Learning to lecture

Some historians are great advocates of lectures as a mode of teaching; others dislike them.

A number of historians we filmed vividly recall memorable lecturers who inspired them with their erudition and/or performance skills. These teachers told compelling stories, put forward arresting arguments, marshalled brilliantly evocative examples, brought the subject dramatically to life. They dazzled their students and prompted a lifelong interest in the subject.

Whilst I’ve always enjoyed the performance element of lecturing I’m not personally a fan of lectures in terms of their effectiveness in enhancing student learning. And my experience tells me that most of us arguably are not such gifted performers as the paragons referred to above – occasionally maybe. But, like them or not, ever-larger student cohorts and demands for ‘efficient’ teaching and student demands for more teaching hours have made lecture programmes attractive to departments planning their teaching. Whilst not all undergraduate courses in history have lecture courses, most do, so whether you like it or not it’s almost certain that once you are appointed to a lectureship you will have to, well, lecture.

Talking to colleagues about their own teaching experiences, I’ve been thinking about my mistakes when I started lecturing (no training, naturally). There are too many to list here, but the big one was too much content. My ‘script’ could simply not be delivered in the time available: it was much too detailed and far too heavy on the specifics of historiographical arguments. Nor did I think about linking lectures in my lecture programme together, and I have an uncomfortable feeling that I was far too busy reading off my notes to notice much at all about my audience or interact with them. I was too concerned, basically, with appearing competent: an understandable and forgivable offence, I hope, for a beginner only three or four years older than most of my students, and younger than some.

Anyway, here are a few basic (and condensed) thoughts about making the most of lecturing. They relate primarily to the standard 50 minute lecture. But it’s worth emphasising that there’s no one-way to lecture; you need to find a way to deliver material and connect with the students that works for you (and them); that reflects their needs and your personality.

The audience. First principle: remember it is an audience in front of you. You might only be talking in small chunks, maybe from Powerpoint slides, but your class will still want to be engaged and feel you are conversing with them not some point above their heads or at the back of the room, or just reading-off from your notes. Smiling, looking relaxed, talking to a few students as they come in; all these small things really help to establish a connection. Spending a few minutes explaining what you’re going to do and linking your lecture into previous ones is a good way to begin, and it gives time for latecomers to arrive. At the end of the lecture, summing up your key points/argument is a good way of reinforcing key points and tying the lecture together. Eye contact is good, but don’t get spooked by students looking blankly at you or the student who stares at you all the time but not in a friendly way. It’s easy to see some students’ reactions as boredom or even hostility, but you have no idea what they’re thinking. Sometimes, after the lecture you can ask the most blank-looking student about the lecture and they will say how interesting it was.

Content. If you have a script, try cutting it by half. Don’t forget you’ll be talking more slowly than in ordinary speech and pausing and repeating points for emphasis, not least because some students will lose track (easy to do in a notionally 50 minute lecture). Also that it takes 5 minutes to get everyone in the room and settled. If you have too much material you’ll end up talking too fast to get through it and students will quickly lose their place and interest. Don’t forget attention span (educational psychologists tell us) is max. 20 minutes – and it’s probably less today. Also recognise that students can only realistically take two or three key messages away. So what three things do you most want them to take away from your lecture? This is a good way to plan content and think through the level you want to pitch it at, and you can also use this at the start of the lecture to explain to students what you’re trying to (get them to) achieve.

Delivery. As suggested above a slower pace than normal speech is important, as are audibility and clarity. Variety of pace and modulating your voice can help, but in my view clarity is more important and clear and simple language is best. If you look at the audience you’ll soon see if they can hear or things are unclear: those taking notes will start looking at the notes of the person sitting next to them, or just stop taking notes. It’s always useful to repeat the last point if you see this happening, as it is if there’s a point or argument you particularly want to emphasise. It’s also helpful to summarise at the end of each section of the lecture – it helps everyone to recap and gives a bit of breathing space. Pauses in a lecture allow students time to catch up or for a point to sink in.

Variety and engagement. Today lecturer talk is often interspersed with quizzes, discussion exercises, debate points, analogies, personal examples, stories, film clips, music etc., all of which can help to keep up interest as well as facilitate interaction. The vast array of internet resources available makes this easier. Powerpoint, once seen as a way of interesting a visual generation, has become a bit stale, depending on how it’s used, but as part of a varied approach it can work well.  So, remember to break the lecture up into sections and allow sufficient time for tasks you set for students (it’s easy to underestimate how long these take) and for questions (though students are often wary about asking questions and giving them time to think of questions with a few others sitting nearby helps).

All of the above emphasises that lecturing is a performance, and this underlines the importance of not being afraid to let your personality show through. If that means you move around or use your hands to emphasise a point that’s fine as long as these don’t become the only focus of attention. A lecturer who looks genuinely enthusiastic about the subject matter and sharing that enthusiasm (even at 9 am on a cold winter morning) lends passion and authenticity to the experience; makes a lecture live and so increases the chance it will have an effect on motivation. Communicate your enthusiasm and students will forgive everything else!

You might like to look at the following films on the site:

Andrew May      Teaching as performance

Geoff Ginn          Keep Learning

David Pomfret     Using technology

Marcus Collins    Technology in lectures

Ross Balzaretti   Too much Powerpoint

Sean Brawley     Powerpoint and confidence

And it would be great to hear your own early experiences of lecturing and the strategies you have used to make the most of this everyday mode of teaching in our subject.

PS. Note from Jeanne – interesting we have few films of women mentioning lecturing – anyone want to make one? Or any thoughts on why we haven’t?

One thought on “Learning to lecture

  1. Lots of excellent points here, mainly relating to ALL subjects, not just history (even if maybe historians like lecturing more than others, which does NOT mean they do it better than others).

    I would add the following:
    * get an actor to talk to your staff about delivery, posture, variation, etc., etc..
    * think about the “3-part lesson” i.e. the lecture is just a chunk, not the whole thing
    * remember to change pace; ask questions; give time for small-group discussion
    * send them away with something they have learned, something to think about (BIG questions!), and a ‘small’ question to investigate
    * use teamwork i.e. if everybody has slightly different ‘small’ question, you can actually get a lot of research done by pooling them e.g. look at the daily newspaper for {{a different date for meach student}}; then pool them in small groups; then pool the small group results. This is known as team-research! Students learn far more from each other than they ever will from you!

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