Despite extensive discussion in education circles, the lecture is alive and well in college classrooms.  Constructivism is all well and good, but the fact is that we have trained yet another generation of college students who learn well in a lecture format, and who often struggle to learn as well in a less structured course.  For that reason, you will eventually have to design and plan your lectures.

There are things that make a lecturer more or less effective.  The following picture (click on it to get to the original paper) provides a way of telling if you are being effective as a lecturer and, by extension, how to increase the effective traits while decreasing the ineffective traits in your lectures.

Here’s 7 tips to making sure your lecture’s are productive for your students and painless for all involved.

  1. Be a good storyteller.  Your students rarely have the same level of intrinsic interest in the topic that you have.  Some will only be there because it’s required, some won’t have realized what your course was about when they signed up, and a few thought it sounded interesting but are more interested in the hottie they saw while on their way to class.  Your lecture, therefore, needs to tell a good story.  It has a beginning, a middle and an end.  It has something that anyone can relate to, whether that is the topic itself or the examples you provide.  You use vocal modulation, pace and tone to make the story compelling.  If I can do it with statistics, you can do it with anything.
  2. Don’t just repeat the book/reading. Enhance it.  Bring it to life.  Enrich it.  Focus on bringing concrete (current) examples, the latest research and a bit of humor to the topic.  For example, in my statistics class I have to explain Correlation.  I can say “correlation does not equal causation” over and over, but I get a LOT further with a simple scatterplot.  (If all you do is repeat the book, some of them won’t bother to read it.)

    These two things have WHAT to do with one another?

  3. Use the slides as a structure, not a script.  We laugh at the guy at a conference who just reads his slides, but I’ve seen my share of intelligent instructors do the same thing.  It’s boring to sit through for you, and just as boring for your students.  Use the slides to provide a structure for both you and your students, and as a mechanism for bringing in value-add multimedia (charts, images, TED talks, whatever).  Use the Notes section of the slides to provide yourself with the discussion questions you want to use, practice problems, answers to said problems and notes on information you want to make sure you include.  COROLLARY:  You don’t HAVE to use slides. I never saw a single Powerpoint in my graduate program.  Instructors assigned us readings, then walked in and talked (sometimes off an outline, sometimes not) about the readings and asked extensive discussion questions to get us thinking about how the readings fit into the broader context of the field.
  4. If your topic is technical, use slides and let the students print them before class. This one occasionally is debated, but teaching statistics I’ve found it invaluable.  The last thing I want is students writing down formula’s incorrectly or spending all their time taking dictation.  I want them listening, processing, asking questions and engaging with me.  By giving them the notes, they can write down the things that will make those notes more meaningful to them.  COROLLARY:  They should still be NOTES.  Your slides should be an outline* of the topic, not a paper on it.
  5. Have a common thread through your lecture.  This could mean a common example or a common problem to be solved.  It helps a lot if this thread is accessible to your students, since they will anchor all the concepts you are discussing to that thread, and will remember an accessible thread better.  Keep coming back to that thread.  To you, it will seem repetitive.  To them, it will provide a structure and a tool for them to later remember the material.  (I keep toying with the idea of restructuring my entire stats class around a zombie apocalypse.  Maybe someday.)
  6. Don’t do all the talking.  Listening alone is never the best learning tool.  Students need to experiment, discuss, and apply what they are learning.  Rather than doing an entire problem on the board, have them do it themselves first.  Rather than talking, ask them questions about how they understood the material.  This breaks up the lecture and allows them to process the information.  Make sure you have one meaty discussion question every 10-20 minutes.  The following image is from a larger paper that talks about how group size impacts questioning techniques and how you, therefore, need to adjust the type of questions you ask.    
  7. Review your material the day before class.  Once you have designed your lectures, developed your slides if you plan to use them, integrated it all with your reading list and assignments, and otherwise put it all together, you still aren’t done.  At least 1 day before you teach a particular class, review your notes and the timing of any exercises.  This will make it fresh in your mind and help the class run seamlessly.  Whether true or not, many students mix up a disorganized lecture style with a lack of subject matter expertise in the instructor.  You should strive to have a plan and then remind yourself of the details of that plan in advance.  (By doing it a day in advance you have the chance to make any changes for a particular section.  You will find over time that sections learn at different paces and learn best with different types of exercises.  I can use that information to quickly customize or to choose specific exercises that I will use.)

BONUS: If you will be using a white board, remember that students can’t hear you if you speak to the board.  Practice turning back around before you speak, using good diction and projecting your voice strongly.  I can’t get away from using the board to do problems, but I learned quickly to stop writing numbers and turn around if a student asks a substantive question.

Your lecture is not a static thing.  You’ll never deliver it the same twice, and your first semester you will often leave class thinking “well, that didn’t work.”  Keep a piece of paper handy AS YOU LECTURE and make notes about things that don’t flow well, are missing, are ill-explained, or that you need to not forget.  Then spend a bit of time once a week during the semester integrating those things into the lectures just completed so that NEXT semester you won’t be writing down the same things.

The first and best book I read on teaching is called Tools for Teaching.  The author has made the chapter on delivering a lecture available online (as well as a few others), and I suggest you take a few minutes to read through it.  It has some great suggestions for those who aren’t comfortable with the public-speaking aspects of teaching.  Keep in mind, however, that this is from the 1993 edition of the book, meaning it far predates many of the technological tools we now have at our disposal.

*I had this awful grad seminar that required me to learn mind mapping in order to take notes.  The instructor spent the entire session lecturing, working off a set of lecture notes (no slides) that were, I kid you not, typed on an actual typewriter and yellowed beyond belief.  He would ramble, wandering around the topic in a way that linear-little-me couldn’t follow.  I finally took to mind mapping his lectures in order to get some type of notes down.  Turns out it didn’t matter, since the paper we had to do (1 for the entire semester) could have been on nearly anything on the topic and passed.  Don’t be that guy.

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