A Practical Introduction to College Teaching

All sections of this handbook, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada, are in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged.

For comments, questions, suggestions for improvements, and so on, please contact Ian Johnston.

[Table of Contents]

Section 4: Organizing and Delivering Lectures

Most college teachers, it is fair to assume, regard lecturing as their main instructional responsibility and think that the quality of their work depends upon that activity more than upon anything else. And yet relatively few have had any special training in how to deliver lectures or take significant steps to evaluate how they are doing (apart from periodic student questionnaires), let alone work to acquaint themselves with different lecturing styles (by attending special workshop sessions or regularly visiting other instructors' classrooms).  Most instructors develop a lecturing style they feel comfortable with and retain it ever after, without feeling much need to experiment or change, even in the face of evidence that they should perhaps be trying something different. Most academic instructors, in my experience, have a considerable bias against the very idea of thinking about themselves as performers, in part because they believe that expertise in the discipline is really the only thing that truly matters or because they consider that any treatment of college teaching as, in part, a performing art is encouraging rhetoric at the expense of true rational enquiry.  

Whether or not those are the real reasons, there often seems to be remarkably little interest among academic instructors in workshops in improving teaching, even when there is clear evidence from student evaluations that certain improvements in the lecturing style would really help.  And many colleges provide very little by way of in-service training or pedagogical orientation for instructors in academic disciplines (instructors in Vocational programs appear to have a much keener interest in such matters, perhaps because they are often given a financial incentive).  In addition, there seems to be a well established tradition that the best way to deal with questions about improving student learning is to tinker with the timetable or the allocation of credits or the various combinations of courses, rather than to address what actually goes on in the classroom.

Such a lack of interest in classroom practice is certainly odd, when one considers how much time the instructor spends lecturing and how many students spend hours and hours coping with (and often suffering from) an instructor's performance.  It's difficult to think of any other profession where the major requirement of the job receives so little special training, evaluation, and opportunity for improvement.  The situation is rather like that of a court room lawyer who believes his expert knowledge of some aspect of the law is all that is required, with this significant difference, of course: there's no official public verdict delivered at the conclusion of a lecture.

Some Initial Observations

One of the key points of a lecture is that it is a learning environment in which the instructor remains firmly in control, determining the material covered, the pace of the learning, shifts in style, and the organization of the material.  The instructor also decides what the students are doing moment by moment.  Lectures can, of course, take many forms, from rhetorical set pieces to more free-wheeling discussions, and any one of these may be very useful.  As a general principle, however, lectures tend to be more effective the more the instructor can actively involve the students in what is going on.  Passive listening is not a particularly good learning situation (although there are obvious exceptions when the lecturer is a particularly good speaker, capable of regularly holding an audience's attention by her intelligence, wit, rhetorical skill, charisma, humour, and so on).

For the purposes of this discussion, I am dividing lectures up rather arbitrarily into three general types: the formal presentation (where the instructor talks virtually all the time, fielding questions only intermittently), the lecture-discussion (where the instructor seeks to engage the students in a series of question-and-answer comments throughout), and the workshop (where the students are engaged in some specific activity under the instructor's supervision and occasional comments).  Obviously, the demarcations between these types is not fixed, and in many cases a particular class might start in one style and change to another part way through (something very useful in long classes). These different types of lecture are significantly different in what they can and cannot achieve. 

First a preliminary observation.  Students are used to all sorts of lecture styles, and so they will not be demanding a particular style from you.  However, certain classes will require or prohibit certain styles (it's difficult to be informal in a very large class and unwise to be too formal in a seminar setting).  Still, given the option, an instructor should adopt the style with which he feels most comfortable.  There is no inherent advantage to being informal or formal.  What's important is that the style, whatever it is, enables the instructor to do his job as effectively as possible and is reasonably consistent (don't bewilder the students by being very formal one day and engagingly friendly the next).  As mentioned earlier, a new instructor facing an unfamiliar class might be well advised to be quite formal at first (keeping the students at something of a distance and not seeking to be too jovial), because it's always easy to loosen up later, as one gets to know the students; whereas, the reverse process is extremely difficult.

A Formal Lecture

A Formal Lecture is a useful way of giving students a grand overview of something new, of demonstrating a particular analytical method in action (e.g., literary or philosophical analysis), and of dealing with complex new material in a very large class where an informal discussion is much more difficult (e.g.,  many Psychology 100 or Introductory Biology classes).  However, the great disadvantage of this style is that it tends to be one where the student learn less effectively than in other settings, since they are passively listening most of the time and the instructor cannot easily administer and supervise workshop assignments or set up lively discussions in which all students can participate easily.  

