Educator’s Corner: What is Interactive Teaching?

August 3, 2015 at 12:06 am

By Peter H. Lenz, MD, Jennifer W. McCallister, MD, Andrew M. Luks, MD, Tao T. Le, MD, and Henry E. Fessler, MD


A lecturer during the ATS 2015 International Conference in Denver describes learning objectives.

Interactive teaching that demands learner engagement has repeatedly demonstrated measurable benefits over traditional passive lectures. Whereas in traditional lectures, information flows unidirectionally from the speaker to the audience, active learning requires engagement and/or interaction with the audience and promotes a bidirectional flow of ideas and content. This requires the audience to reflect on or manipulate information in real time, either individually or in groups. These learner-centered experiences delegate some control of pace and focus to the learner, and give the speaker feedback on whether the audience is grasping key concepts. This contrasts to traditional teacher-centered lectures, in which the timing and focus are controlled by the lecturer who, as a result, often has less appreciation of the audience’s comprehension of the material.

Active learning outperforms passive approaches. Studies involving physicians and medical, undergraduate, and graduate students demonstrate consistent benefits including improved attention span, promotion of higher order learning, and improved performance on written examinations, and the benefits can be attributed to the nature of engagement rather than the extra time spent per topic. Interactive techniques, such as those described below, require that speakers pause, allow time for audience reflection, and revisit challenging concepts. Relinquishing control to the audience in this manner can be uncomfortable for the speaker, but is required to maintain a learner-centered environment.

These improved outcomes were attained using multiple active learning formats. Interactive lecturing uses teacher–learner and learner–learner interactions to promote active incorporation of material presented during the lecture. After a brief didactic segment, the speaker poses questions to the audience and fosters open discussion among learners, using a number of methods. The fostering of deep learning and critical thinking from this type of questioning is one advantage of problem-based learning curricula.

Even simple techniques can be beneficial. Retention is improved when two-minute pauses are inserted during a lecture to allow learners to review or discuss their notes. In a large group setting, for example, educators can ask their audience to pause and reflect by themselves or with colleagues after every 10–15 minutes of material presented.

Peer instruction relies on student interactions to complement the educational process. As the name implies, the learner’s peers provide instruction during opportunities for collaboration set aside within the didactic. This technique requires the learner to apply the material delivered by the speaker and explain that application or concept to his or her colleague. This think-pair-share approach creates teachers out of the learners, but does require the speaker to pose engaging questions to properly initiate the learning encounter.

Properly timing active learning tools within a lecture affects the usefulness of these strategies. Retention of information in traditional lectures declines after only 10 minutes, and is highest for material presented at the beginning and the end of the talk. This so-called primacy–recency effect suggests the optimal timing of engaging activities. ARS questions or activities such as peer instruction should occur every 10–15 minutes, or at a minimum in the middle of the lecture when retention is at its nadir. Alternatively, the 60-minute lecture can be divided into multiple 10- to 15-minute primetime–downtime cycles so that each includes a combination of didactics and engaging activities.

The article above is an excerpt from “Practical Strategies for Effective Lectures,” published in the April 2015 Annals of the American Thoracic Society, which featured a special focus on medical education. AnnalsATS editors will return to this focus in 2016, and are welcoming papers for consideration: learn more here.


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