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Crafting Effective Lectures

With the best will in the world, we can try to structure our lectures so that the words we choose to say (rather than put on screen or in handouts) are geared to cause students to think rather than transcribe, but it can all come to nothing unless students know what they should be trying to follow, and why we are choosing to get them thinking in the ways we have planned.

Sally Brown & Phil Race, Lecturing: A Practical Guide, p. 78.

The increasing emphasis placed on engaging students in the classroom may confound some faculty who feel that despite their desire to involve students in learning activities, they are compelled to lecture because of class size and a prescribed body of information that must be covered. The curriculum does indeed dictate, to a large extent, teaching strategies, and the lecture, long the primary teaching method of professors, will undoubtedly continue to shape undergraduate education.

Given this inevitability, how can we guarantee that lectures serve our students well, promoting learning and helping to develop crucial thinking skills? Of course there’s no simple answer to this question or to the problem posed by a largely passive audience wanting to know what, of the many things we say, will be on the next exam.

Lecturers begin at a disadvantage. As Bligh points out, lectures are most effective at communicating information, but less effective than other teaching strategies in promoting thinking, inspiring interest in a subject, or teaching behavioral skills. But this does not mean that lectures can’t motivate students or provide the structured knowledge students need to explore and resolve problems in a discipline. Lectures can pull together information, especially current research, that students might not otherwise encounter, and offer them methods of organizing their reading of textbooks or supplementary material. Enthusiastic lecturers can help motivate students by illustrating why certain issues or concepts are significant-perhaps by relating them to life as we experience it.

As McKeachie points out, “Not only is the lecturer a model in terms of motivation and curiosity, the lecturer also models ways of approaching problems, portraying a scholar in action in ways that are difficult for other media or methods of instruction to achieve” (68).

While mastering the art of lecturing takes time and conscious work, there are some principles to keep in mind when planning lectures, principles that help to make lectures effective learning experiences:

  • Make your goals for the lecture explicit. Know what you want students to be able to remember or do with information you’ve provided. Often a simple way to clarify this in your own mind-and at the same time grab students’ attention-is to pose a problem or question that the lecture will answer. In a way, the lecturer can rely on the natural pull elicited by the storyteller: given the mystery or set-up proposed at the outset, what will happen to the characters, that is, the concepts you’re covering (or ‘uncovering’) for students?
  • Clearly communicate the structure of your lecture, “spotlighting,” as Brown and Race term it, the most important information. Experiment with the amount and type of information provided in handouts or on the Web, since as these authors note, “when detailed material is written up to be copied down, students don’t tend to have time to think about what it means, being so busy getting it all down into their notes” (p.82). Providing partial outlines, which require students to fill in the missing pieces and add details and examples, are often an effective means of helping students learn to take accurate, useful notes.
  • Remember that the attention span of listeners is limited. Most studies show that students’ attention drops significantly after the first ten minutes of a lecture. Attempt to break lectures into 10 to 15 minutes segments, divided by questions from the audience or memorable examples or applications.
  • Consider involving the students by using group work, paired discussion, or other active learning techniques. In an “Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching” presentation, Presidential Teaching Professor Lynn Zimmerman described her technique for getting students to summarize the previous class’s lecture at the start of each session; this motivates students to review notes and come prepared to link new information to what they are expected to have understood.
  • Explore resources and experiment. There are many useful books and articles on lecturing and teaching large classes-some of which are listed below. In addition, consider having someone (a colleague, a friend, an advanced graduate student) observe your lecture and give feedback; or solicit anonymous feedback mid-semester from students, either by asking for suggestions or by having FDC staff conduct a student small-group evaluation in the last twenty minutes of a class period.

In the end, whatever else we do at the podium, we want to make certain that as we lecture we have not adopted the philosophy of Dickens schoolmaster Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times, who thought of his charges as “little vessels . . . arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”

Books on lecturing and on teaching large classes (available at the FDC):

  • Bligh, D.A., What’s the Use of Lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.
  • Brown, S. & Race, P. Lecturing: A Practical Guide. London: Kogan Page, 2002.
  • MacGregor, J., Cooper, J.L., Smith, K.A., & Robinson, P. (eds.). Strategies for Energizing Large Classes: From Small Groups to Learning Communities. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.
  • Stanley, C. A. & Porter, E. M. (eds.). Engaging Large Classes: Strategies and Techniques for College Faculty. Bolton, MA: Anker, 2002.

Chapters on lecturing in teaching handbooks:

  • Davis, B.G. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.
  • McKeachie, W., et al., Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 11th edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Web resources: