9 Lecturing

Lecture Preparation

Adapted with permission from Farris, 1985

Lecturing may still be the most common form of teaching in most university classrooms, but some topics lend themselves much more naturally to this technique than others. Originally the “lecturer” read to an audience because access to written material was limited; now the printing process has dramatically changed the lecturer’s function. The present-day lecture should not simply transmit information; books are more efficient. Lecture if you want to provide structure and organization to scattered material, help pace student learning, or reinforce assigned reading by providing an alternative perspective or source of information.

Planning a lecture

When you start to plan a lecture, first consider your audience. Undergraduate students represent a broad cross-section of backgrounds and skills, and as a result may arrive at college with varying levels of competence. You neither want to talk over their heads nor patronize them. You will be more effective if you try as much as possible to draw on knowledge they already have or appeal to experiences that, by analogy, suit the topic.

Before preparing the lecture, ask yourself how the lecture fits into the course as a whole. What are your objectives? Do you want to provide the students with an overview of the subject, give them some background information, or stimulate further contemplation?

Once you’ve decided that the nature of your topic is indeed suitable for a lecture and considered both your objectives and the knowledge level of your audience, you still want to make sure that what you need to cover will fit within the time allotted. A typical lament of new instructors is: “There is so much material and too little time.” However, good organization will enable you to eliminate irrelevant material so that you may cover important points more thoroughly.

Generating an outline

Once you have determined your subject, formulate one general question which covers the heart of it, one you could answer in a single lecture. Take time to write it down and study it. Then generate three or four key points which you could develop to answer this question. Note these down under the question. You are now looking at your lecture outline.

Filling in the outline

Your next task is to define the elements of your key points and generate effective examples or analogies for each. Examples generated “on the spur of the moment” in class tend to be trivial; if prepared in advance, examples can both illustrate a particular point and broaden students’ understanding of the subject. Think the examples through carefully and consider ways to illustrate them with chalkboard diagrams, slides, overhead transparencies, demonstrations, or case studies. Any of these tools can increase students’ understanding and interest.

Reviewing the material

Adapted from the University of Nevada

Demonstrating that you know more than your students is easy; teaching is more difficult. Many new instructors assume that they can teach introductory math because they took one course in statistics and two in quantitative analysis. However, an in-depth understanding of the subject is often necessary for dealing with the bright, inquisitive student who asks a relevant question that is not covered in the text: “Why didn’t you use that same formula to solve the last problem?” Ideally, you will be assigned to a course in the area of your particular expertise, but you should still review material to refresh your memory, and you might try explaining it to someone else as a way of anticipating students’ questions and problems.

Delivering the Lecture

Before you begin, there are a number of points to remember about the style and clarity of your lecture presentation: (Adapted with permission: Cashin, 1985)

Speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard. This may seem obvious but undoubtedly we have all sinned against this prescription. Perhaps in the very first class you should suggest that people signal you if they cannot hear, e.g., cup a hand behind their ear.

Avoid distracting mannerisms, verbal tics like “ah” or “you know,” straightening your notes, tie, or beads.

Provide an introduction. Begin with a concise statement, something that will preview the lecture. Give the listeners a set or frame of reference for the remainder of your presentation. Refer to previous lectures. Attract and focus their attention.

Present an outline. Write it on the chalkboard, use an overhead transparency, or a handout. Then be sure that you refer to it as you move from point to point in your lecture.

Emphasize principles and generalizations. Research suggests that these are what people really remember — and they are probably what you really want to teach.

Repeat your points in two or three different ways. Your listeners may not have heard it the first time, or understood it, or had time to write it down. Include examples or concrete ideas. These help both understanding and remembering. Use short sentences.

Stress important points. This can be done with your tone of voice. It can also be done explicitly, e.g., “Write this down”; “This is important”; “This will be on the test.”

Pause. Give your listeners time to think and write.

