Interactive Lectures in Economics

Initial Publication Date: September 22, 2011

Interactive lectures are classes in which the instructor incorporates and breaks the lecture at least once per class to have students participate in an activity that lets them work directly with the material. Interactive lectures can be effectively incorporated into any discipline, however, what follows are some guidelines on how to integrate this teaching strategy specifically in an economics course.
Learn more about interactive lectures

Why use Interactive Lectures in an economics course?

Lecturing, a time-honored teaching technique, offers an efficient method to present information to a large number of students but may result in students who listen passively. Making lectures interactive by including interactive techniques such as think-pair-share, demonstrations, and role playing, can foster active engagement and accountability enhance the value of the lecture segments. Using techniques that allow all of the students to participate, instead of having individual students answer questions when called on, will promote student retention and learning of the material presented during lecture, give students practice in developing critical-thinking skills, and enable instructors to assess how well the class is learning that day.When universal participation is expected, building in student accountability is extremely important.

  • Watts and Becker (2008) in a 2005 survey of post-secondary institutions, find that the median portion of class time spent lecturing in economics courses is 83 percent. In a post-graduation survey of approximately 2,000 students,
  • Allgood et al.(2004) find that students are much more likely to report that their economics instructors utilized lectures more than alternative teaching strategies, especially relative to other disciplines. This might suggest that instructors in other disciplines utilize non-lecture teaching strategies more often than do economics instructors.
  • Yet in an extensive survey of the economic education research literature, Miller and Rebelein (2011) report numerous empirical findings that demonstrate improved student learning and engagement in economics courses resulting from interactive pedagogies such as cooperative learning, experiments, case studies, experiential learning and student research.

Learn more about the benefits of interactive lectures

How to use Interactive Lectures in Economics

Five steps are essential for providing an effective interactive lecture. Paying careful attention to each step will help the instructor off to a great start.

Getting Started

  • The first step is to engage in pre-instructional planningwhich includes identifying and developing learning objectives unique to the economics course and content.
  • In the second step, the instructor chooses an appropriate learning task and possibly an engagement trigger based on the desired learning outcome. A learning-oriented task is the actual activity the instructor has students do. In economics classes, drawing and interpreting graphs are a couple of the most common tasks but the instructor may also want students to work through a case study, brainstorm applications, demonstrate a concept, etc. After selecting a learning task, the instructor might want to select an engagement trigger to initiate an interactive lecture segment and kick of the use of a specific interactive lecture technique. Engagement triggers capture student attention and can include things such as physical props, evocative visuals such as cartoons and photographs, and video clips from the news, documentaries, or movies.
  • The third step is to choose an interactive lecture technique. For a given task, there are multiple techniques that could be employed. For example, if the task is to draw a graph or make a calculation, that could be accomplished with a think-pair-share, conceptest or in the context of a role play. Application of a concept could be done through a demonstration, simulation, experiment, case study, or a simple think-pair-share. Choice of technique will likely depend on how much time the instructor wants to spend (either on pre-class preparation or in class) and the specific setting of the course (size, student composition, online, etc.). The instructor will need to consider how to structure the class period so activities can be incorporated effectively (see next step).
  • The fourth step is to structure and manage the activity and the interactive class session in a way that is conducive to interactive learning.
  • And in a final and fifth step the instructor must select mechanisms and methods for collecting, organizing, and responding to feedback. This feedback can be both formal and informal.

Common challenges and insights

  • Interactive techniques require that the instructor give up some control of what happens in the classroom. For many instructors this is a frightening prospect, but when a little control is relinquished in a well-planned and managed fashion, the benefits far exceed the costs as students have more opportunities to contribute, test and stretch their understanding, and work with their peers.
  • Time is always a concern, especially for economists who are very aware of the fact that the opportunity cost of conducting activities in class might be the loss of some content coverage during the class period. So some time and attention must be given to deciding what content to drop or finding ways to move content delivery outside of class through the many technologies that are now available.

  • Student resistance is also a concern as the instructor transitions from standard lecture (during which students can be passive) into more interactive lecture (during which students must now be active and participate.) For many students, just listening to economics seems difficult. Being expected to discuss economic ideas and apply them on the spot might be frightening for some students. This is why instructor preparation with regard to setting a classroom atmosphere and considering student interaction becomes so important.
  • View the incorporation of interactive lecture techniques as an incremental process. For economics instructors who currently teach a traditional lecture course, it can be helpful to gradually introducing more interactive components. This is for the sake of instructor and student alike.
  • Finding ideas and examples might have been a deterrent to adopting interactive lecture techniques a few years ago, but now ideas and instruction abound for incorporating interactive lecture, cooperative learning, demonstrations, experiments and many other techniques.

Economic Examples

Economic examples can be categorized along the lines of faculty/student time investment, types of classroom settings, and content.

Faculty/student time investment:

  • Basic (simple, informal, less than 15 minutes, in-class)
  • Intermediate (one to two meeting sessions, more formal, in or out of class)
  • Advanced (complex, formal, across multiple class periods, in and out of class)

Classroom settings:

  • Recitation and laboratory sections
  • Small enrollment classes
  • Large enrollment classes
  • Online classes


  • Principles
  • Fields/Upper division classes

Learn more about specific examples designed for economics courses.

Economic References and Resources

This bibliography includes references to suggestions and articles describing interactive lecture activities.