Effective lecturing tips?
December 1, 2015 9:58 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to improve my ability to lecture in an interesting and engaging way. I've made some progress and know some of the basic stuff - no text-heavy slides, no reading, trying to channel my enthusiasm for the topic - but I still feel my lectures fall a bit flat most of the time.

The constraints:

- I lecture to a 200-250 undergraduates, twice a week for several weeks. I usually come in straight after they've finished a lecture on another subject.

- I'm youngish, brown, female, with a slight Indian accent. I'm probably not going to be able to pull off a very physically energetic and bouncy lecture or anything that requires a ton of elder-statesman authority to make effective.

- My lectures tend to be informative rather than argumentative: my main goal is to explain new concepts and principles and, although I do my best to highlight themes and bring out the debates in the field, a lot of the lecture has a "this is what this new-to-you word means" dimension.

How do I avoid sending them to sleep? I'd love to hear from students or former students about what works to make a lecture interesting and memorable, especially when the topic has a reputation for being technical or boring or super-hard. And of course I'd also be grateful for advice from lecturers / professors / people who do a ton of public speaking in other contexts.
posted by Aravis76 to Education (14 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I think you're suffering a bit by coming in immediately after another (I assume) three-hour lecture. It's just a lot to ask of them, I think. No matter how you come across, they're too tired to take in what you're saying. I think in the first instance, planning 1-3 regular breaks would help. Or maybe 1-2 breaks in the middle, and 15 minutes between the lectures (enough time for them to grab a snack or drink, maybe - they need energy!) - i.e. start a bit later.

Weaving the odd joke in between explanations that use relatable or evocative analogies or examples (and then giving a few minutes for the odd question/discussion [even in a hall of 250 undergrads] to both check their understanding and let them talk for a bit, i.e. get a bit of a break from just receiving), is sort of the pattern I've seen from the most popular lecturers. Give them something to engage with every few minutes (little witticism, colourful [but useful] analogy or example, brief Q&A).

(I am not advocating planning a whole stand-up comedy routine that has nothing to do with the material, or long digressions about your personal life or philosophy [not that you would, but I've seen it. That is cheating students of their time.] I mean short, little humorous asides that they can relate to (like "if you've ever …. you know that [something witty]") or maybe some nerd-humour about your subject.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:18 AM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

(I think it might even be worth cutting down or reorganizing your lectures a bit to accommodate those breaks, and supplementing with e.g. additional [short] readings, or videos, if you have a course website, and providing a forum for further clarification if required (e.g. office hours or online discussion). As long as you clarify what's essential [and maybe going to be covered on exams] and what isn't. Because they're going to struggle to absorb things in the lecture anyway, with that time slot, unfortunately :/ Might as well maximize use of their attentional resources for what really matters.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:31 AM on December 1, 2015

Sorry, just to clarify times - the lectures are 50 minutes each, with a ten minute break between lectures. They sometimes get 3 in a row but more often 2.
posted by Aravis76 at 10:33 AM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some things my classmates and I really appreciate:

1. Making the power points available to print before class on Jenzabar or Blackboard or whatever electronic system your school uses.

2. Being very familiar with the student's textbook - both the current and previous edition - and having accurate page numbers / chapters as reference points

3. Don't rely solely on the power points - it's really nice when the professor will use the chalkboard or whiteboard to illustrate a difficult to grasp concept.

4. If your lecture is longish, please provide a break every hour or so ! And it's really nice when professors will make the effort to break at the same time every class. If we normally break at 10:00 but its 10:10 and the professor is still droning on you can bet I haven't absorbed anything in the past ten minutes and am only fantasizing about getting a coffee.
posted by pintapicasso at 10:36 AM on December 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

I had a professor who'd start EVERY Powerpoint with a little joke image. Sometimes it was something he'd made that related to the lecture subject; sometimes it was just an unrelated funny image. (And it was never anything that made fun of anyone or "punched down" in any way.) In retrospect, as a professor myself now, it seems very humane.

If you can occasionally take 2-3 minutes to have students turn to each other in trios and share their opinions or previous knowledge about something (where does this word come from? how does this idea connect to this other idea? do you think x will change in the future? have you heard anything about this in the news lately?) it can break things up. You can do it at the beginning or a time or two during the lecture. Ideally, put the question on the board or screen (really helpful to non-aural people and English learners). Use a timer if you like--put it on the screen if you want, and find a way to bring them back together (raise your hand, play a sound, etc.). Get a couple people to share if you can hear them.

I had two mega-classes like this as an undergrad. One was on physics and one was on childhood & adolescent psychology. I was more interested in the latter, but that wound up being the only class I ever skipped on a regular basis.

Physics class: Nice, knowledgeable, young professor. Mixed lecture and demonstrations, using big colorful balls, balloons, blocks, and so on. Whenever possible--demonstrating waves or whatever--had us stand up and do something. Had us talk to each other briefly. Connected concepts from the book to daily life. Called on people. Took attendance. Was very available during office hours.

Psych class: Nice, knowledgeable, young professor. Lecture lecture lecture. Literally nothing that wasn't in the book (except jokes about his new baby, which I remember more than anything else). Never called on anyone. Had no method of taking attendance. Never saw him outside of class.

