Lectures: a much-maligned format which can be truly inspirational

Students in a lecture theatre

I love a good lecture. You know when you’ve been in a good one, because you come out buzzing, your head full of ideas, motivated, inspired, with clarity and certainty. You also know when you’ve been in a bad one, because you’ve just woken up with some drool on your notebook/laptop/tablet/phone, with the MetOffice weather app still running.

There is no end to the negative press on lectures. When I ask my course participants to use words to describe lectures, without failure the first word to be uttered (regardless of the group age/size/experience) is ‘boring’. Boring lectures. Boring, flipping lectures. And then there’s the mythology, the ‘research’ often cited which claims that we all have ever-decreasing attention spans which can be no longer than 20 minutes. It’s absolute tosh. I have sat in lectures where I was gripped from start to finish, and after 2 hours I could have had more. And others where I did quite a lot of admin work or catching up with emails. ‘Attention span’ is directly related to the student’s circumstances, context, environment and motivation. Some of the things we do as lecturers can mitigate these, but that will not always be possible.

It doesn’t need to be this way. Like any format of teaching, giving lectures to large groups of students requires its own specific skills, strategy and technique. The biggest lesson to learn is that lecturing to students isn’t about content delivery, especially in a digital age when such content is available in advance. Lectures are less about the content and more about other, contextual, student-specific factors (based on Exley & Dennick, 2009).

Content and mastery

Colleagues often hide behind heaps of content to disguise anxiety or impostor syndrome. There really is no substitute for excellent grasp of the subject matter, so as Lee Shulman highlighted in his seminal paper “Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform“, this can make the difference between a vibrant, inspiring and ‘open’ session and a ‘closed’, conservative one where the teacher is in damage limitation mode. Once we decide on the appropriate content for the amount of time we have, we then need to cut it down, and then some more, to keep the absolute essentials. This will make space for activities which will enable the students to learn key things about that content. The more content you have, the less clear it is to the students what the relevance and/or significance is. ‘Knowing’ the content isn’t the aim, it’s what one can do with it.

Context

This is a very obvious point many colleagues neglect. A lecture which worked well with a group of 1st-year students last year, may not work well this year. Or with a different group/room/day/time. Because teaching doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The environment and the students are huge factors in determining the success or failure of a session. Ignore them at your peril.

Your structure

Being clear about what happens at each stage of the lecture could really help both the lecturer (especially if there are nerves/anxiety involved) and the students. Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve in the lecture, what the students will get out of it. Break it down into segments where you do different things (see below on activities). If it helps you, draw a rough lesson plan with timings.

Consider:

  1. Starting strong, with gaining attention and setting ground rules (if necessary)
  2. Communicating clearly the relevance and importance of the topic, establishing links with previous lectures (especially important if you’re only giving one lecture in a team-taught course)
  3. Activating prior learning: link to what they already know/can do, and be clear how this adds to that
  4. Signposting: communicate this structure to the students at the beginning, and consider revisiting (especially if you have a lecture longer than 1 hour)
  5. Include: examples, explanations, diagrams, visuals where appropriate
  6. Stimulate thinking and engagement by starting your lecture by posing a problem/question for your students to consider during your ‘talking’ parts
  7. Finish by summing up, revisiting your overall aims, and linking to the next steps/lecture and/or student work to be done in between sessions

Active learning

We learn better through being active. This does not necessarily mean that you have to include lots of interaction and activities/discussion in your lectures. Following point 6 from above: a thinking student who is actively considering a problem or question is an active student. Clarity about goals and importance of topic may get your students really engaging with your talk. However, also consider asking questions, allowing your students to discuss in pairs or carry out exercises on handouts or online.

Using tools like Padlet or Polleverywhere helps make your classroom more democratic, allowing those quiet students to ask questions without the fear of exposing themselves as ‘stupid’. It also has the added bonus of informing you whether your students have learnt, and where there are either areas to improve, or unintended positive outcomes-always nice!

Technology

There is loads of technology you can use  to build activities. I mentioned Padlet or Polleverywhere above. Turning Point technologies have an app students can have on their devices to enable you to build in some mini quizzes and questions. As we move towards a paperless environment, could you make your handouts electronic/online?

How about recording lectures? Do you record the whole thing? This is great for accessibility, but does it place more emphasis on ‘lecture-as-content’ rather than lectures as an active learning experience? Consider doing mini summaries of lectures with the key points (up to 10 minutes), and providing additional notes in text format to help students who may find it useful either because of special educational needs, or a non-English-speaking background.

And whatever you do, don’t use a laser pointer to regulate the speed by which students should be reading your slides! It’s not karaoke.

Powerpoint

We need to talk about PowerPoint. If you are using this as a basket where you throw in all the content of your topic, then don’t. If your students are reading your slides, they’re not listening to you. If you are reading what’s on your slides, then why not just send the students the slides in advance and allow them to read at their own pace?

Powerpoint is good for:

  • communicating key points
  • communicating the structure
  • giving instructions for an activity (so you don’t have to repeat it)
  • visuals/diagrams

Not good for: lots of text. And think about how your slides can be experienced by students with learning difficulties, disabilities and impairments-this guide can help.

Performance: the X factor!

Lecturing is often compared to a performance. There is an element of truth to this. An inspiring lecturer often has ‘presence’ and an engaging manner. This is not something you have to be born with-although it helps. It is something you can cultivate. Consider observing an inspiring lecturer and deconstructing what they do. Do they pause to allow for thinking to take place? Do they use humour to good effect? How do they use their voice and fluctuations in tone? Do they hide behind a lectern or move among the students?

Be careful not to go too far to the other extreme. Being ‘too perfect’ may intimidate students who consider themselves novices, or even impostors, and it masks the trials and tribulations, and uncertainty inherent in academic work. Being inspiring does not negate being humble and approachable. You are trying to encourage all your students and convince them that they can and will develop, learn more and have more mastery. Turning up like Captain Flashheart may be impressive, but is not doing your students any favours in the long run.

Conclusion

So that’s it. There’s no great science in it. It’s perfectly feasible to become an inspirational and engaging lecturer who helps their students learn. You don’t have to have performance in your blood. You just need to work on those skills, and remember: when it comes to content, less is more!

References

Exley, K. and Dennick, R. 2nd edition (2009) Giving a Lecture: from presenting to teaching Routledge: London and New York

Shulman, L. (1987) Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform. Harvard Educational Review: April 1987, Vol. 57, No. 1, pp. 1-23

Image used under CC licence: University Missouri School of Journalism, by Brett Jordan

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