Lecturing effectively

A professor lecturingAs long as class sizes continue to increase and university budgets tighten, lecturing will remain a dominant teaching method (Perry in Perry & Smart, 1997; Brown & Race, 2002). Knowing how to lecture well, therefore, is a crucial skill to master. Effective lecturing is characterized by enthusiasm and expressiveness, clarity, and interaction (Murray in Perry & Smart, 1997). Consider using the tips below to introduce students to—and stimulate their enthusiasm about—your course material.

Preparation

  • Check out your classroom in advance. Familiarize yourself with the layout of the desks and the front of the classroom. Decide where you will stand and how you will move from one place to another. Find out whether the classroom has audio-visual equipment or whether you will have to request it from the audio visual centre.
  • Practice your lecture beforehand. For your first few lectures, practice to ensure that you have an appropriate amount of material and activities for the time available. Then record your timings after class so you can discern the pacing of your style. Students’ questions and learning activities can take up to 50% more time than you may first think.
  • Take along a bottle of water. The water will soothe a sore or dry throat. Taking a sip is also a good way to buy thinking time before responding to a student question.

Lecture notes

  • Avoid writing out a complete lecture script. A script is too time-consuming to prepare, and it will prevent you from maintaining eye contact with the students. As you read, your voice will project downward, and you will appear disengaged from the class. Your ability to be spontaneous will be hindered. Also avoid using visual aids as your notes; your reading from an overhead or computer screen will not keep the students engaged, since your visual focus still will not be on them.
  • Do prepare some notes. Experiment to find out what kind of notes work best for you, e.g., a detailed outline, a list of major points, a tree diagram. Your notes should include key definitions, proofs, solved problems, examples and analogies. If you think you might get nervous in front of a large class, make sure you know exactly what you are going to say at the beginning of class.
  • Be flexible when following your notes. Watch students’ level of interest and confusion to determine how much time to spend on a topic and what level of explication is required. Your notes should be flexible enough to let you adjust the depth and order of the content based on students’ feedback. Your notes are there if needed, but the lecture should arise out of your interaction with the students, not the notes themselves.
  • Include delivery reminders. Use wide margins so you can add notes to yourself about audio-visual aids, questions to ask students, last-minute examples, and instructions for hands-on activities.

Structuring the lecture clearly

  • Show your students “the big picture.” Don't assume that your students know the pedagogical purpose of your lecture. Instead, explain how the lecture relates to previously-learned material and the course themes and goals in general. Begin the class with a short review of the key points from last class, and end with a preview of the topics for next class (along with a reminder about any readings or assignments to be completed). The day before the lecture, you might also use email or an announcement in the LMS to inform or remind students of what the pedagogical goals of the upcoming lecture. 
  • Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you’ve just said. Before discussing the day’s topics, provide an overview of what will be discussed. After covering the topics, end with a restatement of the key points. When speaking, repeat yourself to an extent that would be redundant in writing to facilitate student note-taking. Like a pop song, great lectures have a "chorus": key points that the speaker returns to throughout, and that will stick in the students' minds. When the lecture is over, involve students in re-capping the highlights.
  • Keep the lecture outline visible for students. Write it on a corner of the blackboard or leave it up on an overhead. Return to the outline periodically to show your progress through the material and to reinforce key points.
  • Make explicit transitions between topics with mini-summaries. Link current material to previously-learned content and future lectures. Be explicit about how one topic connects to the next, or ask your students to explain the connections. By linking new material to previously-learned content, you help students understand and organize this new information in their minds.
  • Cover only a few main points in each lecture. Plan to cover only three or four points in a fifty-minute lecture and four or five points in a seventy-five-minute class. Select key points that introduce, complement, and/or clarify the course readings, assignments, and goals. Focus on presenting central points or general themes that tie together as many topics as possible; students will be able to associate details with these main points on their own. Avoid merely repeating the course readings; instead, elaborate on this content using new examples and sample exercises or problems. For more information about selecting and organizing content, see the “Course Content Selection and Organization” Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) teaching tip.

