Effective Lectures

Lecture has become an unpopular word as it connotes the idea of “the sage on the stage” who does not interact with students or explicitly guide students to deep learning. However, there is a place for lectures in many university courses, and a good lecture is a fantastic avenue for deep learning. The problem is that many of us have yet to figure out how to make lectures powerful learning experiences.

Transforming Lectures

Rather than lecturing for 75 minutes straight and pouring information into students’ heads, transforming your lecture into something that engages students more actively can encourage learning. According to research on best teaching practices, active lectures and discussions nearly always contain five elements (Bain, 2004).

  • A question or problem rather than just an answer.
  • Help for students in adopting the question or problem as their own. People learn best and most deeply when they are trying to solve problems that they have come to regard as important, beautiful, and/or intriguing. Good lecturers help students see the significance, beauty, and intrigue of the problem. Sometimes they do that with a good story or by connecting the question or problem to some larger question or problem.
  • Engagement of the students in higher order thinking (applying, analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating) about the question or problem (using active learning). People learn best by doing and getting feedback on their efforts; if you want them to learn to think critically, they must have opportunities to do so. Highly effective lecturers engage students in thinking critically through the problem or questions; they don’t just ask students to remember information or memorize procedures.
  • Opportunities for students to offer an answer or solution. When people learn deeply, they construct their own understanding of what something means, how it might be applied, what its implications are, and so forth. Outstanding lecturers help students construct, apply, analyze, synthesize and evaluate meaning. They don’t just try to pour information in students’ ears.
  • A new question or problem. How do we understand the problem or question now? What ’s the next question? What problems arise once we solve this one? Asking students to complete a “one-minute paper” provides them a chance to contribute to this new question.

While the lectures of outstanding teachers nearly always contained these five elements, many ineffective lectures contained only the fourth element, an answer to a question nobody had raised. Bain discovered that some outstanding lecturers sometimes leave out the fourth element, instead helping students understand and buy into a question, engaging them in higher order thinking about the question, and sending them off to pursue the question, now understood in a whole new way (thus, a new question).

Recording Video Lectures

Delivering Great Lectures

How can you deliver the lecture more effectively? Here are some pointers that Ken Bain offers:

  • Understand that the purpose of the lecture is learning, not content coverage. Highly effective lecturers intend to help students understand, think differently, apply their understanding, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. Not so successful lecturers intend to cover the material, to help students remember or “to pick out the key information” they were supposed to remember, but they rarely set out intending to help students think.
  • Treat the lecture as a conversation, even if you are doing most of the talking. People learn deeply by engaging in a conversation with themselves. Encourage that conversation. Look into students’ eyes. Read their reactions and change pace or explanations when appropriate. Engage students in thinking with you. Don’t just “cover” the material. Engage them in two-way talk. Listen and respond to students.
  • Recognize that the lecture has some performance qualities. Fill the room with your presence: consider the eye contact you make with students, the little pauses you use to let key points land, the questions you ask, the rhetorical questions you employ, the clear and provocative explanations you utilize, the posture you assume. Make sure everyone can hear you and see any illustrations. Don’t hide behind the podium but move around the room, if possible. Repeat key points. Change pace every ten minutes. Allow time for students to answer and think about the material presented. Entertain by provoking thought, showing a sense of humor, and displaying enthusiasm. Create an inner tension, a sense of anticipation or curiosity. Show your interest in the material and in the students. Show you are interested in what they learn. Try to end with an intellectual bang.
  • Situate the lecture within the course. Explain how the topic fits the course at that moment. How does it follow from the previous session?
  • Encourage students to take notes and to raise questions.

Students are engaged during lectures:

  • Requiring demonstration of attention (no screens, etc)
  • Experiencing cold calls
  • Experiencing alertness due to a mix of content, unease, expectation of performance

Break up the Lecture

Remember, however, the purpose of the lecture is not for you to perform, but for the students to learn. Stop frequently, pose problems, get students to work on them individually, in pairs, in small groups, and then to report back. Listen and respond. Let students respond to one another.

Resources and References

Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.

For more information or help, please email the Office for Faculty Excellence or make an appointment with a consultant.

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