Ways to Begin

After having prepared an interesting and detailed lecture, it is still sometimes difficult to choose a way to begin delivering it once you are in the classroom. Here is a list of possible techniques for beginning a lecture, many of which rely on some kind of “hook” to capture students’ attention from the start. (Adapted with permission: Bailey, 1986)

  1. State a question which will be answered (or at least better understood) by the end of the lecture.
  2. Pose a problem. The difference between this and stating a question is that a question is typically a single sentence, while a problem may require a paragraph or two.
  3. Give an example of the phenomenon to be discussed.
  4. Tell a personal anecdote or one about a friend or famous colleague.
  5. Create a demonstration which illustrates the topic or puzzles the students.
  6. Provide a review of some previously covered material that is directly related to and essential for understanding the current lecture.
  7. Provide an overview of the lecture.
  8. State the objectives to be accomplished with the lecture.
  9. Tell a funny story or joke, if relevant to the material.
  10. Give the lecture a title.

Questioning in the Classroom

Adapted with permission from Hyman, 1980

Strange as it may seem, many college teachers are ill-at-ease when students ask questions. For some reason they have not learned how to field questions. Fielding is a broader concept than responding; responding is but one fielding option. The skill of fielding student questions is vital for a teacher who wants students to think about the topic of study; one result of student thinking is student questioning.

If there are few student questions, it may be that students are not attending to the teacher’s remarks and not thinking about the topic at hand. Alternatively, students may be afraid to ask questions because they think they will be put down. It is also possible that students do not ask because they believe that the teacher doesn’t want them to ask questions. That is, the teacher somehow discourages students from asking questions. This discouragement is rarely explicit; few teachers actually say, “Don’t ask me any questions.” (They may say, “Hold your questions for a few minutes.”) Generally the discouragement is implicit. It comes from the negative way a teacher fields a student question. For example, “We discussed that issue yesterday,” or, “That question is really not on target.” Sometimes an instructor will answer the student’s question and then say something like, “Where were we before we got sidetracked?” After one of these negative fielding responses a student may vow, “I’ll never ask another question in this class.”

It is difficult to explain why teachers discourage student questions in this way. However, some tentative reasons can be offered. Teachers feel the need to be in control of both the content and of the procedures in the classroom. They feel that they need to “cover” the established course content. Time is precious. There is never enough of it to cover the material. Thus, they discourage student questions because the questions may lead them away from their material. Teachers also want to appear knowledgeable to their students. Student questions may embarrass the instructor who is unable to respond adequately. In short, instructors fear that they may lose control or lose face if students ask questions.

The potential for loss of control and loss of face is real. It surely is possible for a teacher to go off the track and appear to lack knowledge. However, it is also true that the fear of this happening is overdrawn and the probability for it to occur is low. The teacher must weigh the advantages gained by permitting and encouraging questions against the need to maintain tight control.

By learning how to use questions effectively in the classroom, instructors can accomplish a number of interrelated goals. First, by engaging students in a question-and-answer dialogue, the usual “one-way” flow of information from instructor to students is transformed into a more interactive process. Students become more active participants in their own learning. In addition, skillful questioning can encourage students to engage in higher-level cognitive processes (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation), thus helping to develop their capacity for critical thinking. There are several tactics suggested by the current literature which may assist teachers in improving the use of questioning in their teaching. (Adapted with permission: Hyman, 1980)

After asking a question, wait for a response. Do not answer the question yourself, repeat it, rephrase it, modify it, call on another student to answer it, or replace it with another question until you have waited at least three to five seconds. Students need time to think about the question and prepare their responses. The research indicates that with a wait-time of three to five seconds, students respond more, use complex cognitive processes, and begin to ask more questions. One word of caution is in order here. Sometimes when teachers reword questions because they believe that the initial question is unclear, the result is greater student confusion. Students may not know which question to try to answer. In short, ask a question, wait, and thereby express your expectation to receive a response and your willingness to listen to it. Be patient.

Ask only one question at a time. Do not ask a string of questions one after the other in the same utterance. For example, say, “How does the skeleton of an ape compare with that of a human?” Do not ask, “How are apes and humans alike? Are they alike in bone structure and/or family structure and/or places where they live?” A series of questions tends to confuse students. They are not able to determine just what the teacher is requesting from them. Napell (1978) states that videotape replays reveal an interesting pattern when the teacher asks a series of questions: “Hands will go up in response to the first question, and a few will go down during the second, and those hands remaining up will gradually get lower and lower as the instructor finally concludes with a question very different from the one for which the hands were initially raised.”