Keeping students engaged

  • Design your lecture in ten- to fifteen-minute blocks. Adult attention spans average ten to twenty minutes, so change pace every fifteen minutes or so to relieve monotony and recapture students’ interest. Intersperse mini-lectures with discussions or other activities. For suggestions about alternatives to lecturing, see the CTE teaching tip “Varying Your Teaching Activities: 9 Alternatives to Lecturing”.
  • Actively involve students in their learning. Ask them to help you demonstrate an analogy to explain an abstract concept. Give them practice problems or a writing exercise to do on their own or in pairs. Have a brainstorming session with the entire class or in small groups. Show a video clip prefaced by your instructions about what to look for. Give a multiple-choice quiz. Have a question and answer session. Prepare questions beforehand that promote class discussion and reinforce key concepts. Use such activities to regain student attention and deepen their learning. The CTE teaching tip “Active Learning Activities” has more suggestions for actively involving students in their learning.
  • Allow breaks during class.  Encourage students to move around, talk with one another, or just to relax quietly. Creating breaks also allows students to catch up on and digest what has been discussed.
  • The "think, pair, share" approach allows for productive breaks. Give students a question or problem; give them time to think of their own answers; pair them up to discuss; then ask some groups to share with the entire class.  This approach also allows "tolerance for error" – sometimes students need low-stakes opportunities to get things wrong or to air hypotheses and take risks in their thinking.
  • Have students take turns taking class notes. They can do so on whiteboards or on large flipchart paper, or on a laptop. After class, the notes can be shared with everyone in the LMS. 
  • Be sure to stress why the lecture material is valuable for the students. Relate the content to students’ interests, knowledge, experiences, and needs as much as possible. Use metaphors, analogies, and examples that appeal to the students and will help them understand the material. Making the material relevant is critical for keeping students attentive, and it will help them retain the information.
  • State your key points as learning objectives for the students. Share these objectives with your students: “By the end of the class, you will be able to ….” State the objectives as concretely as possible, using action verbs (e.g., draw, solve, explain) rather than vague verbs (e.g., learn, understand, know). After you have prepared the lecture and again after you have delivered it, check that you have in fact accomplished these objectives.
  • Use students’ questions. While preparing the lecture, anticipate students’ questions. Incorporate the answers into your lecture, or introduce an activity that allows students to discover the answers for themselves. During the lecture, use students’ responses and questions as jumping-off places for your next point or to begin a spontaneous discussion.
  • Facilitate feedback from students. Encourage students near the end of the class to verbally share feedback, but you should also provide opportunities for students to provide feedback in written form (and perhaps anonymously). An effective low-tech method is to circulate and then collect note cards, which students can use to write questions or comments. More high-tech methods of encouraging feedback include using tools such as Google Moderator or a discussion forum in the LMS. 
  • Consider posting your lecture notes or slides online before or immediately after class. When feasible, you might also make the audio or video of your lectures available online. Videos can be captioned using free online tools like YouTube's automatic caption creator, or ask for help with captioning from AccessAbility Services. Captions increase accessibility, but studies also show that many students like to listen to a video and read the captions at the same time.

Delivery

  • Maintain regular eye contact with your students. By doing so, you create connections with them, are able to gauge their note-taking, and discourage distracting class noise. 
  • It helps many students to be able to see your face and mouth while you speak. How can you make that happen?  Can you find an alternative way to write on a whiteboard or chalkboard, so that you don’t turn your back to the class? Consider using a microphone to amplify your voice. This helps all students -- not just ones with hearing issues -- and will also put less stress on your vocal cords. 
  • Speak clearly, but use a conversational tone. Think of the lecture as an opportunity to speak with the students, not at them.
  • Convey your enthusiasm for the material and the students. Vary your vocal speed and pitch, as well as your facial expressions. Smile often. Consider using humour when appropriate.
  • Ask the students periodically if they can hear and see everything. Make changes to your volume and visual aids as necessary.
  • Move around the room, and use natural gestures. This movement is especially important for engaging large classes. Changes help to refocus students’ attention, but remember to move with purpose so you avoid distracting your students.
  • Interact with your students to create positive rapport with them. Arrive at class early so that you can welcome students. Address them by name as much as possible, and plan to stay after class to chat with students and answer their questions.
  • Encourage students to take notes. The process of writing notes helps them remember the lecture content and stay attentive to what’s going on. To help students make good notes, provide a clear structure for the lecture, and use a pace that allows them to keep up (remember not to rush when using pre-prepared visual aids). Rather than writing extensive notes that students must copy word for word, write key terms on the board or slides to facilitate students’ own processing of the information, or provide skeletal course notes for the students to annotate. Pause regularly so that students can ask for clarification.

