For centuries, the lecture has been one of the principal features of life in the university. At Stanford, most lectures run for at least fifty minutes, but the attention span of a typical student is considerably less than that. Traditional lecturing can be an effective way of communicating information and demonstrating processes; however, it’s always a challenge to maintain the active interest of an often sleep-deprived audience for such a long period. Even if it’s been some time since you were an undergraduate sitting through a large lecture, simply consider what it takes to sustain your interest at an academic talk—then imagine being tested on the talk afterwards! While the lecture material may seem inherently fascinating to the lecturer, even highly motivated listeners lose concentration periodically and must find ways to reengage themselves with the lecture.
The best lectures, like any good talk, invite students to think imaginatively and conceptually about a significant theme or problem. They do more than “cover the material.” Professor David Kennedy of History reminds us that a good lecture always offers a point of view and an entry into a field of study. It is not, however, the ideal platform for a complex scholarly argument or a massive transfer of data. The goal is to illuminate a topic, not to baffle students with its nuances or to overload them with information. You should also try for a relaxed, conversational tone; allow yourself to think out loud, and engage with the material as you present it. It’s usually a mistake to rely extensively on a verbatim text, which can result in the kind of mind-numbing performance often parodied in television and movies. Professor Kennedy adds, “to the extent you can present the message in a narrative form, you are taking advantage of a natural feature of cognitive receptivity.” So the successful lecturer is, above all else, a good storyteller. If you think back to the most memorable lectures or academic talks you have heard, you will probably agree.
Thorough preparation of a lecture will increase your confidence, improve your delivery style, and enhance the effectiveness of your presentation. When preparation time is limited, focus on the following:
- Craft an introduction that will set a clear and engaging agenda.
- Create an outline of your main points, examples, or demonstration.
- Prepare and practice a short conclusion that will tie the strands of the lecture together and place the lecture in the wider context of the course.
- If you plan to use technology aids, prepare backups in case of technological difficulties.
- Be sure that any materials you need for lecture are organized and working properly, and rehearse any demonstrations.
Basic Presentation Skills
You don’t need to be a charismatic showman to deliver a strong lecture; begin by refining your basic presentation skills.
- Avoid reading your lectures verbatim; if you must refer to your notes frequently, combine this with lots of eye contact.
- When making eye contact, actually look at specific individuals while you make a point; don’t just continually scan the room. Avoid the “drive-by” strategy of eye contact— throwing glances randomly around the room, hoping that some eye contact “sticks.” Individuals seem most comfortable with about five seconds of sustained eye contact.
- When you lecture, speak clearly and not too rapidly. If students are busy taking notes, go even slower.
- Face the students as much as possible, rather than facing the blackboard, projection screen, or laptop.
- If you lose your train of thought, pause to think rather than chattering aimlessly. Students often welcome pauses as a chance to catch up on their notes or reflect on previous material.
- Try out a new lecture room ahead of time by talking to a friend in the back row to make sure you can be heard clearly. Recognize that in a full room, people “absorb” sound, which means you may need to speak even louder (or use a microphone).
- Try taping your lecture on a tape recorder and listen to yourself. Better yet, have yourself videotaped by the Center for Teaching and Learning so that you can both see and hear yourself.
For more help developing your presentation skills, the Oral Communication Program (page 63) provides workshops, classes, and one-on-one consultations.
Structure and Pace
How you structure a lecture can make all the difference in whether students retain the material or understand it in the first place. Whereas you may have thought about your material for a long while, your students are hearing it for the first time. They only get one chance to make sense of it, and their attention is divided between thinking about what you say and deciding what to write down. Therefore, it is crucial that you do not try to say too much and that you indicate—by emphasis, repetition, and summaries—the major points and how they connect. You could probably state your main points in just ten or fifteen minutes, but students need time to understand and reflect on each point. A good lecturer spends the majority of his or her time on examples, analogies, restatements, and questions.Use the following guidelines to improve the structure and pace of your lectures:
- Your lecture topic should require no more than three to five major points for its adequate development. If you have more than five main points, you have more than one lecture.
- Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you’ve told them. Proficient lecturers often begin by briefly outlining the points they will cover or raising questions that the lecture will answer. They then develop the points through examples and discussion. Finally, they conclude by reviewing the main ideas.
