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.

  • Perry Shaw

    My experience is that it is better to interview guest experts than to have them function as guest lecturers.
    Generally visiting experts are not aware of the needs and interests of the learners, and the course instructor or a student interviewer can be a bridge between the visitor and the learning needs of the class.
    As is well-known, lecture is not generally an effective learning methodology, and interviews can help a visiting expert better connect with students. The movement from moderator to visitor reduces the likelihood of disinterest among the members of the class.

    • Karen Hughes Miller

      I agree that you should play to your guest's strengths. If you think they may wander too far afield, the interview approach is a good solution.

  • Perry Shaw

    A related approach I have sometimes used in thematic courses is where three or four times during the course I bring very diverse guest experts into the class, and interview them by the same set of 4-7 questions. The students are then asked to write up a synthetic reflection on the guests' responses to these questions, giving the strengths and weaknesses of each guest's perspectives, concluding with the students' own synthetic perspective on the issues being addressed in the course.
    Some years ago I tried something similar in a forum of experts, and while there were some advantages to the immediacy of the forum I actually found that students' responses to the synthetic evaluation of separate interviews was more profound. I also found that it was easier to get "top of the ladder" experts to separate interviews than to a forum.

  • Ross Dewstow

    Thanks Karen for your thoughts. Have you a follow up on using Guests in Online Classrooms?
    There are Teachers / Lecturers who like to have guests in their online classrooms to work with students. They are usually involved in online discussions in the course and can present material via video, powerpoint or videoconference for students to attend and then follow this on with discussions.
    The access to the Institute's online environment can cause issues if regulations get in the way of teaching and learning.
    This can be as, or more rewarding, than a physical presence of a guest lecturer.

    • Karen Hughes Miller

      Yes, most of these same issues apply online with one new issue. If your guest posts a PowerPoint, notes, or other digital materials, make sure you have an understanding with them to keep those materials in the course when you "recycle" it in coming semesters. And I agree, discussions with experts really liven up an online session.

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  • Grace

    Using subject experts is useful in a blended learning where there are face to face tutorials and they ought to be persons of high integrity and who can be role model. How can they be vetted in a virtual environment/

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  • Karen Hughes Miller

    Vetting is important and should be done well before you issue an invitation to be a guest. Emails and phone conversations can help you anticipate how this person will perform for your learners. But in all honesty, I've never used a guest lecturer (even for online teaching) that I had not met face-to-face and in whom I had 100% confidence that they would be good for my learners.

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