When student questions are desired, request them explicitly, wait, and then acknowledge student contributions. For example, a teacher may wish to solicit questions about the plays of Shakespeare which the class has been studying. The instructor might say, “Are there any questions or clarifications of points we have raised?” or “Please ask questions about the main characters or the minor characters — whichever you wish at this point,” or “In light of Sally’s allusion to Lady Macbeth, I invite you to ask her some questions for embellishment or clarification.” Indicate to students that questions are not a sign of stupidity, but rather the manifestation of concern and thought about the topic. Be careful not to subtly or even jokingly convey the message that a student is stupid for asking for a clarification or restatement of an idea already raised in class or in the text.

Use a variety of probing and explaining questions. Ask questions that require different approaches to the topic, such as causal, teleological, functional, or chronological explanations. Avoid beginning your question with the words “why” and “explain,” and instead phrase your questions with words which give stronger clues about the type of explanation sought. Thus, for a chronological explanation, instead of asking, “Why did we have a depression in the 1930s?” try “What series of events led up to the stock market crash of 1929 and the high unemployment in the 1930s?”

A variety of probes can also be used to stimulate different cognitive processes. For example, suppose that a student in a sociology class has stated that a woman’s most important role in society is to be a mother. The teacher could probe that statement by asking, “Why do you say that?” However, it might be more stimulating to ask the student or the class as a whole, “If you were Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, or Simone de Beauvoir, how would you react to that statement?”, or “What are the positive and negative consequences that arise within a family when a woman devotes herself chiefly to being a mother?”, or “What actions would you expect the government to take if and when it incorporates your idea into its social and economic policy?”

Starting Discussions

Adapted from the Ohio State University 2001

Like lectures, discussions sometimes need a “jump start.” Here are some suggestions for getting a good discussion underway:

A common experience. Launch a discussion by presenting a concrete experience via a film clip, news story, textbook passage, or anecdote which illustrates the issues you want to focus on that session. Follow such a presentation with questions like “What are your immediate reactions?”, or “How did the director portray the Gulf War?”

Start with a targeted question that leads to open-ended questions. Get the discussion rolling with a few “softball” questions that everyone can easily answer and then transition into more critical-thinking and analytical questions. For example, “In the film, who is Archie Gates?” or “How is the character of Archie Gates representative of American idealism?” Another example: “What is genetic engineering?” or “What is the significance of genetic engineering in the field of medicine?”

Open with a controversy. To create a lively discussion, you may want to play “devil’s advocate” by introducing a controversial issue and then asking students to argue for certain sides. You can offer counter-arguments to their rationale to promote critical thinking, but it is important to let students know you are “playing” devil’s advocate. Be fair, and write claims and points from all sides on the board.

Discussion prompts. Some instructors will take a few minutes in the beginning of class to ask students to respond in writing to questions. This can help students who are usually quiet in class to formulate and voice a response.

Rewarding Student Participation and Providing Feedback

Adapted with permission from Hyman, 1980

In responding to student questions there are a number of guidelines which can positively reinforce good student responses and facilitate further discussion.

  1. Praise the student in a strong positive way for a correct or positive response. Use such terms as “excellent answer,” “absolutely correct,” and “bull’s eye.” These terms are quite different from the common mild phrases teachers often use such as “O.K.,” “hm-hm,” and “all right.” Especially when the response is long, the teacher should try to find at least some part that deserves praise and then comment on it.
  2. Make comments pertinent to the specific student response. For example, suppose that a student has offered an excellent response to the question, “What function did the invasion of the Falklands serve for Argentina?” The instructor might say, “That was excellent, Pat. You included national political reasons as well as mentioning the Argentine drive to become the South American leader.” This response gives an excellent rating to the student in an explicit and strong form. It also demonstrates that the instructor has listened carefully to the student’s ideas.
  3. Build on the student’s response. If the instructor continues to discuss a point after a student response, he or she should try to incorporate the key elements of the response into the discussion. By using the student’s response, the teacher shows that he or she values the points made. By referring to the student explicitly by name (e.g., “As Pat pointed out, the Falklands’ national political status . . .”), the teacher gives credit where credit is due.

