Effective Lectures

Effective Lectures

“Lecturing is not simply a matter of standing in front of a class and reciting what you know. A classroom lecture is a special form of communication in which voice, gesture, movement, facial expression, and eye contact can either complement or detract from the content. No matter what your topic, your delivery, and manner of speaking immeasurably influence your students’ attentiveness and learning.”

The above quote is from “Delivering a Lecture,” a chapter in Barbara Gross Davis’ classic text Tools for Teaching. That chapter is an excellent resource for learning how to lecture well. See also Davis’, “Preparing to Teach the Large Lecture Course” in the same book.

The Basics

When planning a lecture, keep in mind that you have control or influence over several elements of your learning environment (e.g., face-to-face, online):

  1. Visual Message – The slides and other visual aids you use can either complement or confuse your verbal message, depending on how you design them. Consider how photos and other images might function as metaphors that make your points more memorable. (For an example, see the “Lecturing Basics” slideshow above.)
  2. Physical Presence – While some instructors are naturally gifted public speakers, we can all be more aware of and leverage our physical presence to better communicate with our audiences. (Watch “The Act of Teaching: Theater Techniques for Classrooms and Presentations” for great advice from Harvard University’s Nancy Houfek on improving your physical presence in the classroom.)
  3. Verbal Message – Whether you prepare typed lecture notes or improvise, the words you say are an integral part of your lecture.
  4. Students’ Notes – Students can often spend more mental energy taking notes during class than thinking about your content. Consider ways to make it easier for your students to take notes so they can focus more on engaging with your material.
  5. What Students Think – As Angelo and Cross say in their classic book Classroom Assessment Techniques, “teaching without learning is just talking.” How can you help your students mentally grapple with your material during class?
  6. What Students Say & Do – Keep in mind that even in a so-called lecture class, you don’t have to lecture the whole time. Consider small-group and whole-class activities that might enhance your students’ learning.

Effective Visuals

Garr Reynolds’ book Presentation Zen is an excellent introduction to the effective use of slides in presentations. Garr also maintains a great blog on presentations. Some key points from Presentation Zen:

  • Please keep it simple. Your slides should complement your verbal message, not detract from it by unnecessary visual clutter. In many instances, students should be able to take in your slides in a second or two, then focus on you.
  • Limit bullet points and text. Keep in mind that your slides probably shouldn’t function as your teleprompter. Your slides are for your students’ benefit. If your slides say just about everything that you say, then your students won’t know where to pay attention–to you or your slides.
  • Use high-quality graphics. The clip art that comes with PowerPoint is undoubtedly convenient (and more visually appealing than it used to be). Still, online sources of free, high-resolution images can have a much more significant visual impact. For instance, millions of photos are available for free, educational use on the photo-sharing site Flickr under the Creative Commons license.
  • Use appropriate charts. As analytical designer Edward Tufte likes to point out, PowerPoint is not a great tool at sharing complicated infographics. If you have a complicated diagram or graphic to share with your students, it’s often helpful to provide it to them as a handout. More straightforward, more elegant charts often work better in PowerPoint. Think carefully about which kind of chart (pie, vertical bar, horizontal bar, line, etc.) will best communicate the idea you want to share with your students.
  • Choose your fonts well. Sans-serif fonts are often easier to read on slides than serif fonts. Too many different fonts in a slide or a presentation can be distracted, so try to limit yourself to one or two. Font size matters, too. Be sure that your fonts are large enough to be read at the back of the room. And if you’re keeping your slides simple and limiting your use of text, you can usually use larger fonts.
  • Spend time in the slide sorter. This view in the PowerPoint shows you up to 20 or 30 slides at once. As you start to design your presentation, this view is more useful than the default one-slide-at-a-time view for structuring and organizing your content.

For more thoughts on these and other suggestions by Garr Reynolds, along with example PowerPoint slides, see his Top Ten Slide Tips.

For a little humor, view Peter Norvig’s PowerPoint version of the Gettysburg Address (included below) to see how to ruin an excellent presentation with PowerPoint.

Interactive Lectures

“Given that students have an attention span of around 15 to 20 minutes and that university classes are around 50 or 75 minutes, instructors must do something to control their students’ attention. We recommend building a ‘change-up’ into your class to restart the attention clock.”

