Boring Within or Simply Boring?

Rob Weir offers tips on building a good lecture.

April 20, 2009

In the age of computer-based learning, lecturing gets treated like Model-T Ford. Don’t be deceived; lecturing remains a staple of the academy and it’s likely to remain so for quite some time. University class sizes have swelled in the wake of budget cuts that have delayed (or canceled) faculty searches. A recent study of eleven Ohio four-year colleges reveals that 25 percent of introductory classes have more than 120 students and only a shortage of teaching assistants has kept the percentage that low. At the University of Massachusetts, 12 percent of all classes have enrollments of over 50 and lectures of over 200 are quite common. As long as universities operate on the assembly-line model, lecturing will remain integral to the educational process.

But even if enormous class sizes aren’t the norm at your college, lecturing is still an art you should master. It doesn’t matter how technologically adroit one is or how many non-instructor-directed whistles and bells get crammed into a course, at some point every professor lectures, even if it’s just giving instructions or recapping a completed exercise. (I’ll address online classes in the future, but let’s just say that you’d be wise to incorporate lecture-like components into these as well.)

Lots of new professors harbor anxiety about lecturing, which is understandable, given that it shows up in most top-10 lists of American phobias. The ability to give an engaging lecture doesn’t come shrink-wrapped with your graduate diploma. Nor does it necessarily come with experience; some of the smartest and most seasoned professors I’ve ever encountered are horrible lecturers. That said, lecturing is so integral to successful college teaching that it’s a form of masochism and sadism to not become good at it.

Frankly, it gets my dander up when I hear professors proclaim they “don’t have the gift” for giving good lecturers. Lecturing is not genetically determined like eye color or a receding hairline. The most common reason for bad lecturing isn’t phobia; it’s that professors don’t value the craft enough to hone their skills. Use such individuals as negative role models. Think of the most boring lecturer you’ve ever encountered. Do the opposite!

Bad lecturers violate nearly every rule of good communication. They never vary voice timbre or pitch. They either stare at their notes or ignore them altogether and ramble onto whatever topic comes to mind. They never make eye contact with their audience or use visual aids and handouts. Everything comes out at the same speed, and they never, ever show the slightest bit of life when discussing the very subject that supposedly excites them. Check for a pulse; if you can stay awake!

Step one to improving your lecture skills is to purge yourself of bad communication habits, but the rest of lecturing is a formula. Mix with enthusiasm and repeat the following:

  • Stated Objective(s)
  • A Plan
  • Hook
  • Body
  • Repetition
  • Summary
  • Restated Objective(s)

By objectives I don’t mean busy-work exercises in typing that public school teachers have to churn out to satisfy the Standards Nazis. A lecture objective is nothing more (or less) than identifying the reason(s) for giving the lecture. What do you want students to know at the end of the spiel? Tell students where you’re headed. This need be no more complex than “Today I want us to consider…” or, “The major thesis of today’s lecture is….”

Stating objectives also aids the lecturer. Lectures are not conference papers. You should be interesting, authoritative, and informative, but the point is not to show how clever or erudite you are. Most of what you will teach is already second nature (even simplistic) to you. Your task is to help students expand their knowledge, concepts, skills, and thinking. Being clear is far more important than being impressive.

In a related vein, concrete objectives that are few in number trump complexity. Students hear quite differently than they read. Distill your intentions to essential points. Some lecturers fall flat because they try to accomplish too much. Rome wasn’t built in a day and your lecture cannot be all-inclusive either. A good lecture is merely one building block students use to construct their own house of knowledge.

Very few of us are skillful enough to lecture without notes. We may know the material inside and out, but that’s not the same as organizing it. Work from a written plan. It can be as elaborate as a verbatim script — as long as you don’t read it — or as spare as a bullet-point outline on a note card, but map out where you want to go and the route you’ll take to get there. If nothing else it will help you pick up the journey if it’s not completed by the end of the class.

A time-tested way of engaging students is using a hook. Unveil a teaser, pose a question, tell a story, be provocative, invite brief brainstorming… any adult equivalent of “Once upon a time ....” Frontloading wonderment helps keep an audience. For instance, when I want students in my Civil War class to consider a stated objective about the link between ideology and historical memory I show a slide of King George III, George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln, and Robert E. Lee. I ask, “Which figures can we pair and why?” For a lecture on the economics of the Salem witchcraft trial I hold up a shard of imported 17th century pottery and tell students, “This little scrap of crockery contributed to the death of 19 people in 1692.”

Once hooked, proceed to the body. Illustrate the thesis, don’t hammer it into submission. In days past I crammed as much detail as I could into lectures, which often led to confusion (and sore note-taking wrists). It’s better to say a lot about a little than a little about a lot. Delving into a few examples makes for a more cohesive narrative. Make sure that everything in your lecture relates to the objectives and isn’t just shoehorned in for the sake of being “comprehensive.” The real skill in lecturing is how well you assemble and organize material, not how arcane, esoteric, or exhaustive it is.

Reinforcement is basic to learning, so repeat yourself early and often. I often make the same point two different ways and ask students, “What’s the connection between these two examples?” Another favorite tactic is to move onto material that builds off of something already discussed and pause to ask, “Why am I telling you this? What’s the point here?” Or, better yet, “How can we use this?”

Near the end of class restate, in capsule form, the major points you’ve covered. Do this even if you’ve not finished the lecture. Ideally you should leave a few minutes to field questions, pose a scenario, and ask students to consider new ways to consider the material for the next class. Few things grab interest like a good mystery. If you dismiss class with a juicy conundrum to contemplate, you’ve got them primed for the next meeting.

In a future column I’ll discuss some things you do in lectures besides talk.

For Further Reading:

1. Class size is addressed in “How Big is Too Big?”

2. Watch a video of David Kennedy explaining how to give a lecture.

3. eHow has a “How to Prepare a Lecture” site that lays out the business model for lecturing.

4. The University of California Berkeley has a useful site for those delivering lectures to large groups.

5. Several M.I.T. mathematics and engineering professors have posted video lectures on the Web. Google “MIT Math Lectures” for examples.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top