In addition, the number of instructors who can truly shine regularly at this form of lecturing is, in my experience, relatively rare (I can recall some from my own experience, but I remember, too, that often what attracted me to the classes was the bravura performance itself rather than what I was supposed to be learning).

One important value of a Formal Lecture is that it can offer the students a useful demonstration of an educated imagination at work on the course material, something that, if done well, can inspire students and encourage them to see that the form of disciplined study they are engaged in can bring exciting results.  This is an important stimulus for many students in any subject area.  Hence, the importance of an occasional set piece formal lecture, preferably by a guest speaker whose quality is well known (make sure you have a sense of her quality, because a truly boring guest speaker is wasting everyone's time and working against the very reasons for having a guest lecturer in the first place).

That said, it's probably a bad idea to adopt a personal teaching style in which you are delivering something like a formal lecture every class, especially if the class is relatively small.  In cases where a more formal style is necessary because the class is very large, the instructor should think long and carefully about ways to keep the students as fully involved as possible.  Here are a few obvious suggestions:

Make sure there are frequent pauses for students to ask questions and follow-up questions, particularly at those moments when you move from one section of the lecture to the next, rather than waiting until the very end; don't inhibit questions by seeking to cover as much material as possible.

Give quick in-class quizzes from time to time; then have them marked in class (by fellow students), and discuss the results (with lots of time for questions).

Use audio visual materials judiciously to introduce some variety into the lecture (especially if the lecture is very long), and take the time to use these properly (see the Section 6 of this handbook).

Experiment with different formats (e.g., guest speaker, a panel discussion with visitors participating, occasional student presentations, and so on); such variety is really important in very big classes where student interaction is difficult, if not generally impossible.

See if there are ways to avoid always delivering the entire lecture from the same fixed position; where possible, offer the students some visual variety by moving to different places (e.g., during question periods, where you do not need to be close to your notes or a mechanical device).

Avoid adopting the same lecturing style every class, especially if it always involves the same technical format (students do like PowerPoint presentations, but they also get very tired of confronting them every class, especially since they have become increasingly common in recent years across the entire curriculum).

"Rehash" Lectures

One important caution here.  Try not to make your formal lectures simply a straightforward rehash of material you have asked the students to read about in a textbook.  If you are assigning reading and then lecturing on the material, make sure the lecture reinforces and expands the students' understanding of the material in some interesting ways.  Don't simply repeat the material.  If you want to introduce the new material in the lecture, then don't assign the reading beforehand.  Go over the material in class, and tell the students that they can consult the text book if they have any trouble understanding what you have said.

One way to reinforce and expand the students' understanding of material you have asked them to read ahead of time is to discuss in some detail particular examples or case studies of concepts or practices reviewed in the text.  For example, if you have asked them to read about, say, correlation, then in the lecture you might spend some time discussing a couple of famous cases where correlation has proved a very useful diagnostic tool or where correlation has been misinterpreted as indicating a cause.  If you have asked them to read about certain geological rock formations, give them a detailed (and preferably local) example.  Design your lectures so that they reinforce concepts the students have already read about.  Boring rehashes of material the students have already read in the textbook are a source of many complaints about poor instruction.

If there's an instructor in your department who has a reputation as a good formal lecturer, sit in on some of her classes and observe very carefully what she does to make her teaching work as well as it does.  If possible, repeat the process with a few instructors, not necessarily ones in your own discipline.

Lecture-Discussion Classes

The Lecture-discussion format is the workhorse of many college classes where the number of students is manageable and where the setting enables the students to see and hear each other easily.  In such classes, the instructor remains in control throughout but encourages students to raise and answer questions, to respond to each other, and to have some hand in how the class proceeds.

Such a format has some important advantages over a formal lecture.  It gives the students a chance to voice their opinions and questions (or requires them to do so), and thus puts the instructor in much more immediate contact with how much they are learning and what they are finding particularly difficult or confusing.  It also can create a much more enjoyable social environment for all concerned.  At the same time, it enables the instructor to control the discussion so as to "cover" the necessary material.

However, this style of class is much more difficult in some ways than a formal lecture, simply because the instructor has to be prepared to respond to surprises and because it puts a great deal of responsibility onto the instructor to make sure that as many students are involved as possible.  In addition, of course, there is the challenge of balancing discussion time, in which there is a free flow of questions and opinions, with lecture time, in which the instructor is taking the students through new material.  An instructor who likes to digress or to allow the students to do so will soon find his classes wandering all over the map, away from the most relevant matters, leaving insufficient time to go through the assigned work.