Avoid the “Yes, but . . .” reaction. Teachers use “Yes, but . . .” or its equivalent when a response is wrong or at least partly wrong. The overall impact of these phrases is negative and deceptive even though the teacher’s intent is probably positive. The “Yes, but . . .” fielding move says that the response is correct or appropriate with one breath and then takes away the praise with the next. Some straightforward alternatives can be recommended:

  1. Wait to a count of five with the expectation that another student will volunteer a correct or better response.
  2. Ask, “How did you arrive at that response?” (Be careful, though, not to ask this question only when you receive inadequate responses; ask it also at times when you receive a perfectly good response.)
  3. Say, “You’re right regarding X and that’s great, but wrong regarding Y. Now we need to correct Y so we can get everything correct.”
  4. Say, “Thanks. Is there someone who wants to respond to the question or comment on the response we’ve already heard?”

These four alternatives are not adequate to fit all cases. Indeed, it is generally difficult to field wrong or partially wrong responses because students are sensitive to teacher criticism. However, with these alternatives as examples, you will probably be able to generate others as needed.

Teaching Large Classes

Some TAs eventually will be assigned to teach classes of 35, 50, 100, or 500 students at some point during their time at UF. While new TAs will most often assist a professor in a large class, there will be occasions when the TA will be in charge. Here are some tips to keep in mind.

Adapted with permission from Illinois Instructor

Series No. 1, University of Illinois, 1986

Teaching a large class is a major undertaking. It requires academic competence, leadership skills, the capacity to do advance and contingency planning, the ability to organize well and to purposefully carry out plans. Fortunately, many of these qualities are characteristic of faculty members and are frequently used in mapping out research projects, planning conferences, writing books, and researching papers. Most of the abilities needed to teach large classes are ones faculty members already possess and can successfully adapt to large-scale instruction.

What contributes most to success in teaching large classes?

To find answers to this question, the authors interviewed several faculty members recognized as outstanding large-class instructors by their peers and students. We asked them what advice they had to give colleagues about teaching large classes.

Each one of the large-class instructors indicated that the single most important factor is organizing before the term starts. The time spent planning before the course helps eliminate problems later on. According to these instructors, there are several key elements which require specific attention.

Decide early what specific content will be taught. Usually there is more you’d like to teach than can reasonably be presented in one semester, so you have to select a subset of content. Your colleagues may show you how they have taught the course before. However, unless there is a departmental syllabus, most content decisions are up to you. Because of the time required to develop large-class lectures and supporting materials, last-minute content changes are difficult. Plan ahead.

Anticipate what students already might be expected to know about the topic. One of the challenges of large-class instruction is to teach so that both the students who lack background can understand, and those who are well-prepared stay interested. Ask another faculty member or a departmental student advisor about the expected level of student preparation and ability. If possible, note which curricula are heavily represented in your classes. This information may point to prior student preparation in your area. It also can help you select among examples and make assignments that relate to student experiences.

Select texts and supplementary readings well before the course begins. There are two major reasons for selecting a text carefully. First, many students find it difficult to take accurate notes when listening to an hour’s uninterrupted lecture. They rely on their text to clarify the content and their notes. The closer the textbook corresponds to your course syllabus, the more useful it should be.

Secondly, most texts (unless you’ve written one for the course) do not always accompany the course as you have planned it. Materials to supplement the text become necessary. In addition to readings, supplementary materials might include problem sets and copies of visuals used in class.

Order texts and supplemental material early so they are available at the beginning of the term. Written permission must be obtained before copyrighted material can be reproduced. Some copying centers will help you get this permission. Arrangements can be made with a local copying center to prepare and sell supplementary course materials.

Look over the classroom before the first meeting. When you visit the lecture classroom, pay attention to blinds, the placement of light switches, sources of controlling ventilation and other housekeeping details. A room that is comfortable with only a few people may become uncomfortably warm when full of students.

Stand in the spot where you will lecture. Practice with the equipment you’ll use during class. Note how well your voice carries and how your handwriting looks from the rear of the room. Have another person sit in various seats to give feedback from the students’ perspective.

Communicate your expectations for the semester. At the first lecture of the semester, distribute the course syllabus and direct students’ attention to the most important statements. See the section in this handbook on the syllabus for more detailed information on the important elements of syllabus construction.

Should I plan to lecture on the first day? Very definitely. Use any available course time. Later in the term you may want extra time to review or repeat material. The first day of class is also one period that most students are attentive and curious about a course. Take advantage of their interest. A well-organized first class lets the students know that you are competent and prepared, and sets the expectation that they too ought to be conscientious in the course.

