Lectures - Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

Lectures

The success of your lectures depends as much on the planning as it does on the delivery. There is a lot of information available on the factors that make lectures effective (Bligh 2000). Of course, lectures work best when they are in service of the appropriate learning objectives, such as:

  • To transmit cutting-edge information which supplements or enhances reading
  • To promote understanding via explanations of particularly difficult concepts
  • To respond to student misconceptions or difficulties
  • To create or engage interest in a new area
  • To synthesize information across a range/variety of material
  • To persuade

Once the appropriate objectives for the lecture are is established, four factors stand out as crucial (McKeachie 2001, Nilson 2003):

Structuring your lecture.

Research has identified several important structural features that enhance the effectiveness of lectures. These features serve both a cognitive and a motivational function, making your explanations more understandable and more engaging.

Start with an introduction, outline, agenda or visual representation of the lecture.

These mechanisms let students know what it is you will be covering in the next hour, how the material for the day connects to previous and future material, and why it is worth their time to engage with and understand the content. They can also provide the students with an organizing framework they can use to process the flow of information in all its detail.

Include signposts and transitions.

These are markers that clearly signal important, or challenging, or counterintuitive points (e.g., “if you only remember one thing out of today’s lecture, this should be it,” or “pay attention now, because this is tricky,”). They can also signal transitions from a subtopic to the next (e.g., “OK, we’ve covered the basic case, let’s look at some generalizations now), from a general theory to an example, or from concrete observations, to abstractions, and so on. As novices, students need help navigating the content, and these cues help them organize the information in their brains.

Employ a variety of examples.

Examples or analogies make the material more understandable because they connect the content to ideas students are already familiar with, activating their prior knowledge and creating more robust knowledge representations in the students’ minds. Given the diversity of students on campus, including international students, it is important to use a variety of examples form different fields so that students are more likely to resonate with at least one example. Examples and analogies work best when they are fully fleshed out and the limitations of each example are pointed out, otherwise students risk making incorrect inferences.

Include periodic summaries.

As novices, the new knowledge students are receiving in your lecture is a heavy load on their working memory; periodic summaries help to ease the load and enable students to chunk the information so that it is more easily processed.

Bring the lecture to a close.

The “conclusion” enhances understanding by providing a synthesis of the material, as well as indicating that something worthwhile was accomplished during the class. Good closings can be summaries of the lecture (instructor- or student-provided), cliffhangers for the next lecture, or thought-provoking questions that arise naturally from what has just transpired.

Grabbing and holding students’ attention.

Research on student attention in lectures has demonstrated that attention levels naturally vary during lectures in predictable ways. In fact, attention is high during the first minutes, then it falls down and stays flat for the rest of the lecture. Toward the end of the lecture, attention picks up again, with some fluctuation, according to the following graph (Bligh 2000):
Research on student attention in lectures

The implication of this finding for teaching is that instructors need to periodically grab and refocus student attention. Several of the suggestions above will serve this function (e.g., examples, periodic summaries, instructional cues requesting attention or signaling a transition). In addition, these techniques are likely to elicit attention:

Emphasize relevance.

Connecting your material to current events, pop culture, or student interests enhances student motivation.

Show your enthusiasm for the subject.

This implicitly communicates that if you are excited abut the material, it must be worth paying attention to.

Appropriately use humor.

Humor is a powerful motivator. Bringing cartoons to class or peppering your lectures with jokes will certainly grab students’ attention. However, be careful not to use humor that is offensive to some students or some groups.

Connect lectures to assessments.

Telling your students that a specific segment of the lecture will help them with a challenging homework problem, the test, or a project, will jumpstart attention patterns.

Actively involve students in your lectures.

If you create an expectation in class that students will often be asked to participate, they will be more focused on the material. Moreover, active involvement will create stronger and more meaningful representations of knowledge in their minds.

Building interactivity into the lecture.

Beyond the obvious ways of making students active, such as posing or taking questions, research has identified several activities that productively break the unidirectional flow of the lecture (Davis 1993):

Pause to pose a "thought problem"

Give students sufficient time to reflect and write a response (1-2 minutes).  You might call on students to discuss the answers or collect the anonymous responses to get an indication of the range of levels of understanding.

Assign short tasks to pairs or trios.

Students can work together to define a term, generate examples of a concept, solve (or set up) a problem, or answer a "why" or "how" question.  You can call on a few students randomly to report for their groups after about 5 minutes.

Reserve brief segments of class time for students to meet with group members.

In courses involving group projects you can be available for short consultations and can identify groups which may be having difficulties.

Ask students to brainstorm or generate lists.

This method is especially effective when you can draw on common knowledge, current events, or recently discussed course concepts.

Solicit specific questions from students.

In very large classes you might ask students to write their questions and pass them forward near the end of class.  Depending on the number and type of questions, you can answer them immediately, in the next class, or on the course b-board or web page.

Periodically reserve a portion of class for discussion (15-30 minutes).

See discussions.

Consider including discussion of a case study.

A good case is based on real events, has elements of conflict, promotes empathy with central characters in the events, requires a decision or plan of action, and encourages students to think and take a position.  You can incorporate short cases into a lecture without prior student preparation. See case studies.

Allow time for students to write a summary of the key points of a lecture.

These summaries can be reviewed without grading to assess students' understanding and you can use them to diagnose and then respond to student misconceptions.

Use Classroom Response Systems, or “Clickers.”

This technology displays students’ answers on screen to questions that you pose, allowing you to monitor students’ understanding as a whole. See "clickers" pdf.

Delivering your lecture.

In addition to public speaking skills, several other variables affect how students will receive or respond to your lectures. Here is a list of strategies that will help you deliver your explanations with oomph:

Consider how you are dressing for class.

This is especially important if you are a young faculty member concerned about establishing yourself as an authoritative figure with students.

More formal attire communicates expertise and confidence in the eyes of the student, but the context also plays a role (e.g., a business school lecture vs. an art studio or a chemistry lab).

Collect yourself before class.

Some people need to relax before entering a lecture hall to “perform.” If this is an issue for you, avoid scheduling anything right before class so you can get in the right mental state.

Break the ice.

Plan to arrive to class a few minutes early and greet students as they arrive. This creates a friendly atmosphere and indicates to students that you are approachable.

Project your voice or use a microphone.

Especially in large classes, you need to make sure that all your students can hear you.

Pace your speech.

Clearly enunciate your key points, and go over them at a slower pace then you would go through an anecdote.

Monitor your movement.

Don’t be too static: leave the lectern and close the space between you and the students if possible. At the same time, do not appear frantic by pacing.

Make eye contact with the students.

This will make your presentations more effective, and will also give you a chance to monitor students’ faces for indicators of understanding, confusion, boredom, and so on. Especially if you are writing at the board, turn back to talk to the students, and make sure to turn all the way so that you are not neglecting one side of the class.

Use gestures hand gestures to your advantage.

Research shows that the best hand gestures are those that reinforce the point you are making (e.g., illustrating tangent lines with your hands).

References

  • Bligh, D. (2001) What’s the Use of Lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Davis, B. (1993) Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • McKeachie, W. (2001) Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (11th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Nilson, L. (2003) Teaching at Its Best (2nd ed.) Bolton, MA: Anker.