The lecture-discussion format is most obviously appropriate when the purpose of the class is to take the students stage by stage through a particular process (e.g., solving a certain form of equation, structuring an essay, or analyzing a problem) or when the main purpose is to interpret a particular piece of writing (an argument, a work of fiction, a historical event, and so on).  Here the instructor introduces and sets up the subject matter and encourages the students to help her through the process, often laying out the stages visually (e.g., constructing the solution to an equation, the outline of an essay or report, the stages of an analysis, and so on).

The characteristics of such a style will be set, more than anything else, by the style of the instructor's interaction with the students, especially by the ways in which she seeks to elicit their participation, that is, by the questions she asks and the responses she gives to the answers.  For example, an instructor who always asks questions in the same way and almost always calls upon the same people to answer will quickly persuade other students not to participate fully.  Or an instructor who reshapes students' answer to fit what he wants to hear will soon find students offering partially framed answers rather than thinking through what they are saying.  An instructor who is often dismissive of students' responses (either verbally or with some physical gesture or grimace) or who creates the impression that he is unhappy about any answers which do not fit what he wants will close down those responses.  A great many instructors have routine habits in their patterns of questions, and students quickly learn to anticipate the style and act accordingly.  So any instructor using this style of teaching needs constantly to examine his style of questioning (see the paragraphs dealing with this matter in the next section of this handbook).  Such reflection is all the more important in classes where the instructor feels the discussion is not as rich, frequently, and varied as it should be.

For reasons given the previous paragraph, it is very useful for an instructor periodically to reflect on how his relationship with the class is proceeding: How many students regularly speak up?  How many never speak up?  Is there a connection between what is happening and the pattern of questioning?  Is he only asking those who put up their hands to answer?  Is he only asking a limited number of students (especially ones he knows will probably give him the most useful answer)?  How does he normally phrase questions?  How does he typically respond to a problematic answer to a question?  Is he routinely "translating" a student's response in order to make it more satisfactory?  In some cases, it might be helpful to record one of your classes and listen to the results carefully and repeatedly.  If you do that, you should normally inform the class that you are recording the session for your own purposes.

Workshop Classes

Classes which run as workshops (e.g., labs classes) are normally the easiest to deliver, provided all the equipment is working properly and every student has a satisfactory work station.  The instructor's task here is to set up the session properly (a task which may involve some lengthy preparation if special equipment is involved), perhaps with a brief introduction first of all, to supervise the session (being available to provide assistance when necessary), and to wrap things up at the end.

It's important in such sessions to make sure that the instructor is, indeed, readily available and is not busy doing something else or is absent temporarily (especially if there are some safety concerns).  And sometimes the instructor might think about ways in which the students can work together (as they routinely do in many science labs) or help each other out (e.g., rather than assisting a student who's having trouble with some procedure, you might get another student to help out).  Often it's important to let students get perplexed and allow them to work their way out of the trouble with help from their peers, rather than immediately correcting the difficulties.

An important part of such classes will be informal supervision to give yourself an accurate sense of how the students are progressing through the assignment and to give them ample opportunity to ask questions.  If there is obviously some aspect of the work that is giving many of them immediate difficulty, you may want to interrupt the workshop session to review how they should cope with that procedure.

A change into a workshop format is highly recommended (almost essential) if the purpose of the class is to encourage the students to master a particular skill, like solving a certain form of equation, punctuating compound sentences, carrying out a statistical analysis, recognizing certain rock types, mastering a particular computer procedure, and so on.  Here the structure of the class might be something as follows: introduction and demonstration of the procedure (a lecture-discussion, with the instructor going through the process, assisted by student responses), a review of the process, students working by themselves (or in small groups) on a particular example, a review of the example (so that students can check their work). 

The above structure is particularly useful because it provides immediate reinforcement.  The instructor has outlined the procedure, the students get to practise it with the original example still fresh in their minds (and perhaps outlined on the blackboard), and the instructor can see clearly just how well the students have learned the new procedure. If there's anything the student did not understand the first time through, he will discover that and be able to get help on the spot. This is much more effective than having the instructor continue the demonstration until the end of the class and assigning practice sessions for the students to do at home hours or days later.  

