switch from judge to coach to help students meet these defined expectations. Plan individualized help and critique into the schedule. In some courses, I meet with students individually for ten minutes during a scheduled class time at a couple of key steps in the project. In design courses, we hold guided critique sessions about everyone’s works in progress. Once the project is underway, you may devote quite a lot of class time to it. Perhaps you start class with a short lesson and then turn to the project for application of the content or you have a project check-in session at the start of class then resume regular content instruction. Either way, the project will be in the forefront of the student’s minds.

Students don’t have to understand a particular process in order to undertake an independent project in that methodology. Navigating the methods is where the learning happens regardless of whether the final project is a success or failure on its own. In the grading plan, give step-by-step process grades along the way. Some students can occasionally ignore the process and still produce good work, but the learning should be focused on developing skills for a repeatable process, not a single success. 

Conclusion
You can combine and adapt all of these techniques, for instance, use a flipped classroom approach to work on a project. Try incorporating these ideas in small assignments or in single classes to gain familiarity with the methods. And know that methods that seem rigid or dogmatic can be changed to fit your pedagogical needs. Isn’t that what we are good at—creating and altering content to suit our narrative? Many of these methods that have been developed for science or humanities classrooms can be adapted to benefit courses in the Arts.

Find ways like these to reach all of your students by lowering their perceived risk to participation and increasing their engagement in the coursework. Be forewarned that your classroom will become more dynamic with a vibrant mix of ideas and perspectives. Answers may be less clear, and you may not be able to predict the path of the discussion, but you will be educating thinkers and practitioners rather than listeners.  

Natalie Taylor Hart is a scenic designer and member of USA Local 829 working in New York and regional theatres and is an associate professor of performing arts at Elon University. She has an interest in curriculum and developing teaching and learning resources for the Arts. You can see her design work at www.natalietaylorhart.com. If you would like to send input or questions about teaching, you can contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..