Use a minute paper to evaluate what students actually learn from a lecture

March 25, 2014

Lectures enjoy a reputation for enabling an expert to efficiently communicate content to a large audience. A well-crafted lecture delivered by an engaging, knowledgeable presenter is a delight. Consider evaluating how well students retain the key points you intended to communicate in one of your best lectures (Kalman, 2007).

Review the content of one of your best-organized lectures. Select a strong, well-organized lecture based on content area you know well and feel confident about when you present material to your students. Identify the three most important points you hope students will retain from your lecture.

On the day you give this lecture in your class, close the class session by asking students to write down the three most important points they derived from the class.

Describe the three points you identified (put them on a Power Point slide, a transparency, or write them on the board). Ask how many of your students wrote down all three points on their minute paper. How many wrote down two of the points? One of the points?

Collect the minute papers and review what students actually wrote down. Reflect on the gap between your intended message and the message students heard. Consider how you might direct students’ attention to the key points during future lectures.

TED talks are masterful presentations, famous for the engaging style used by the expert presenters. Consider selecting a TED talk on a topic related to class content. Identify three main take-away points from the talk. Do students identify these key points?

An illusion of learning occurs when students evaluate how well they will remember material immediately after studying it. Immediately after study, content is active in immediate memory simply through the passive process of recent exposure. Students can easily access it and might believe they have stored the content effectively for long-term retention. However, immediate memory (short-term memory) is ephemeral. When a delay filled with another activity displaces content material from immediate memory, access to contents can deteriorate substantially unless learners engaged with the material in a way that promotes long-term retention.

A well-organized delivery creates an immediate sense of understanding, but this perception might be misleading, especially if the presenter does most of the work required to organize and create meaning (Carpenter et al. 2013). I do not propose to create disorganized lectures to make students exert effort to discover the meaning in a lecture and thereby learn more! Rather, introduce brief pair-share activities or thought questions during the lecture to focus student attention on key points. When you require students to actually do something with material related to a key point, the effort students expend to complete these activities makes this information more distinctive and memorable (Dunlosky, et al., 2013).


Carpenter, S. K., Wilford, M. M., Kornell, N., & Mullaney, K. M. (2013). Appearances can be deceiving: Instructor fluency increases perceptions of learning without increasing actual learning. Psychomic Bulletin & Review, 20, 1350-1356. DOI 10.3758/s13423-013-0442-z

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4-58. Doi: 10.1177/1529100612453266

Kalman, C. S. (2007). Successful science and engineering teaching in colleges and universities. Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

Updated: 04/16/14 tjf