How to

January 15, 1999

WHAT

Sally Brown suggests some ways to make lectures more interesting so that students learn during them and not afterwards

WHY

Lectures are still the main way to deliver the curriculum. They can be well informed and inspiring but they can bore students to tears

HOW

Students know a good lecture from a bad one and their eyes are quick to glaze over if lectures are too boring. No one benefits and it wastes valuable learning time.

Common faults among lecturers with a reputation for giving uninspiring lectures include assuming too much prior knowledge, failing to pace the presentation of new information and racing through too much too fast.

Too much jargon is just as much of a turn-off as acronyms and unfamiliar terms introduced too early.

Lecturers who lack confidence in their material or have a poor presentation technique leave themselves open to accusations of not knowing their subject matter.

If they speak too softly, drone along in monotone or mumble, students may quickly switch off, doodle or daydream. Many a promising lecture can be ruined because the lecturer uses no visual aids or uses them so badly that students have no time to make notes or copy diagrams and may not even be able to see what is being explained.

It is a mistake not to make a clear distinction between the important parts of the lecture that students should make notes about and illustrations, asides, anecdotes and illustrative examples.

A guaranteed soporific is to ignore the audience either by speaking to a distant corner of the room and making no eye contact, or by reading from a prepared script with no glances about the room. It means students are seen as passive recipients of information whose task is simply to make carbon-copy notes.

Planning and preparation

Lecturers need to spend time preparing not only the content of their lectures but presentation. A common mistake among new lecturers is to spend so much time researching and summarising material that is at the cutting edge of their subject so that they leave no time to think about how to put it across effectively.

If we want students to take on board what we say, we need to remember that to listen is not to know.

Students need to do something constructive with what they hear and if they spend too long just noting what is said and rushing to write it down, they will lose concentration very quickly.

Research has shown that after about a quarter of an hour students will switch off if they do not have prompts to keep them alert. Effective lecturers often split a one-hour section up into three or four with some kind of attention recall point at regular intervals. Such mid-lecture activities might include: pausing for 30 seconds and asking students to think of the three most important points they have heard so far.

The lecturer can then sample a few responses and comment on them, using the opportunity to reinforce key points; asking everyone to write down a question and then calling on a few students who were observed to have written something straight away to read aloud what they had written.

This works much better than asking if anyone has any questions at the end of a lecture. All too often this is seen as a signal for everyone to pack up and go.

Instead of asking individuals to answer questions, the lecturer could ask everyone to respond by a show of hands to a series of constrained responses.

This tends to wake them up and gives an idea of how many students are not following what is said - give them a minute's break in which to rest their hands, refresh their minds and catch their breaths.

But make sure a break is not a chance to gossip. Time it strictly to 60 seconds, indicating when the time starts and finishes by, for example, turning the overhead projector on and off.

Another way is to give students a short reading task from a handout.

Students tend to read much faster than most lecturers talk, so the pace of the session can be changed by asking them to read a short piece of text such as a review, an alternative viewpoint, a copyright-cleared extract from a newspaper or a mini case-study.

It is not a bad idea to break the reading into two sections, asking everyone to make sure they have read the first in the time available and suggesting slow readers and those whose first language is not English cover the second extension task after the lecture.

You can keep students alert by giving them small individual tasks, such as solving a problem, completing a diagram, listing key factors, doing a short multi-choice quiz, comparing and contrasting issues, reviewing an unlabelled diagram on the overhead projector and asking them to provide the right words for each of the numbered points on it, and so on.

A task can be done in pairs or in groups of three or four. This can be accomplished even in tiered lecture theatres if students work with students in front and behind rather than beside them.

If you ask them to do an individual task, then share it with a partner and then join pairs to make fours with the tasks getting slightly more difficult each time. This can prompt good interaction.

This is called pyramiding or snowballing and need not take more than eight or ten minutes in total if you brief well in advance; divide students in the lecture hall into two large groups and ask one large group to think individually or in groups about worst case scenarios and the other to think about best case scenarios.

A sample of responses can be used to build up good-practice guidelines on any appropriate topic.

Some lecturers would say these kinds of things take up too much time that should be used for curriculum delivery, but many would argue that the pay-off in recalling attention makes it well worth while.

In any case, curriculum delivery is less like a postman delivering a parcel than like a midwife delivering a baby. It is, or should be, an active process with students involved all the time and taking responsibility for their learning.

Getting the timing right

It is as frustrating for students to feel the "groundrush effect" when a lecturer with too much material and bad timing speeds up towards the end of the lecture as it is to watch helplessly as the under-prepared or badly-paced lecturer waffles and tries to stretch the prepared material to fit the time.

Some things that can help with timing include: planning the content and activities of the lecture into chunks and allocating an approximate time budget for each; running through the material in advance (especially for new lecturers and those giving key presentations) because it is easy to forget that we can read much faster than we normally speak aloud; keeping a clock visible and referring to it at regular intervals; having "elastic" sections of material available that can be extended if time allows, but which can be contracted or omitted if time is running out.

Finishing a lecture well

Ideally lectures should finish with a flourish, rather than dwindling into silence or coming to a screeching halt at which point all students rush for the door.

Some good ways of ending a lecture include: summarising the key points without being too repetitive; giving an idea of what will be covered in the next lecture; asking students to think about how to plan an essay topic or exam question on the material covered; suggesting students review the notes they have made, looking for questions and gaps; completing a query card to be dropped into a box on the way out; asking the students to give you some brief feedback (oral or written) on how the lecture went for them. These can then be dealt with briefly at the start of the next lecture.

Sally Brown is head of quality enhancement at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle.

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