November 3rd, 2014

The Blessings and Benefits of Using Guest Lecturers


As we face the perpetual challenge of keeping each class session fresh and interactive, I suggest we consider an old idea that never really got stale. Inviting guest lecturers to your classroom has benefits for your learners, for you, and for the guest lecturers. Learners of all ages and experience levels are hungry for variety, and seeing a new face in front of the room can liven up the class; but there are also deeper pedagogical reasons for using guest lecturers. Here are a few to consider.

None of us is an expert on everything, so bringing in speakers with proven expertise in a topic provides added credibility to our content. These experts can be faculty from your institution (but perhaps outside of your department or school) or experts from the community. Van Hoek et al. (2011) found that in a course with profound practical applications, such as supply chain management, voices from the field seemed to carry as much or more credibility than those from the academic side.

Hearing new voices provides students not only with different points-of-view, but also with potential resources they can apply in later courses. For example, asking a research librarian to discuss effective literature search strategies before assigning a research project gives students not only the “just in time” information but also some long-term skills. But a word of caution if you have students who are new to higher education (or a few whose motivation is a bit sub-par); make sure students understand that they are just as responsible for mastering content from guest lecturers as they are for mastering the content you provide. Guest lecturers are not substitute teachers.

Having a guest lecturer also opens your lesson design to new options. For example, you and your guest can work together to field questions or even debate issues. Let students apply their critical thinking to compare points of view.

When seeking guest lecturers for your course, do not be afraid to work “up” the academic ladder by inviting senior or tenured faculty. There could be benefits for all in this exchange.

Working with a guest lecturer
Like all guests, guest lecturers should be treated very well, especially if you want their help in future courses! Provide as much lead-time as possible so they can prepare and so you can share materials from your guest lecturer with your students. Willis (2013) found that the flipped classroom format could be used by guest faculty, but it was slightly less effective than when used by regular faculty (perhaps because it combines new materials and an unknown instructor). So allow more classroom time for review when using that teaching strategy with guests.

Be very clear with guest faculty about the content you want covered, the time and technology available, and the class size and composition. Determine who has which responsibilities, such as posting or printing handouts or other learning materials.

Formal letters of thanks are useful in the business world and the academic world. In the academic world, it is a good idea to copy the appropriate Dean or Department Chair when thanking faculty for their help.

When you’re the guest lecturer
From a faculty point of view, being invited to guest lecture is a very nice addition to your CV. It is also a good opportunity to see how content from other courses relate to your own (i.e. Is my content redundant or reinforcing? Am I teaching my content at the right level?) When you are invited as a guest, make sure you know exactly what is expected in both content and logistics. If you rely on PowerPoint or Internet connectivity to present, make sure to confirm availability. (It’s often easier to carry presentations on a zip drive rather than relying on connecting your laptop to someone else’s projector.) If you plan to use handouts and the course has web support, provide that material ahead of time so it can be uploaded to the course site. If you welcome the idea of students contacting you for more information, put your email as a header or footer to the handouts where it will not be misplaced. No detail is too small when working in a new environment, and you don’t want to lose momentum while you make adjustments to your technology as students wait.

Higher education today embraces the ideas of interdisciplinary thinking and performance, and what better way to model this than to have guests from other disciplines teaching content from their perspective. It takes both prior planning and organized follow-up, but is well worth the effort.

Willis, C.G.,(2013). Flipping Flop? Can Guest Lecturers Use the Flipped Classroom Format. Presentations. Paper 88.

van Hoek, R., et al. (2011). Embedding insights from industry in supply chain programmes: the role of guest lecturers. Supply Chain Management: An International Journal, 16 (2), 142 – 147.

Karen Hughes Miller, associate professor, graduate medical education, University of Louisville School of Medicine.