- Repetition, while deadly in print, is essential in an oral context. Repeat your points with interesting variations in examples and demonstrations.
- Most students can concentrate intently for only five to ten minutes at a time. You can’t take commercial breaks, but you can present the central concepts in brief, concentrated doses during these five to ten minute periods, and then offer a mini-summary to keep students caught up.
- Follow each mini-summary with a clearly signaled transition to the next section. You can structure discussion, Q and As, or even pauses, around these major blocks. Research has shown that two-minute silent pauses spaced between lecture points improves student learning.
- Consider spacing demonstrations, student participation activities, and multimedia clips throughout your lecture, to wake up students’ attention. The ten-minute rule works well for spacing interactive elements.
- Pay attention to your audience! Puzzled looks are a good indicator that you need to restate an idea more simply, provide an example, or ask for questions. Furious scribbling is a sign to slow down and summarize recent points.
- Remember that a lecture, like great theater, is lost after the moment. Students need time to think, since they can’t replay or reread parts of your lecture. Pause after complicated ideas, strive for simplicity in speech, and expand on one new idea at a time until it becomes familiar.
If you’ve thought a great deal about your material, you can probably articulate the key themes of your course, as well as how they develop from the beginning of the course to the end. Your students want this same clarity: they want the direction of the course to be apparent as they proceed, and they want to understand how each lecture relates to the whole. To help students see the underlying structure of the course, focus on creating cohesiveness between your individual lectures. The following suggestions can help you increase the cohesiveness of your course:
- Begin a lecture by making a connection to the previous session’s topic. • Coordinate lectures with the textbook. Make sure students understand the connections between lecture and readings (even if the content does not match perfectly). Your lectures can enliven textbook material with demonstrations, multimedia, anecdotes, and discussion; expand the range of the subject matter or focus on one important topic; reinforce textbook perspectives or provide a different perspective.
- Coordinate lectures with assignments by making sure students receive the information they need to complete assignments and making sure students understand how lecture content relates to written assignments, problem sets, or labs. Homework problems should give the students the opportunity to apply information they have just received.
- Conclude a lecture by anticipating questions that will be answered or topics that will be addressed in the next lecture.
- Cohesiveness among the parts of the lecture is equally important.When you compose a lecture, begin by identifying the theme or topic of the lecture and why the students should learn about it. This practice focuses, and provides an overall structure for, the lecture. Or, try writing down the things you have to cover. Go over them until a unifying theme or organizational framework suggests itself.
Dr. Robert Wilson, formerly an educational researcher at UC Berkeley, passed along another approach from a physics professor on his campus. This professor left time at the end of each of his lectures for what he called a oneminute exam, though it was in fact ungraded. Students used the sixty seconds to respond to two questions— what was the most important point or theme of the day’s lecture and what was the most important question left unanswered. In this economical way, the professor got feedback on how well his lectures were hanging together for the students and what points he might need to cover again or still needed to cover.
Putting Your Material in Context
As one student put it, it’s important that “class doesn’t exist in a vacuum.” Students want professors to relate the material to other courses, to ideas in other fields, and to real-world examples and problems.
Students want to know how they might eventually apply the ideas they’re studying. To you, the material may have intrinsic appeal, but don’t count on students sharing your appreciation for its innate value. Particularly in introductory classes, you need to show the point of understanding a law of physics or the cultural origins of Pop art. Consider:
- Can what you’re teaching explain a phenomenon that students may have wondered about?
- Has what you’re teaching been used to solve a modern or historic problem?
- Could what you’re teaching be used to solve a previously unsolvable problem?
- Does what you’re teaching contradict ideas that students may have about how the world works?
- Can students use what you’re teaching to interpret their everyday experiences, or cultural phenomena?
- Is there a famous example of what you’re teaching, which students may now think about in a new way?
- Is there an interesting anecdote that describes how an idea was discovered, presented, or challenged?