The above quote is from “The ‘Change-Up’ in Lectures,” an article by Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish. The article describes more than 20 practical strategies for breaking up lectures with activities that help keep students engaged and foster active learning. Here are just a few:

  • Write a Question – Instead of just saying, “Are there any questions?” ask all of your students to spend a minute or two reflecting on the lecture thus far and writing down one or two questions on paper.
  • Think-Pair-Share – After posing a sufficiently difficult question, instead of asking for volunteers to answer the question, have students think about it silently for a minute. Then have them pair up and discuss the problem with their partners. Then ask for students to share their perspectives with the whole class.
  • Finding Illustrative Quotations – Ask students to reread the text to see quotations that support particular arguments. You might have all students address the same case, or different students look at different arguments.
  • Brainstorming – As a segue to a new topic, have students share any thought, idea, story, etc. that occurs to them about the original issue. Record these ideas at the board without analyzing them. After discovering the concepts move on to a more critical discussion.
  • Practice Homework Problems – After lecturing on a particular type of problem, give students a challenge to work at their seats that resembles the kinds of issues they’ll see on their homework. After giving students a few minutes to try to work through the problem, discuss the issue with the class.

Here are a few other ideas for more interactive lectures:

  • Audience Response Systems (“Clickers”)  – These are instructional technologies that allow instructors to collect and analyze student responses to multiple-choice (and sometimes free-response) questions during class. Typically, an instructor poses an item to a group of students. Students submit their answers to the problem using their smart devices, software on the instructor’s computer (or smart device) displays a bar chart showing the distribution of responses. The instructor uses these results to make “on the fly” teaching decisions that are responsive to student learning needs. 
  • Backchannel – The term “backchannel” refers to the student-to-student and student-to-instructor conversations during lectures and presentations. All lectures involve some form of backchannels, such as an instructor asking students or back-of-the-room chit-chat between students. However, online tools such as Twitter and Slack give instructors useful options for facilitating, directing, and leveraging backchannel conversations. See Derek Bruff’s blog posts on backchannel for additional ideas.
  • Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT)  – It’s not uncommon to expect students to have “done the reading” in smaller seminar courses, laying the foundation for in-class discussions. This method is less common in high enrollment courses, but many faculty members in a variety of disciplines have adopted an approach called Just-in-Time Teaching that accomplishes this. The main idea is to have students read their textbooks before class, hold them accountable for doing so through pre-class or start-of-class quizzes, then design class sessions around “uncovering” and addressing student misconceptions–instead of “covering” the course material. For pedagogical and technological options for implementing Just-in-Time Teaching, see IUPUI’s JiTT site (Indiana University and Purdue University).
  • Team-Based Learning (TBL)  – This well-developed teaching method is similar to JiTT in that it involves leveraging pre-class student assignments. One core idea is that class time is for students to work through problems or case studies in permanent teams, usually consisting of six students each. Students respond to questions about the issues or case studies individually, then return to the same questions as a team. Student grades depend on their individual performance on these quizzes as well as their team performance, providing incentives for students to engage with the material on their own and with their team. This individual and teamwork fuel class discussions. For more information on TBL, see CELT’s Team-Based Learning page or the University of British Columbia’s TBL site.

For additional ideas, see the following:

Effective Lecturing at Iowa State

Some of Iowa State University’s most effective teachers have shared their insights on creating compelling lectures through CELT’s Award Winning Faculty Series. View their videos to learn some techniques and approaches they have found to be valuable in their courses. 

Many Modes of Effective Teaching: Engaging Students with Traditional Lecture

Distinguished professor Pat Thiel draws students to her quantum mechanics class from majors across the campus. She shares her strategies on engaging students, connecting their evolving understandings to the basic concepts hiding under complex equations in the field, and how to build personal connections even in classes with increasing enrollment pressure. View video recording on CELT’s YouTube channel

Maximizing Student Attention: Low-Tech Effectiveness in Large Lecture Formats

History professor John Monroe builds engaging, dynamic lectures using narrative, compelling visuals, and following outlines to guide 300 first-year students and sophomores through five centuries of western civilization. In his presentation, Monroe demonstrated how to map an overall course, specific units, and even daily lectures with the principles of story structure to maximize student attention. View video recording on CELT’s YouTube channel Inside Iowa State story: History prof says storytelling is key to engaging students

Effective Lectures, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. This work, Effective Lectures, is a derivative of Lecturing developed by Vanderbilt University (retrieved on June 3, 2020) from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/lecturing/.