Such practice sessions as homework assignments are really useful, of course, but only if the instructor has taken the trouble to let the students try to deal with the procedure on their own in class where help is immediately available.  If you are not prepared to offer such workshop sessions in class, then you can expect many students will have a very inferior grasp of the material, no matter how clear your instructions have been.  And don't simply rely upon student responses to your questions "Does everyone understand this method? Does anyone have any questions?"  The students may well think that they do, but until they have really tried to apply it they (and you) will not know.

Workshop style instruction is also really helpful in getting students to focus on and participate in their own learning.  It's important to remember that students, like everyone else, have a limited ability to absorb new material simply by listening to someone else.  So it's essential to build into some classes individual practice sessions of the sort outlined above.  I remember one mathematics instructor telling me that in his view he could engage the students' attention with new material only for about twenty-five minutes.  After that, they had to be doing something on their own to reinforce what he had been demonstrating, or else they would quickly forget.

Given the above point, workshop sessions are often really helpful in the second half of long classes, since they force the students to pay attention and carry out a specific assignment (i.e., they operate as a wake up call).  For example, if an instructor has to teach a literature and composition class, it's often helpful to teach the literature in the first half and then, after the break, switch to the composition section, taking the students through the new material, then having them work at practising the procedure on their own, and finally reviewing the results (perhaps with a take-home assignment to follow).

Workshop classes commonly present a problem, however: some students proceed through the assignment much more quickly than others and thus are finished while the others are still struggling.  One way to cope with this recurring problem is to give the students two or three examples to work on and to instruct the students who are finished the first one to keep going (because the other ones will be an assignment for them to complete at home).  This option is certainly better than jumping in to review the exercise before most of the students are finished or leaving the students who are finished with nothing to do for many minutes while the others catch up.  Having an additional exercise available is also useful if the students all find the procedure relatively easy and finish long before you had anticipated.

Organizing and Delivering Lectures

Whatever the particular style an instructor chooses, there are some obvious organization principles which all instructors should follow in order to make the session as clear and useful as possible.  The most important overall principle is the old recipe for a good public speech: tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you've told them (i.e., introduction, main subject, review).

Before the Lecture Starts

Before looking at these structural features, however, I should say a word or two about activities before the lecture starts, in which the instructor gets the class room ready and indicates to students that she is ready to begin.  Here are a few things to think about.

It's useful to arrive in the class room a few minutes early so that you can prepare the space. As a general rule, you should make sure in advance that the space is set for you to start and that anything which is not immediately relevant to your class is removed from direct view.  Arriving a few minutes early will also enable you to deal with any surprises left from the previous class.

Such advance preparation is all the more important in long classes (e.g., three-hour night classes) where you are going to be using special equipment, like a digital or overhead projector, and so on.  If malfunctioning or missing equipment is going to make your lecture impossible to deliver in the way you want to, then you need to check it out in plenty of time to fix any problems.  Don't count on the fact that the equipment normally in the room will always be there or will always be in good working order.  If such equipment is essential, do you have any fallback plan should there be problems?  Have you left yourself enough time to correct the problem? 

If there's any equipment you don't need in a position where it might get in the way or distract the students, then get rid of it (e.g., an overhead projector you are not intending to use, stand up maps, an unnecessary table or projector screen, at the front, and so on).  Clean off anything on the blackboard left from previous classes, and get rid of any garbage the previous class may have left (empty chip bags, bottles of water, coffee cups). If the furniture needs to be rearranged, then do that.  Don't think that, because such things don't bother you, they don't distract the students.  If you need any assistance, then ask students already in the room to help you.  

Getting to the class early and spending time fixing the space also provides students an opportunity to talk to the instructor about any concerns they may have or about more general matters and thus provides a chance for the instructor to get to know the students better.

Starting the Lecture

Make sure you regularly start each class on time.  If you're erratic about when you start, then the students will get erratic about when they show up.  Even if you can see that some students are missing, don't hold up the start of the class (unless there's some special reason for waiting this time).  Students will act in response to what you do, not to what you say.  If they know you'll delay until they get there, they'll have little incentive to hurry up.  If you expect them to be ready at the announced time and act on that assumption, most of them will be in place most of the time.

Get in the habit of giving the class a clear signal that you are ready to start.  One obvious way to do this is to shut the door of the room and move to the front centre of the class.  Wait until their conversations die out or else simply state something like "Let's get started."  Then stay silent until they are.  Don't simply begin the lecture while they are still talking.  If there are late arrivals, then wait for them to get in their chairs.  Don't try to talk through the interruption.