As well as putting theory in the context of its applications and history, you can also spark students’ interest by showing the relationship of your course material to other disciplines. One student likes professors to “bring in examples from different fields, because then you understand that you’re not only learning x, but you have the background to work on something else if you wish later on.” For example, Emeritus Professor Robert Helliwell shares with his students two different applications of a principle, one from biomedical engineering, the other from planetary astronomy. “The techniques and theory behind the measurement of the rings of Saturn,” he says, “are precisely the same as those used in medical electronics to measure blood flow in veins without going inside.” Not only will such examples motivate your students, but they will encourage your students to find the connections between the content of all of their courses. And, as one student points out, the ability to generalize principles from one field to another is in itself an invaluable skill. It can also lead to the kind of scholarly or scientific insight that great advances depend on.
Variety of Presentation
A lecture format can accommodate a wide range of presentation styles and classroom activities. Besides questions from the audience, you may want to enrich your lecture with:
- Mini-problems that students work on independently or in pairs.
- Short discussions, either as a full class or by having students turn to face the students sitting near them.
- Short activities that require student volunteers for demonstrations, role plays, challenges, or debates.
- Case studies or experimental designs that require students to make a prediction before you reveal the outcome.
- Multimedia, including music, video clips, or computer simulations.
- Dramatic readings (in a science class, for example, you can follow an explanation of a theory with a dramatic reading of a story from the scientist’s memoir about the theory’s discovery or the research that disproved a competing theory).
A few exciting examples, problems, or demonstrations can be particularly helpful for times when students’ energy or concentration is low. One student remembers a professor who brought up stimulating examples when he noticed that students were looking out the window. In addition to keeping students interested in the material, these techniques also give students a chance to use what they have learned and give the lecturer feedback on what students think and understand.
You should go out of your way to encourage questions, although instructors have different preferences for how they take them. Some instructors believe that students learn more effectively if they can interrupt the lecturer with questions, whereas others find interruptions distracting. Let your students know if they can interrupt with questions or should save them for the end of the period. In either case, avoid going overtime, so there is a reasonable chance for students to formulate and ask questions. Students have other classes (and sometimes lunch) to go to, and attention is usually minimal toward the very end of class.Here are some tips for encouraging, and responding to, questions:
- When asking if there are any questions, don’t simply ask “Any questions?” with your back turned to the audience. Phrase it as a genuine invitation, such as “What parts of this are still a little unclear or confusing for you?” or “What do I need to explain again?” or “What are you wondering about that I haven’t yet addressed?” or simply “I’d like to hear your comments and questions now.”
- Make sure you understand the student’s question before launching into a long explanation. Restate the question and let the student clarify, if necessary.
- In a large class, repeat a student’s question so that all the students know what question you’re answering.
- Consider reserving two-to-three-minute blocks for questions at transition points in your lecture. Let students have the full time to think, even if nobody asks a question. This reinforces your commitment to answering questions and will encourage students to review the material recently covered.
- If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t bluff. You can let the student know that the question goes well beyond what you can address in lecture, volunteer to find the answer and report back, or ask the student to investigate and report back to the class. Or, consider trying to work out an answer with the students, if the question seems solvable.
- If a student seems embarrassed about asking a basic question, say that you’re glad the student brought up something that probably a lot of people are confused about.
The best lecturers, even when they speak to 300 people, give the sense that they are talking to a few friends. Their personality comes through, revealing aspects of themselves that their friends and colleagues enjoy—such as humor and their passion for their field. The lecturers give the feeling that they are participating in a pleasurable interaction with people they respect. They are engaged with the audience, not just the material. Here are some suggestions for creating the kind of informal and engaging atmosphere that puts students at ease, keeps them interested, and makes them more willing to participate:
- Plan your lectures so that they include examples and material that you find interesting, as well as those that you think may especially appeal to college students (many instructors make effective use of popular cultural references or recent campus events).
- Talk directly to the students and take cues from the audience as you lecture.Watch their body language and other indirect responses. Do they appear attentive, amused, puzzled, distracted, or bored? Are they taking notes, asking questions, or yawning?
- Respond to their responses—if they laugh, or wince, or look confused, you can comment on their response or whatever elicited the response. This often wins laughs and shows that you care about their reactions to the material.
- Be willing to shift gears if students don’t respond to, or don’t understand, the material you prepared. Improvise based on the needs of the situation. For example, you may need to focus on the basics or ramp up the level of challenge in your lecture.
- It’s appropriate to occasionally bring in your own relevant interests and experience. Students are curious about their instructors, and if you can share a topical personal story, students may become more interested in the material and invested in the class.