Using visual aids 

  • Use visual aids to stimulate and focus students’ attention. Multimedia aids using sound, colour, and/or animations have an even greater power to attract and maintain students’ attention, particularly in large classes where the impersonal situation makes students feel less involved. Visual aids should be a support for, not the focus of, your lecture. They also should not replace your personal interaction with the students.
  • Make each visual count. If you are using overheads or PowerPoint, aim for twelve to twenty slides for a fifty-minute lecture. Be conscious of speeding through the slides and/or overloading students with content—common problems with these types of media.
  • Reveal visual information gradually rather than all at once. This keeps students focusing on your oral development of each point, instead of rushing to copy down the material. Alternately, you could show all the points, then go back to explain each one.
  • Consider creating visual aids during the lecture. Solving problems, showing processes, or building models in real time is often clearer for students than seeing completed work. You can also create visuals to reflect the outcomes of interactive exercises, thereby validating the students’ input. The act of writing also helps you to pace the lecture appropriately.
  • Write down key words and names. Students will try to write down everything they see. If information does not need to be copied down, mention that to the students, or consider whether it is important enough to include in the first place. Consider providing handouts that give an outline of the lecture material for students to annotate.
  • Check the equipment before class. Electronic equipment can break down or malfunction, so have an alternate plan ready. Equipment problems will negatively affect your credibility, even if they are beyond your control. Make sure, too, that you know how to operate the equipment.
  • If you show a video in class, ensure that captions are turned on. Doing so helps all students. 
  • When using a projector, dim the lights appropriately. If the lights are not sufficiently dim, the projected image will not be visible. But if you are going to be verbally commenting on the projected images, ensure that students with hearing issues will still be able to see your face and lips.

Specific accessibility considerations

  • Make large-print copies of all materials available as handouts or online. Even if you only lecture or present from a set of notes, sharing these notes can be tremendously helpful.
  • Make sure there is high colour contrast between the background and the text for any handouts. If you are giving a slide presentation that will be viewed via projector, the contrast often needs to be more pronounced than on printed material. Black text on a white background, or white text on a black background, are the easiest to read.  Use larger font sizes and more slides rather than jamming a lot of text onto a few slides – that's better for everyone.
  • Accommodate the needs of students who use adaptive technology. This includes closed-captioning, personal frequency modulation (FM) systems, teletypewriters (known as TTYs), amplified phones, closed-circuit television (CCTV’s), large print computers and materials, Braille, and magnifiers. 

  • Be ready and willing to work with sign interpreters or CART interpreters – in both cases, providing scripts in advance of lectures or presentations can be very helpful.  Slow down when you are using big words or complicated phrases and spell out key names. Allow the ASL interpreter to sit or stand near you so the student can watch you and “read your words” at the same time by watching the interpreter. Watch the student, but listen to the interpreter when they are interpreting what the student is saying; speak to the student and not to the interpreter. Take short breaks in your speaking to allow the interpreter to catch up; also, plan a 10-minute break for every 50 minutes of class presentation, as interpretation requires a great deal of concentration and endurance. Be aware that interpreters are bound by their professional code of ethics to interpret all spoken messages while in the presence of the student, including informal chatting. When video material is not close-captioned, provide enough light to allow the student to see the interpreter; the interpreter also needs to be positioned near the viewing screen so that the student can see the interpreter and the video simultaneously. Be aware that interpreters often work in pairs, with each interpreting 20 to 30 minute segments. This is because of the need for a high degree of concentration and because of the physical demands of the work. Don’t be concerned with the initial distraction that the interpreter’s hand movements may cause for the rest of the class; tests show that people quickly become accustomed to the interpreter’s presence. Advise the Office for Students with Disabilities if you are planning to cancel a class or change locations, such as taking a field trip. Interpreters are hired on an hourly basis, so advance notice of changes helps reduce costs and allows for better use of the interpreter’s skills.

  • When possible, choose physically accessible locations for your classes. If you have a choice, select rooms with desks/chairs that are movable rather than with fixed seats. Think about the choices that students have for seating – does everyone not just have a place to sit/stand, but a choice of places to sit/stand?  Once the room is full, will students still have choices, and will they still be easily able to come and go?  Will all students still be able to see/hear you?
  • Provide your students with information about accessible features of the immediate environment. This might include the locations of automatic doors, accessible washrooms, ramps, and so on. 
The information on accessibility in this section of the page has been adapted from "Universal Design: Places to Start," which was developed by Jay Dolmage, an instructor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo, who specializes in disability studies. Jay invites members of the University of Waterloo community who are interested in learning more about accessibility and universal design to contact him

Resources

  • CTE Teaching Tips “Designing Visual Aids” and “Using Visual Aids.”
    Bligh, D. (2000). What’s the Use of Lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Brown, S. & Race, P. (2002). Lecturing: A Practical Guide. London: Kogan Page.
  • Chickering, A.W., & Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. AAHE Bulletin. Website http://www.aahe.org/bulletin/sevenprinciples1987.htm.
  • Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Hogan, J. (1999). Lecturing for Learning. In Heather Fry, Steve Ketteridge and Stephanie Marshall (Eds.), Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (pp. 83-94). London: Kogan Page.
  • Lowman, J. (1995). Mastering the Techniques of Teaching. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Perry, R.P., & Smart, J.C. (Eds). (1997). Effective Teaching in Higher Education. New York: Agathon Press.
  • Young, Suzanne, & Shaw, Dale G. (1999). Profiles of Effective College and University Teachers. Journal of Higher Education 70 (6), 670-86.