What is a reasonable length of time to spend preparing each lecture? Because students may not ask as many questions in a large class, you must usually be prepared to talk for the entire period, that is, unless you have structured discussion time or individual or small group work into the course. The chances of having a good presentation increase the more thoroughly you plan. In addition to the time spent preparing your presentation, many experienced instructors recommend reserving the half-hour prior to class to “psyche up” — review the lecture, check that you have everything you need, and bring yourself up to the energy level needed for a lengthy presentation. Through experience you’ll find out how much time you personally need to prepare a large-class lecture.

How can I keep students’ attention during a lecture? Spending time on lecture preparation is necessary; however, that time alone will not guarantee a good lecture. Students cannot learn what they cannot see and hear. In a large class, public-speaking skills are important. Speak slowly, loudly, and clearly enough to be understood. Don’t underestimate the value of a microphone. Also, consider the use of “clickers” (referenced earlier under the Use of Instructional Multimedia) or incorporate short “buzz sessions” to elicit student participation.

Accurate student note-taking is important. Make sure your writing is legible in every section of the room. Ask students and teaching assistants if they can understand you and read your handwriting. There are several things you can do to help students take complete notes. If you use previously prepared PowerPoint slides, pause in your lecture to allow students to copy them. Consider making the slides available for them to print. The slides might contain major subject headings and complicated formulae and diagrams. If you leave space for additional notes, students can remain active listeners. They have time to listen, and they make fewer mistakes than if they were hastily copying long and detailed material. Some teachers post their notes on the web after their lectures. Before posting notes on the web, however, you may want to consider the effect this would have on note-taking in class and on class attendance.

Even under the best of conditions, students find it hard to stay alert for the entire class period. There are many devices which instructors may use to keep or regain students’ attention including the following:

  1. Alter the pitch and tone of your voice.
  2. Ask a rhetorical question.
  3. Ask students to write specific answers to a question you pose in class.
  4. Ask students to write examples of key concepts you’ve mentioned.
  5. Ask students to turn to their neighbor and explain why something is an example of a key concept.

Keep in touch with your students

You can maintain contact with students even in large classes. Let students know early in the term that you like talking with them about the course. Come to class early and chat with those students present. Ask for volunteers to form a weekly feedback group to meet with you.

In addition to meeting with interested class members, you should “take the pulse” of the entire class early enough in the term to make any necessary changes based on your reading of student feedback. Ask them to answer short, simple questions such as “What do you like about the course? What would you like changed? Suggestions?”

Plan all aspects of testing and grading very carefully. Think about grading and exams when you first plan the course. Questions about exam timing and organization often begin with questions about course content. Ask yourself what content is most important, least important, stressed most in class, and in assignments? Decide who will contribute the test questions.

Some other considerations are:

  • How many examinations and assignments make up the final grade?
  • How is each examination and assignment to be weighted?
  • How will tests be distributed and returned?
  • What will the policy be on missed exams and make-ups?
  • To avoid wasting time and to prevent cheating, think about the mechanics of testing large groups of people. The following recommendations have been made by faculty:
  • Utilize your discussion leaders or other TAs to help administer tests.
  • Have students seated by their discussion groups so that discussion leaders can take attendance and see that only those students registered are taking the exam.
  • Create two versions of the test by changing the order questions are placed in.
  • Number each test and answer sheet. Ask your assistants to record the number of the test the student has turned in.

Useful Resources on Lecturing

Barkley, E. F. (2018). Interactive Lecturing: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Publishers.

Brookfield, S. D. (1990). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust and responsiveness in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Publishers.

Brown, S. (2002). Lecturing: A practical guide. London: Kogan Page.

Carbone, E. L. (1998). Teaching large classes: Tools and strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Eble, K. E. (1988). The craft of teaching: A guide to mastering the professor’s art (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers.

Eng, N. (2017). Teaching College: The ultimate guide to lecturing, presenting, and engaging students. New York: Norman Eng.

McKeachie, W. J. (2002). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Stanley, C. A., & Porter, M. E. (2002). Engaging large classes. Boston, MA: Anker.

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UF TA Handbook by John Jordi; Genavie Cueman; and Jennifer K. Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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