- If the students react particularly positively or negatively to a part of your lecture, take time after the lecture to note what evoked the strong responses.
To keep students engaged, focus on these broad practices: teach what you love, or find something you love about what you teach; let your lecturing style reflect your personality, rather than trying to replicate another successful lecturer; stay connected to what is actually happening in the classroom, rather than what you hoped or expected would happen; and above all, as one student put it, “don’t give up on your students.”
Many lecturers routinely use one or more audiovisual aids to organize, enliven, diversify, or strengthen their presentation of information and ideas. To make a choice of which, if any, you might use, consider which aids will help you achieve the clearest, most active presentation for your subject matter. Also consider how audiovisual aids can influence how much time students spend actively thinking about the material (versus passive listening/ watching or uncritical, rushed note-taking). Below are some of the benefits of the most frequently used lecture aids, as well as tips for their use.
Blackboard Using the blackboard allows you to interact dynamically with the audience and to create a visual record of your lecture. You can use the body language the blackboard necessitates—walking, pointing—to show enthusiasm for the subject and to point out connections between ideas.Writing on the board is also a good way to demonstrate processes, such as derivations. Moreover, carefully worked-out use of the board can help students visualize, as well as hear, the shape of your lecture. For example, you can put up major divisions of the talk in outline form before class begins, leaving room to fill in important sub-points, facts, and formulas as you lecture.
• When writing on the board during a lecture, avoid talking with your back to the students. Not only may your voice not carry, but loss of eye contact dampens the students’ interest.
- Do not stand in front of what you have just written!
- Do not erase anything, especially new material, before you have to.
- At the end of a class, go to the back of the room and see if you can reconstruct the important points of your lecture from what you have written.
Monitor/Overhead Projector Screens and overhead projectors have become popular for the presentation of detailed or technical material. With them, you can put long equations, graphs, diagrams, and detailed computations on transparencies ahead of time, freeing you during class to concentrate on the clear explanation of material rather than on its accurate representation. Students often find that the material is better organized and easier to follow as a result. Overheads and PowerPoint slides have their pitfalls as well, however. There are several points to keep in mind:
- They can be hard to read unless they’re carefully prepared. Check your slides on the machine before you first use them in class; stand toward the back of the room to see if you can read them easily.
- Transparencies and slides can easily become an excuse for overloading students with information. Prepare and follow a careful lecture outline, organizing the material around your key points.Make sure that each overhead has only a few important (and related) ideas or facts on it.
- If you simply read what’s on the screen, student attention will wander. They will start to read the overheads on their own and forget to listen to you. Leave room for surprises, additional commentary, changes, and things students have to add, fill in, or watch for.
- Pay attention to whether you look at the transparencies, the screen, or the students. Too often, a speaker using audiovisual aids concentrates on the aids and not the audience. Set up the projector so that you are facing the students and can glance comfortably back and forth between them and the material on the overheads.
Multimedia and Computers Presentation software packages (such as PowerPoint) offer a flexible and sophisticated way to make overhead projections and slide shows. They also involve greater risk, since so many things can go wrong with the equipment. If you are using digital presentations, make some real transparencies, or at least a lecture outline, as a backup. In designing your presentations, many of the tips for overheads also apply. In addition, consider the following suggestions:
- Steer clear of gratuitous design elements (moving text, sound effects every time you change slides, etc.). Save your bells and whistles for meaningful elements, such as digital video or audio clips, interesting images, or welldesigned graphs.
- Use title slides or spacer slides (images or a blank screen) between sections of your lecture, to remind you to spend some time talking directly to the students or taking questions. Reading off the screen is a surefire way to lose your connection with students.
- Upload important or information-dense slides to the course website.
For further information on the pluses and minuses of using technology in the classroom, see “Technology in Teaching” at the end of this section. For an interesting critique of PowerPoint in particular, see Edward Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, 2003.
Students appreciate clear and well-chosen handouts. One student commented that good handouts show that the professor “cares about the students and wants to help them understand things.” There are many reasons to use handouts in class.Here are just a few examples you may wish to incorporate into your teaching:
- You can hand out summaries of your lectures to the class. These may be copies of your overheads, PowerPoint slides, or even your own (clearly written) lecture outlines. This allows students to spend more time thinking than frantically copying down what you say. However, it is a good idea to leave wide margins and other white space so the students can add to the handouts.
