Career advice: how to lecture for the first time

A few core principles can make it far easier to get it right when you first have to stand up in front of a class, say Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman

April 13, 2017
Group looking past curtains to stage
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Stand and deliver: your career may depend on your ability to enthral students

It is a daunting experience to find yourself confronting between 50 and 500 young, bright, witty and demanding individuals, all expecting to be inspired, educated, or at least kept awake, by your first lectures. Here are our eight top tips for making it as painless as possible.

Know your stuff
You should know what you are teaching inside out. If you are recommending further reading, make sure that you have read the books yourself. If you are teaching in an area that you don’t know well, winging it is never sensible.

It is equally important to have a solid grasp of the learning objectives. Make sure that you have the exam and any other assessments clear in your own head, and ideally on paper. Nothing will erode student evaluation scores more quickly than a coursework brief that appears to be shifting by the week.

Don’t just hope for the best
You’ll need to spend a significant amount of time preparing. Good lectures, like good whisky, need a period of maturing. Even if you are repeating a lecture from last year, it can’t just be laid down and redelivered. A ratio of four hours of preparation to one hour of delivery is a sensible starting point, and it can take even longer if you’re less familiar with the course content or just nervous about public speaking.

Know what your audience wants
The modern student tends to fixate on the exam and coursework, and is often averse to open-ended invitations to learn for the sheer pleasure of it. There will be a noticeable ripple of pencils, keypads and camera phones being readied at the merest mention of the exam. While this year’s exam should be strictly off limits, a thorough review of last year’s paper makes a good end point for your course.

Remember it is edutainment
No matter what your deputy vice-chancellor (teaching and learning) says, teaching has a large element of entertainment. Pitch your presentational style well and students will remember more of what you said. If you are dull, you can be sure that they aren’t learning and soon won’t be there in person. Your future career trajectory could well depend on your ability to captivate, enthral and encourage learning.

Connect with your audience
It is tempting to demonstrate that you know more than your students. But bombast tends not to go down well, and you may end up sounding ridiculous. If your students are half your age, avoid references to children’s television programmes that you watched a few decades ago or films from your formative years. Decide in advance how you are going to deal with hecklers, latecomers and talkers.

Don’t let the gadgetry get in the way
While you may swoon at the use of user-generated content and social media, your average undergraduate has probably been using them since nursery. So, if you are going to use, design or build an app or interactive website, make sure that it works well. Even if you can get the technology working, there’s little point unless it helps to make a point. A flashy presentation is no compensation for a lack of knowledge, understanding or content.

When using PowerPoint, ensure that you make the slides your own. Don’t just use what Professor X wrote last year (students will notice the outdated examples, the non-existent currencies and the wrong dates). Worse still, if you are using the tutor slides that came free with the textbook, don’t be surprised that the students know exactly where they have come from. Indeed, they will be wondering what value you are adding when they could read the book and the slides by themselves. Remember to contextualise your work; international students won’t know local brands and may even be offended by issues such as gambling and alcohol.

Stick to timings
Don’t overrun. That simply annoys your students and the person coming in to use the lecture theatre after you. Make a note of the key markers so that you can tell whether you need to speed up or slow down long before the end looms. But never skip things because you’re running late – it unsettles the audience.

It’s not just the lecture
Raising a hand in a lecture can make many students anxious. So office hours are particularly important for breaking down barriers and helping students take responsibility for their own learning. Make sure that you tell them where and when you will be available for a weekly surgery session.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation. Both regularly write about academic life on the Heriot-Watt blogs It’s Not You, It’s Your Data and thePhDblog.com.

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Print headline: Keeping the crowd edutained

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