The Structure of a Lecture: The Introduction

The opening few minutes of any lecture should do at least three things: (a) get the students' attention focused on the subject at hand, (b) remind the students of the relationship between what they are now dealing with and what has gone before (especially if this class is continuing to deal with material from previous classes), and (c) outline the structure and purpose of the class.

It important to remember that the students will need a few minutes to settle down and get their minds thinking about what they are now learning.  You may have a very clear idea of what you want to do and remember very well how the last few classes with this group went.  After all, you've spent a certain amount of time preparing the lecture and have been thinking fairly intensely about the matter.  But between this class and the last one the students have had plenty of other very different classes and been through other experiences, so they need a moment to remember where they are and what they have been doing.  So don't start by immediately plunging the class into new material.  

If you are now going to be dealing with material which requires the students to remember some things they have studied previously, then start by getting them to remember those, either by reviewing the material quickly or (even better) asking them to provide the information.  For instance, if you are teaching a class in descriptive statistics in which they will need to remember what they have earlier learned about, say, different averages (median, mode, and mean), then go over those definitions or ask questions eliciting the definitions from members of the class (this will, of course, be an excellent check for you on just how much they remember and it will get their minds focused quickly).  If you're continuing a discussion of a work of fiction, ask the students to clarify some things you dealt with last time.  It's always a good idea to begin the introduction with a quick review of anything the students will be required to understand in order to follow what you are now going to be presenting or a reminder of what you dealt with in the last class.  And nothing alerts the students more effectively to the class material than a quick flurry of questions at the start.  Even if you are going over some obvious things, a quick introduction like this gets the students focused on the work at hand.

If you carry out such a review, be prepared for an occasional surprise and be ready to make an appropriate adjustment.  You may find, for example, that something essential for today's class, which you have been through earlier, is still very confusing to most students.  Don't simply brush the matter aside, but take the time to review it completely so that any confusion is cleared up.  Never proceed with new material when you know that many students do not have a good understanding of things they have already studied which are essential for dealing with the new material.  This caution is particularly important when you are going to be using specific terms which you expect the students to understand (e.g., standard deviation, natural selection, dramatic irony, uniformitarianism, categorical imperative, and so on).  Never assume that because you have already studied such terms before they all have a clear and correct memory of what they mean.

Once such a review is over, define what you are now going to be doing, and outline how you are going to proceed.  Such a definition should obviously be linked to what you have determined is the particular purpose of this class.  You can give yourself a clear sense of that by asking yourself this question: What do I expect the students to be able to do or to be thinking about or to understand at the end of this class that they didn't know how to do or understand when the class began?  In other words, give the students a clear sense of what they are expected to learn as you proceed, and jot down on notes the board (or have a visual or photocopied presentation ready) to illustrate the steps you will be going through, so that they have from the start a sense of the structure and purpose of the lecture.

Here are a few examples to illustrate what I'm talking about:

[For a lecture on Hamlet] "I'm going to begin by outlining what the 'problem' is with this play, the source of so much critical debate. [Jot down a note on the board to indicate that].  Then, I'll review some of the more important ways interpreters have tried to deal with this problem [Jot that down on the board].  And finally I'll be discussing some of the facts of the play that any interpretations has to take into account [Add that point to the list on the board].  By the end of this lecture, I hope I have helped you to realize how confusing this play can be and how you might set about exploring your own understanding of it. [Make a note to that effect]. If you end up feeling rather puzzled about how to interpret this play, then you've taken an important first step in learning something about literary interpretation."

[For an introduction to correlation studies] "Today we're dealing a new and very powerful method of statistical analysis called correlation.  First, we'll be looking at what this term means and at the various forms it takes (positive, negative, and zero) and what those forms mean.  Then we'll be going through how one sets up and carries out a correlation analysis.  After that, we'll consider how one is supposed to interpret the results.  And finally I'll give you one or two results to interpret on your own.  It's important you understand not simply how to conduct a correlation analysis but also how to interpret it and what conclusions you are entitled to make."

[For a lecture which extends an earlier discussion of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty] "All right, based on our earlier discussions and that quick review, we're all now familiar with what Mill's 'harm principle' means.  What I want us to do today is extend our understanding of that concept to see if it is, as Mill promises, a useful practical way of making decisions about government actions or whether it might be more problematic.  We'll begin by considering why Mill thinks it's such a good idea, and I'll be asking you to come up with your own examples.  Then, we'll move on to consider whether it raises some problems which it cannot solve.  Given that this principle is so central to Mill's case (and to a great deal of modern liberal thinking), it's vitally important that we explore for ourselves just how valuable Mill's proposals are.  At the end I'll be asking each of you to take a stand on the issue."

