I have recently been getting back into the swing of lecturing after 2 years out completing a research project. I thought the transition back into teaching would be a little more straight forward than it has been as I have strained to remember the key ingredients that make a good lecture. One problem is that I am not entirely sure what makes a good lecture. I think I probably fail at least as much as I succeed. I certainly leave the lecture room sensing that I didn’t quite hit the mark as much as I skip out thinking well that went well. Moreover, I am increasingly unsure that my own experience of a lecture actually reflects how effective it has been.
Anyway, for what it is worth, here are some things that I have remembered over the last few weeks that have helped me reconnect with the lecture room.
1. Don’t forget to pack the roadmap: It is always helpful to have a pretty clear roadmap of where the lecture is going. I think that this helps overcome the sometimes arbitrary feel of lecture content; provides some reassurance to students; and reminds me of the logic of what I was trying to achieve in the lecture. By referring back to the roadmap I also find that the significance of certain sections (through their relations with others) can be more easily emphasized.
2. Dig those whiteboard markers out. I am actually a big fan of PowerPoint, but having whiteboard makers ready-to-hand enables you to really emphasize a point, or engage in some creative doodling that can help explain an idea in a way that a prepared slide simply can’t.
3. Get the class involved: I often give a lecture after dropping my eldest daughter off at school. It was in this context that I got to thinking how strange it would be to lecture to primary school children. Interaction is clearly the name of the game in my daughter’s classroom, and lectures appear to progress much more effectively when they incorporate some element of interactive learning. In addition to breaking up the monotone lecture, I sense interactive learning (while often viewed with some caution by students) provides a form of validation for students, who can road test their own ideas and understandings, and gain some valuable confidence in the process.
4. Don’t forget to bring the funny. I personally find that some use of humour enhances the lecture experience for all involved. If I am totally honest I think the sense of connection that making people laugh brings helps me to relax and enjoy the lecture more. But in more serious pedagogic terms the humorous reflections tend to be the ones that are remembered. The only point of caution here (at least for me) is to avoid orchestrated humour. The pre-planned anecdote rarely works and can leave everyone feeling a little awkward when they fall flat.
5. Audio visual systems on: I routinely show short documentaries towards the end of my lectures. I find that these can be really useful ways of enlivening the graveyard end of a two hour lecture. Care needs to be taken here though not to show too many audio-visual segments. In addition to tempting the technological gods of doom (something will normally go wrong), too many voices and perspectives can generate confusion.
6. Pre-lecture readings: I find it useful to get students to read a short media article (from a reputable newspaper) ahead of a given lecture. I sense that this helps to get the students thinking about the themes that the lecture will address in advance and gives them a stake in proceedings. I try to have a group discussion of the reading about 30 minutes into the lecture to recharge the concentration batteries and get the students’ perspective on relevant issues.
7. Case study stories: over the years I have found that case studies (either institutional or geographical) provide a really helpful context for delivering lecture material. In addition to grounding the theories I discuss, they offer a natural narrative setting within which to convey insights. Stories are always a meaningful way to teach.
8. Bring a snack: I recently used donuts as props to explain the principles of sustainability. In addition to being a helpful visual aid the donuts also provided a useful way of encouraging student participation! When I have previously brought food props into the lecture room they have always generated an interesting dynamic.
Thanks to the excellent students on my current undergraduate and graduate courses on sustainability for helping me remember how to lecture again, and for being patient when I consistently forget.