Improving Lectures

“Is The Teaching Professor anti-lecture?” the sharply worded e-mail queried. “No, we aren’t,” I replied, “We’re anti poor lectures … just like we’re against group work that doesn’t work and any other instructional approach poorly executed.”

But the note did remind me that we haven’t provided much on lectures recently, and in all the classrooms I visited this semester, lectures were certainly alive and well (although some were not very healthy). My search for current resources uncovered the article referenced below, which identifies 10 “worthwhile considerations” that should be addressed by those who lecture. The author teaches in a science area and pulls examples from that content.

1.Active Student Involvement — “Sitting for an hour and taking in new information is difficult, even for the most internally motivated college student.” (p. 454) Interactive components need to be present in all college lectures, even those delivered to 500 students.

2.Relevance — Students taking large introductory courses (like history, business, or journalism students enrolled in biology) often do not understand why they need to know the Kreb cycle or phases of meiosis. Instructors need to start by asking themselves hard questions about relevance. If the content is relevant (meaning this is something non- science majors really need to know), that relevance must be made explicit. To those outside the discipline it is not generally obvious.

3.Interest — It is difficult to hold students’ attention for an entire lecture. Don’t underestimate how difficult it is. Use various strategies to support your efforts to do so. Maybe you can wear costumes or use props, but if that isn’t your style, opt for interesting facts and intriguing details. The author of this article describes for students the “party animal” behavior of Pacific squid who gather in large groups and who, after several bouts of mating and egg laying, all die.

4.Expert/Novice Difference — We all know who’s the expert and who’s the novice in the classroom, but what the experts often fail to realize is that students process course content at different rates and in different ways. What helps all learners process new information is linking it to what they already know, connecting abstract concepts to more concrete ideas, and moving from simple facts to more complex generalizations.

5.Cognitive Overload — Information-dense lectures lead to cognitive overload. Students’ minds shut down and their eyes glaze over. If you continue, you are proceeding without them. Stop — provide a brief review; take time for a question; and position the material that’s about to come in relation to what’s just been presented.

6.Scientific Jargon — Science is not the only field with lots of jargon — this applies to every discipline. Sometimes it’s both a new word and a new concept. When you’re learning French and you’re introduced to the word chat when you find out it means cat at least you know what it refers to. But when it’s cytokinesis, it’s all new. Other times the words are familiar like vacuum but when a scientist uses that term, it doesn’t usually refer to a cleaner.

7.Mental Lapses — Sometimes students just don’t get it in a lecture. They may if you say it once more or say it a little louder, but usually not. They need to hear you say it in a totally different way. They need examples, maybe a metaphor. Or, they may need you to take a short break so that they can discuss, explore, and explain it to the person sitting next to them.

8.Note-Taking Skills — Not all students have good ones. And to the extent they are worried about the difficulty of the content and their ability to understand, their motivation to write down exactly what the lecturer says increases. As the author points out, they are then so busy writing, they miss half of what is said. Spend a bit of time helping students learn what they need to write down. Sometimes an outline or guide distributed early in the course can help reinforce this lesson.

9.Confronting Misconceptions — Students can memorize right answers, regurgitate them on an exam, and leave the class with their original thinking still unchallenged. The author advises that lecturers be aware of the common misconceptions students bring to a course and tackle them head on. Don’t let students leave a course with their thinking undisturbed.

10.Learning Modalities — We live in a visual society and many students are visual learners. Lecturers need to reckon with these facts and make use of the wide array of visual supports now available –demonstrations, videos, computer animations, even the venerable overhead transparency which should not look like a page of text.

None of these ideas are new, but many of them are still absent from lectures delivered in lots of college classrooms. The author offers a nutshell summary: “Presenting an effective lecture is like writing a good drama — you must have a worthwhile story to tell and tell it in an interesting way.” (p. 454)

Conin Jones, L. L. (2002). Are lectures a thing of the past? Journal of College Science Teaching, 32 (7), 453-457.