Obviously one can frame such introductory statements in any number of ways, but their purpose is clear enough.  You are offering up front a clear sense of what you are going to be doing (stage by stage), why it matters, and what you expect the students to learn.  Make sure the introduction to the lecture contains a clear statement (preferably with some notes) about what you expect the students to derive from this class, something to which you can come back at the end in order to make sure that the students understand clearly what they are expected to take away from this lecture.

There are some common ways in which instructors routinely reinforce this initial sense of structure and purpose.  Some instructors create the short outline on the board as they are introducing the material (as in the first example above).  Others hand out a photocopied outline of the lecture (more or less detailed), a very useful document at the start of a long, formal lecture, especially if you are expecting the students to take notes.  Another increasingly popular method is to use PowerPoint (which suffers from the disadvantage that the outline disappears as soon as the next visual is presented).

Inexperienced instructors routinely provide inadequate introductions to the lectures and run the risk of leaving the students rather confused about why they are dealing with this material and what they are supposed to remember at the end of it.  You may be very clear in your own mind about what the purpose of the class is, why this material matters, what they need to learn, and how you intend to proceed, but unless you inform the students of those things, they may not share your perceptions. A very common complaint about unsatisfactory instructors is that their lectures are rambling and disorganized so that students do not have a clear sense of what they are supposed to learn.

The Structure of a Lecture: The Main Section

Once the instructor has set the lecture up properly, she should then proceed through it in as orderly and clear a way as possible, adhering to any outline she has already announced (and referring to it as she moves from one section to the nextif the students have access to an outline of the lecture, then remind them of where you are as you move from one part to another).  Provided that the instructor is reasonably well organized, sticks to the subject, and regularly informs students of the transitions, this section of a lecture is usually the easiest to deal with.  There are, however, some cautions to watch out for:

One important concern is the pace of the lecture.  One of the most serious flaws in poor lectures is a rush to finish, leaving little or no time for review or questions (especially if you run over the regular time for the class).  For that reason, it might be important to "front load" the lecture, that is, use the first half of the class time after the introduction to move crisply through the material (remember the student's ability to absorb new material is not going to last for the full hour). Yes, this might be too fast for some students, but if you are going to review the material or leave time for questions at the end (or at the pauses between stages in the presentation), then the potentially deleterious effects of such "front loading" will be far less than if you accelerate near the end of the presentation in order to finish.  

In some cases, you may have to stop the lecture before the point where you had intended, in order to allow for questions and review.  Such reinforcement is generally more important than rushing ahead in order to get through everything on time.  Such a habit of accelerating near the end is particular irritating if it becomes a routine part of the instructor's style.  If you find yourself doing that often, then adjust the amount of material you are trying to cover or get in the habit of moving more quickly in the first half hour.  Students do resent not being given the time to ask questions, especially if they are puzzled by something in the lecture.

Watch out for digressions.  These are often very interesting, and students do like it when an instructor occasionally wanders from the subject.  But frequent digressions can be extremely time consuming and interfere with the structure of the lecture.  And once a class senses that an instructor is prone to digress, the students will be quick to provide all sorts of leading questions inviting such mental wandering.  An instructor should be careful not to indulge himself too much in personal stories for the benefit of his captive audience.  Yes, students are interested in their instructor's opinions and details of his life, but they are not that interested in hearing them repeatedly (especially tales about when he was in college or anecdotes about his family life or all the important people he knows).  Remember that students learn far more by speaking their own minds and listening to each other than they do from listening to instructors.  And if a student introduces a potentially interesting but not immediately relevant point, the instructor should have no hesitation about postponing discussion of it until the main part of the lecture is over (he should treat the offering politely, but indicate that the class has to get on with the matter at hand).

Where it's important for students to grasp thoroughly the first part of the lecture before they can move onto the second part, make sure you offer a question period, so that any difficulties can be cleared up before you proceed.  If you are teaching students to punctuate compound sentences, for example, and you spend the first part of the lecture describing what a compound sentence is, you should pause before reviewing the punctuation of this syntactical form in order to make sure they all understand and can recognize what you are talking about. If the first part of a lecture is outlining a problem which the second half is going to analyze, then pause to make sure that the students all understand the nature of the problem.  Generally speaking, it's a good idea to offer frequent pauses for questions anyway, even in formal lectures, in order to keep the students more involved in the situation.  But such question periods are particularly important at transition points.  If you find yourself leaving little to no time for questions, then, once again, you may have to adjust the amount of material you are trying to get through.  

