Getting the Most out of Guest Experts Who Speak to Your Class

Inviting guest speakers into your classroom is a classic teaching strategy. Welcoming other voices into the classroom provides students with access to other perspectives, adds variety to the classroom routine, and demonstrates that learning is a collaborative enterprise. At the same time, however, presentations by guest experts are often plagued by a variety of design flaws that hinder their educational effectiveness. Guest experts, being unfamiliar with the mastery level of the students in the class, may speak over the heads of the students, or they may present their material at a level that is inappropriately introductory. Because they are generally unfamiliar with the class curriculum, they may repeat information that the students have already learned, or their comments may not connect in any clear way with what the students already know and what they are currently learning.

Miscommunication between the guest expert and the host professor, furthermore, may result in the guest’s presentation running either too short or, more commonly, too long. Despite these hurdles, the increasingly collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of higher education makes the kind of partnerships represented by guest-expert arrangements more important than ever. With a little extra preparation, professors can increase the likelihood of a productive guest expert experience.

Typically, professors may invest weeks of effort into scheduling a guest speaker, but less effort into arranging their classroom activities so that the speaker’s appearance will further the curricular objectives of the course. When professors invite guest experts into their classrooms, they tend to conceptualize the arrangement as a compartmentalized event that stands outside of the regular current of class activity. The block of time scheduled for the guest tends to represent a break from the class schedule, rather than an essential part of the course material. As a result, the guest’s contributions are not as impactful as they might be if steps were taken to ensure that some degree of alignment were achieved between the curriculum and the speaker. The following strategies may help professors optimize the value of guest experts whom they invite to address their students.

Communicate clearly with the guest about what the objectives of the class are, where the students are in the overall curriculum, and how the guest’s appearance in your class intersects with what the students are learning about that week. Encourage the guest expert to tailor her remarks toward specific learning goals that the students are actively pursuing. You might also consider providing your guest expert with a copy of your syllabus, as well as with a brief summary of presentations given by other guest experts who have addressed your class.

Establish expectations about the length of time that the guest expert will speak. Do not ask a guest to stay for the entire class period. Experts should limit the lecture phase of their presentation to 30 minutes or less. Ideally, there should be time both before the guest’s presentation for the students to prepare to meet the guest, and then afterward for the students to discuss their observations and responses.

Use the time before and after the guest’s appearance to establish connections between the guest’s area of expertise and the learning objectives of the class. Give students a specific task that encourages them to take notes while the guest expert talks (for example, compile a list of the three most interesting things the guest said). Have students research the guest expert’s background or area of expertise and prepare questions to ask of the speaker, particularly questions that relate the course content to the guest’s area of expertise. Always allow time for a class discussion in which the teacher and the students can develop ways of connecting what the guest has said to key concepts of the class.

Encourage guest experts to teach, rather than simply to speak. Instead of asking them to simply talk about their area of expertise, ask them to speak with the students about what the students are learning. Guest lecturers ordinarily want to prepare comments, but their contributions to your class might actually more meaningful if they come simply expecting to respond to questions from the student and teacher. In addition to making the guest expert’s time in your class interactive and engaging, a more student-centered approach to the expert’s presentation will ensure that the guest expert is speaking directly to the concerns of the class.

With the guest’s permission, videotape the presentation and make the recording available to the class. Compile electronic copies of any handouts, or ask for a copy of the guest’s PowerPoint presentation. Keeping a record of the guest’s appearance will make it possible for the class to continue to refer to the expert’s comments throughout the term, and it will allow future classes to benefit from the guest expert’s contribution as well.

Professors who invite guest experts into their classrooms promote opportunities for creative new syntheses in an academic landscape too often characterized by disciplinary and professional silos. The simple guidelines outlined above can help professors engaged in this kind of work to ensure that their students are benefiting from these efforts.

Randy Laist, associate professor and curriculum director, Goodwin College.