- If you give out copies of your lecture slides or notes, go out of your way to make sure students are actively engaging with the material. Use the note-taking time you have saved to build in student participation and other active learning exercises. Otherwise, it is all too easy for students to passively watch you lecture.
- Handouts can be particularly effective for presenting complex data, detailed material, examples, and diagrams. Focus on material you think there is a good chance students will need to review, especially if they need to apply it in an assignment. The use of handouts guarantees that students will have accurate study aids for material that might be difficult to absorb fully in one lecture.
- Some professors pass out lecture notes to the class after the lecture. This allows you to add material to parts that students had questions about.
Tips from Other Faculty
- When Professor Kathryn Moler of Applied Physics plans a lecture, she first identifies the main concepts that she wants the students to understand. Usually she has four to five concepts per class. She starts by explaining a concept in the traditional lecture format, using graphics and equations as well as words. After a five-toten- minute mini-lecture, she then poses a brief problem that the students can’t answer unless they understand the basic concept. As part of the process, she asks her students in pairs to convince each other of their own answers. She often doesn’t move on until almost all of the students get the main concept. She finds that asking the students to explain or defend their answers to their neighbor engages the mind of each student and solidifies their understanding. It also gives her the immediate feedback that she needs to pace the class.
- Professor Susan McConnell, the Susan B. Ford Professor of Biological Sciences, makes an extra effort to encourage student participation in her large lecture classes. For example, when she senses that student interest is flagging, she asks students to turn to their neighbors and take a minute to discuss the concepts she’s just gone over. She might ask them, for example, to come up with five mechanisms for neurons to communicate with axons. She finds that the active participation and immediate content review enhances student learning.
- Professor Richard Zare of Chemistry uses lectures to inspire and motivate students, not just to convey information. One of his strategies is to incorporate vivid, simple demonstrations into his lectures to arouse students’ curiosity and challenge their expectations. For example, when he combines water and cornstarch in certain proportions, he produces a substance that dramatically challenges student notions of what is liquid and what is solid.
- The late Gordon Craig, Professor of History, stresses the importance of having your own point of view in a lecture. Even a talk on “The Wool Trade in 13th Century England” can captivate students, but only if you’ve found a theme or perspective on it that has excited your own imagination. Share the reasons for the importance of your topic, as well as your own passion for the material, at the beginning of your lecture. • When designing his lectures, Professor Terry Winograd of Computer Science and Linguistics uses his knowledge of how students learn.He urges, for example, that you first present complex ideas in a simplified form, stripped of qualifications and conditions. Once students understand the general idea, they are prepared to make sense of all the details and qualifiers.
- Professor Estelle Freedman of History has found that students are much more intellectually involved in her lectures when she makes the lectures somewhat informal and loosely organized. Her aim now is for a combined lecture/discussion format that gives more responsibility to students to raise and answer questions.
- Professor David Kennedy of History suggests that the end of a lecture should be punchy, memorable, and concrete. Since he also suggests that you should take an “accordion” approach to writing the lecture— that is, prepare beforehand to be able to expand or condense material as you go through your talk—you should have the time to reach your conclusion.
- Former Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education John Bravman stresses the importance of preparation for a successful lecture. He estimates that when he was first developing his lectures he put six to ten hours into each one. He also targets each lecture to the specific students in each class. For example, if he concludes that most students are in a class only to fulfill a requirement, he goes out of his way to arouse their interest and enthusiasm.
- Professor Umran Inan of Electrical Engineering has several techniques for keeping students involved in his lectures. He’ll solve the same problem two different ways, for example, not only because this shows the students different problem-solving strategies, but because they stay interested in whether he’ll get the same answer each time. He stresses, as well, the importance of reminding students of the assumptions they make when solving problems. He sometimes polls students on which assumptions they think are the correct ones, adding the excitement of competition to the class.
- At the start of class meetings, Emeritus Professor David Halliburton of English and Modern Thought and Literature asked students to summarize the main points covered in recent lectures. He then made explicit connections between that summary and the new lecture. This strategy can help students understand the relationship between new material and previous material, while reinforcing what they have learned.