One of the major challenges of a lecture, especially a formal one, is holding the students' attention throughout, so that they don't find the proceedings monotonous and let their attention drift away.  The obvious way of dealing with this is to introduce plenty of variety in the stylea mixture of lecture and questions, some visual aids where appropriate, and, if possible, some movement, so that the students are not all staring at and listening to the same talking head in the same place all the time.  It's useful for an instructor to reflect on this point: How much of the available space in the front does the instructor use during a lecture?  How many different activities does she go through?  How much visual variety (from the student's point of view) is there in the lecture?  Are the instructor's actions falling into predictable patterns?  How much furniture is there between the instructor and the students?  If you tend to remain standing in the same place during the lecture, then use the question period to move around, away from your notes. It's often a good idea to move closer to the students when you are soliciting or responding to questions, especially if there's a object like a table between you and the first row of seats).  In this way, a question period can offer some visual variety and a less formal tone.

One way an instructor can force himself to move from time to time is to use the blackboard as a convenient space to jot down notes or small diagrams as he proceeds through the lecture.  Such notes should always be provided when the lecture is introducing some new term or name which the instructor expects the students to write down correctly (e.g., the Treaty of Westphalia, dramatic irony, catastrophism, merchantalism, Machiavelli) .  Even if you're confident the students know how to spell the new term, go through the exercise of putting it up on the board, so that there's a momentary break in the usual style of delivery.  It's really helpful also to anchor the discussion on small blackboard diagrams to which you can refer (moving back and forth from it), especially if it's important the students take down notes of what you are saying.  The more an instructor remains fixed in place without offering any visual variety to the lecture, the greater the chances the students' attention will wander.

Sometimes an instructor may develop irritating verbal or physical mannerisms (clearing one's throat, repetitive phrases, sniffing or clearing one's throat very emphatically, blowing one's nose and inspecting the result, tweaking one's groin, and so on).  These are difficult to cope with because in many cases we are not conscious of them or fail to understand how they are affecting the class for the worse (after all, every instructor has particular mannerisms, and most of them are harmless).  The best advice I can offer here is twofold.  First, get into the habit of recording yourself and listening to the result, imagining yourself in the student's place (Are there any obviously irritating or predictable vocal mannerisms?).  And, second, pay serious attention to any repeated complaints in evaluations or on about such things.  If what you're doing is distracting enough for students to complain about it, then fix the problem.

One final suggestion.  If your lectures frequently draw upon particular examples in order to illustrate general concepts or problems, then make a real effort to include local examples from time to time, issues from the immediate social and political context of the students' own lives.  For instance, if there are important aboriginal rights debates in the local community and your lectures are discussing something where such an example would be extremely relevant, use that local example rather than reaching for one from somewhere else.  If there are some interesting local geological features relevant to what you are dealing with, bring those into the lecture.  If you need to refer to examples of economic dislocation, are there any relevant local illustrations?  This is not to say that you have to confine your examples to ones drawn from the students' own environment, but you should strive to remind them repeatedly that what they are studying is immediately applicable to what's going on all around them.  In many cases, they may know something about these examples already and make interesting contributions.

I mention this last point, because many new instructors are strangers to the communities in which they are now teaching, and they often bring to their classes a set of examples from far away.  While these examples are often excellent ones, they can be very remote from the students' experience and thus have relatively little impact, especially on first-year students.  If there are local or provincial issues which will serve as illustrations just as well, bring them to bear in the lecture.  Such advice is particularly important if you are in the habit of using examples drawn from your specialist research activities.

Remember, too, that young students have virtually no cultural memory so if you're invoking names like John Kennedy, Liza Minelli, Martin Luther King, Jane Fonda, Bobby Orr,  Apocalypse Now, the Beatles, Margaret Trudeau, the Vietnam War, Mrs. Thatcher, Churchill, John Wayne, and so on, don't expect them to understand what you're talking about.

One final point.  It's common in long lectures to have one or two breaks.  These are almost essential in three-hour classes (or longer) and unnecessary in classes of 60 or 90 minutes.  Different instructors treat two-hour classes differently, some with a break, some without.  If you are teaching a long class at night, you might want to make sure that you time the break so that students still have an opportunity to get to the cafeteria or coffee shop before it closes.  As a general rule, make these breaks generous but keep them regular (15 minutes means fifteen minutes not twenty or twenty-five).  And make yourself available during the break.  Don't simply rush off to your office.  Casual conversations with students during a break are particularly rewarding (one of the best reasons for the smoking habit).

