10 Commandments of Lecturing

Rob Weir offers advice on what to do and what not to do to keep your students engaged.

March 20, 2009

I. Thou shalt connect new lectures to previous ones.

It’s always a good idea to start a new lecture with a nod to the one before. A small reminder reengages student minds, sets the tone for new connections, and allows you to build upon foundations built earlier.

In a related vein, give a nod to what students should have read in their texts. (But don’t rehash it, or they’ll rightly wonder why they should bother coming to class.)

II. Thou shalt move beyond chalk and talk.

If you want students to be more interested, make attempts to engage them. Construct interactive lessons rather than treating students as passive, empty receptacles to be filled with your bon mots. Build in moments to ask questions. Ask students to come up with their own examples that parallel yours. Ask for open-ended feedback. Have a brief discussion, brainstorm, ask students to look at an image (or video clip), listen to a sound file, solve a problem, or surf the Web.

III. Thou Shalt Not Lecture Like a Caffeinated Hummingbird or a Tree Sloth

In my feckless youth students joked that I could boil a three-minute egg in 45 seconds. Not good! Learn to pace yourself in a way that students are neither harried nor bored. The changes of pace mentioned in the second commandment help, but lecturing is ultimately akin to music — you need to find a comfortable rhythm for you and your audience.

IV. Thou shalt not assume too much.

Move from basic to complex, not vice versa. Lead with the concrete and build toward abstraction. Far too many professors make theory central when it should be ancillary. It does no good, for instance, to discuss poststructuralism in a poetry class in which students have no idea what it means (and may not even know how to recognize metaphors). A discussion of critical race theory that does not define what “The Other” is will lose anyone who doesn’t know. As an undergrad I once sat through 20 minutes of a lecture on the significance of the Pripet Marshes on European warfare before a befuddled peer blurted out, “What the hell are the Pripet Marshes?” Good question!

V. Thou Shalt Link Known to Unknown.

The bedfellow of the fourth commandment is getting students on the same page before you turn to a new one. Take something simple, ask students to contemplate it, and lead them to a new way of viewing it. I once watched a skilled geometry instructor walk into class, peel an apple, slice it into various shapes, and ask students about those shapes. He built an entire lesson around the apple. A good friend teaches basic concepts in programming by discussing the architecture of computer games. At some point students design their own games and must explain each step (including the math that goes into it).

VI. Thou Shalt Be Enthusiastic.

If you want students to be interested in your topic, model that behavior. I’m stunned by the number of experts in their fields who lecture as if they’re the poster children for barbiturate abuse. Your work is your passion, so don’t be afraid to show it. Don’t worry about blowing your cool because…

VII. Thou Shalt Not Be a Pompous Ass.

For heaven’s sake, get over yourself. Teaching will humble you, so don’t be afraid to lighten up. Never do any of the following:

  • Make derogatory remarks about the quality of the student body at your college or about the college itself. (Rival institutions are fair game!)
  • Make snide comments about any of your colleagues. (Though tasteful wisecracks about the administration go down a storm.)
  • Appear smitten by your own cleverness. (Self-deprecating humor works much better.)
  • Make remarks such as “This is far too complicated to discuss with you.”
  • Brag about your accomplishments.
  • Make remarks about how students were so much better in your day.
  • Constantly deliver lectures that go over students’ heads.
  • Communicate (verbally or through your demeanor) that students are an annoyance you must tolerate.

VIII. Thou Shalt Not Tolerate Disruptive or Disrespectful Students.

You have a duty to be respectful of students, but they too bear responsibility. You should start and end class on time and expect the same habits from students. Demonstrate early on that those who waltz into class 10 minutes late will have missed 10 minutes’ worth of class and that you will not repeat material for them. Tell students to turn off their cell phones.

Insist upon civility. Alert students that ideas can be attacked, but not individuals. Put an immediate kibosh to personal attacks.If students are chatting or texting during your lecture, stop and stare; a withering glance works 98 percent of the time. If it doesn’t, tell the students to see you immediately after class and tell them in no uncertain terms that your class is not a junior high study hall, and that they are welcome to drop the class if they so desire. Contact the academic deans of abusive or disruptive students.

IX. Thou Shalt Not Lecture Outdoors.

Unless you’re a botanist or geologist there’s no pedagogical reason to teach outside. The first gorgeous day of spring semester will bring a clamor to meet underneath the spreading maple students spy from the window. Don’t do it! That hour will pass with female students tugging at short skirts to maintain modesty, men in khakis seeking not to get grass stains on their trousers, fidgeting when everyone realizes the ground isn’t as comfy as it looks, attention lapses every time someone walks by, the cupping of ears to hear comments carried off by the breeze, and untold amounts of day dreaming. You’d be better off declaring a learning moratorium than trying to teach outside.

X. Thou Shalt Seize Learning Moments.

There is no rule that says you must finish a lecture if something more educationally important presents itself. I’ve had many classes where an innocent question or comment has led me to change course. This is increasingly the case now that many classrooms have wireless Internet and students travel with their laptops. In a lecture on Wounded Knee, for instance, a student asked me when a particular pop song about the massacre was released. Off the top of my head I had no idea, but it took about 15 seconds for a student to find it. She read song lyrics that linked the 1890 massacre to Leonard Peltier’s 1977 arrest. Most students had little or no idea what that was about, so I asked them to Google it. They enthusiastically shouted out their findings and my lesson on 1890 turned into one about the American Indian Movement and Wounded Knee as an iconic moment. I never did finish all the details of 1890, but you tell me which was a better lesson: the one I planned, or the one I seized.


Back to Top