You're also just going to lose a certain amount of attention in a class that large. Don't worry about it too much. It's an artifact of this style of instruction.
posted by wintersweet at 10:48 AM on December 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

I like to break things up in various ways so that it's not just me talking for the entire time. This could include things like:

--having the students write a 1 minute response to a question
--using i-clicker type things to poll students on a question
--having brief partner/small group activities or just 1 minute of "talk about how you would answer this question
--short videos or sound clips
--slides that are all pictures and i talk about the pictures

Even in a large lecture, I run things semi-socratically with lots of questions and answers from students expected.
posted by rainbowbrite at 10:59 AM on December 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

The best way to keep attention during a talk is to make it personal (in SOME way) and have a story arc. if you can relate the material to either yourself or your students, you'll keep their attention.
posted by bq at 11:09 AM on December 1, 2015

Oh! Also, check out the lecture posts in "Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning" at Tomorrow's Professor--I recommend subscribing to the list; it's actually pretty great at any level.
posted by wintersweet at 12:07 PM on December 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

have you checked with you university (or wherever you're lecturing)? my partner had to lecture astronomy 101 a year or so back and they have the students grade you. she started at 4/7 (which is the equivalent of just passing in chile, where exams are marked out of 7). after getting some help from the university teaching dept, and realising that she really had to dumb things down, i think she ended with something like 6.5 and a pile of positive comments. she was sooo happy!

someone from the teaching dept (i don't know exactly what it was called - a kind of support department to improve teaching in the university) sat in with some lectures and then they had a meeting where they discussed a bunch of ideas.

she's away this evening (giving a public outreach lecture...) but memail me if you want more details and i'll ask when she's back.

ps one thing i remember is that she developed a very distinctive style. very much interacting with the students, but in quite a "school-ma'm" way (she's same age as me - almost 50 - so she can't be their "friend" (like she used to be with young grad students back when she first started), but instead is more mothering, in a mock-severe kind of way, telling them off if they're not listening, insisting they answer questions, etc. she really enjoys it, i think, even though she doesn't like giving up research time, and i suspect that comes across).
posted by andrewcooke at 12:20 PM on December 1, 2015

To be honest, my favorite professors were those who would play their favorite music before class started, start off with a fun Youtube video that was related to that day, and we regularly were led in stretching breaks. XKCD comics are always fun. Asking people to submit their favorite songs or videos to play before class is fun too - class participation in other ways that isn't graded is really fun, and allows for more buy-in to the class.

Also if you want to be perky, that's fine. Good, bouncy energy is always really enlivening to any space. Don't be weighed down by the fact that you don't look like a white man! If people judge you on professionalism based on that, well they're racist and sexist. I've never learned too much from the lecturers who tried too hard to be professional, I remember just focusing on how awkward they were feeling most of the time.
posted by yueliang at 4:40 PM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Again, that idea of a story is strong.

It could go like this..

Imagine this (true or untrue) scenario.
Now see this problem.
The question we're trying to answer (or the battle we're trying to fight) is ____
at first we thought _____, so we tried it, but then a surprising thing!
the problem was solved (or remains a mystery) because ____ (or the battle was won/lost because)
And even today, you can observe this when you ___________

Being young probably makes you relate-able to many of your students. Don't worry about them not wanting to listen to you; worry about them having crushes on you!
posted by jander03 at 5:03 PM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

The thing that improved my response the most was intentionally writing questions into the plan. I use a series of question styles. At the beginning, when you're trying to create interest, that's a good time for relevant survey questions. "So, how many of you something something?"

A little farther in, I like to ask multiple-answer type questions, the kind everyone has a chance of having a good idea. "What are some ways we could reduce the corrosion rate?" This helps participation because almost everyone who answers, you can say "yes, that would work" or "kind of" or something encouraging even if their answer is not the "correct" answer.

Towards then end I start moving more to factual questions, where there is a correct answer. Tips for this type to not look like a Ferris Bueller scene: (1) never ask a question unless you have already told them the answer (2) pause to let them think for a good bit (not TOO long) before giving up the answer if they don't know it. But if you're following rule 1, someone knows it. You just have to let the silence hang and not rush to fill the time in with talking.

Best is if you can wedge in some rhetorical "thought-provoking questions." These are questions asking them to use their knowledge to guess. Only use these if the actual answer is way beyond the scope of the lecture, "yeah, I don't know either", or even "nobody knows." That way nobody feels stupid for not knowing (and if someone does have a decent guess, they get to feel good about that.) I find this technique keeps it from being boring even for the more advanced students and kind of reignites the sense of wonder. Even in dry lectures like say, hazardous waste regulations, I can usually find a weird what-if in some gray area that makes an interesting thought-provoker.

With 200+ people, I wouldn't exactly expect it to be as interactive, but I would still ask the questions and pause. If you're keeping them engaged, they can't help answering in their head even if nobody wants to be singled out.

This may all be common knowledge, but I get a lot of compliments on how I can make any material interesting, and that's really all I do. Besides not apologizing for my own material (you'd be surprised how many people do that. "Oh, sorry, this is going to be boring, but..." = "I'm going to pre-insult you as not one of the cool kids if you like this stuff")
posted by ctmf at 8:20 PM on December 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

My Chem 101 prof gave an open-book, open-note quiz at the end of every single class. He'd pass out slips of paper that had a single question that directly related to the day's lecture, and he'd stack the papers so that people sitting next to each other had different questions. First week was "what is Prof's extension", "what are Prof's office hours", etc. Then there were ones like "convert furlong/fortnight to mi/h", "balance this reaction", and so on. I liked this because at that point the material was still fresh in my mind and it gave me an example that helped cement the knowledge. And I'm sure it helped him focus on his lectures, knowing that he wanted us to be able to apply xyz concept

From that, I was thinking that it might have been helpful to have study notes BEFORE the lecture. Maybe 3 questions with the heading "here's what you should be able to answer after tomorrow's lecture" posted to Blackboard or what have you.
posted by disconnect at 6:27 AM on December 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I know this will sound ridiculous and unprofessional but show a stupid universally funny video clip in the middle of your lecture. Preferably the one with the baby laughing.

It's like a magic attention battery reset button.
posted by srboisvert at 8:08 AM on December 2, 2015

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