The Structure of a Lecture: The Conclusion

It's really helpful if the instructor's lectures offer a definite conclusion in the last few minutes.  Such final remarks will vary, but they should usually include some or all of the following:

a review of some main points of the lecture (which might include discussing any workshop exercises the students have done in the second half of the class);

sufficient time for students to ask questions about the material covered;

a reminder of where the class will be going next (together with any reminders about what the students need to do for that class); don't rush this part of the lecture if there are specific instructions you want the students to follow before coming to the next class.

If you have marked work to hand back to the students, the best time to give it out is at the end of the class or else immediately before you are going to discuss the assignment (normally something you should leave to the latter part of the class).  Never give back a marked assignment and expect that the students will be able to set it aside and attend to something else.  Most of them will be very keen to see how they fared and to read the instructor's comments.  So if you're not going to discuss the assignment immediately, don't hand it out until the very end. 

This point about distributing assignments applies to other handouts, as well.  Many students will start reading the material you have given them as soon as they get it, no matter what you say.  So as general principle, don't hand stuff out until you are ready to discuss it (or else wait until the end).

Normally, an instructor should bring the class to an end at the regular time, so that students can get to their next classes and the next instructor using the room has time to set it up properly.  It is a very bad habit routinely to extend classes into the time normally allotted for class changes (usually ten minutes).  That will frustrate the students and your fellow instructors.  

You may occasionally find that the class you had been expecting to go for the full time concludes with ten or fifteen minutes to spare and that the students have no questions.  Don't unnecessarily prolong such classes in order to reach the regular time.  If there's nothing more to attend to, then dismiss the class early. But don't make a habit of stopping early.  If you do, students will start preparing to leave early (a serious irritation in any lecture where you wish to keep going).

Before you leave the class room, clean off the blackboard, turn off any equipment you have been using, and collect any rubbish your class has left behind.  Sometimes it might be a good idea to move to the back of the room and quickly  inspect the notes you have put on the blackboard.  Imagine that you are a student sitting there: How legible and useful would such notes be as an aid to understanding and remembering the material in the lecture?

Don't linger too long in the classroom when the lecture is finished.  If students approach you with questions, then take the discussion out into the corridor, so that the next instructor can start organizing the space.  She will not normally move in until you are on the way out.

A Comment on Lecture Notes

Almost all instructors use some form of lecture notes, everything from a full written transcript of what they're going to say to a simple outline.  So watching and listening to an instructor who's using notes is something very familiar to the students.

Make sure to think about how you are going to handle the notes.  In most cases, a small lectern is sufficient (if that's what you need, make sure it's in the class room).  Some instructors place their notes on a table and consult them only occasionally.  Set up what is most comfortable for you.  It's probably a bad idea to wander around clutching your notes in your hand, since that serves as a large distraction (like a large white flag).  Put them in a suitable place and work from there.

If possible, try not to read off your lectures from a full transcript all the time, even in a formal lecture.  If you're sticking closely to a prepared script, keep trying to establish eye contact between sentences, stroll away from your script if you are dealing with a familiar example or a question, and offer frequent pauses for questions and comments.  Do all you can to interact in some ways with the students (even if only periodically).  Make the class more than simply what the students would experience if they were listening to an audio recording.  Learning to do this well may take some practice.

If there's a mix up in the middle of your lecture, don't try to hide the fact.  Tell the students about the problem, and then fix it.  For example, you may have inadvertently skipped over something you meant to mention earlier which they need to know in order to understand what you are now going to discuss.  If that happens, interrupt what you are saying and tell the students of the problem.  Then go back to the material you overlooked, deal with it, and then resume.  So long as students are aware of what's going on, they won't resent any particular mix up (not so long as it doesn't become a routine habit).  If you find your notes are out of order or they fall off the podium, tell the students you need to attend to them for a moment, and then resume.

If you routinely write out formal lectures and you want students to take notes from them, you might consider posting the text of the lectures (or even a detailed outline) in the newsgroup or on the course web page, so that students have access to your remarks later.  That will enable them to listen more carefully without having to take such detailed notes.  You can also direct any student who missed the class to the site.  If any student who missed the previous class asks you that most irritating of questions"Did we do anything in class last time?"you can refer him to the text or the outline of the lecture.


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