Teaching Today

Confessions of an Interactive Lecturer

In half of a 12-step program, L. Kimberly Epting describes how to create a lecture environment that supports student learning.

May 28, 2019
 
 
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Hi, my name is Kim Epting, and I am a FWL (Faculty Who Lectures™). In this essay, I’ll explore what I’ve learned about making lectures as effective as possible.

But first, I want to say I’ve found that the much-maligned lecture (insert favorite “lectures are the worst!” reference here) seems something of a straw man or at least poorly defined. Across all of my courses in undergraduate and graduate studies, at midsize to large universities, I recall only two instructors who exemplified the antiquated notion of an instructor pontificating in one long string of breath for the entire class period.

Rather, when most contemporary faculty who lecture use the term “lecture,” I suspect it is shorthand for an array of interactive presentational and conversational actions with students by those of us whom I call faculty who lecture interactively (or FWL(i)™ ). The common denominator acknowledged by “lecture” perhaps is that, in a given class period, our words outnumbered our students.

In fact, being an FWL(i) need not be an all-or-nothing position. Some of my various courses and classes rely more on discussion or rhythms of demonstrations and practice. Sometimes they meet flipped learning criteria or take the form of interteaching. But sometimes I do “simply” lecture (interactively).

In my upper-level psychology of learning course, for instance, grasping robust principles of behavior requires wading into unfamiliar terminology, methodology and ways of thinking. In my experience, students’ understanding and use of the material often is better if I introduce, lead and engage them synchronously -- inviting them to buy in, think, reflect and gradually participate more in a supported conversation.

Working the steps toward FWL(i) acceptance and effectiveness, I offer six pedagogical moves -- something like half a 12-step program -- that help create an interactive lecture environment that supports learning.

No. 1. Find a story arc. I conceptualize my entire learning course as one grand story, with units as acts forming the arc and individual periods serving as one or more scenes in those acts -- or stories within the stories. The effect is that, from day one, I consciously foreshadow what is to come and am able to highlight along the way and at the end how we uncovered the story. That approach requires more attention to transitions and provides a sense of flow. A cadence emerges with natural points for questions and answers to, from and among the students, which also helps them sustain connections across units and concepts.

In fact, the rhythm of an interactive lecture is not unlike reading a book to a child. We create voices for different characters. We pause. We ask questions. We ask them to point out illustrated parts of the story already told. We ask them to practice words and actions they recently learned as relevant. But by the end of the book, we probably still produced more words than they did.

No. 2. Embed reviewing. To transition to a new concept, I may ask students to remind me of other concept definitions or results of a previous experimental question, have them compare those concepts or findings, and ask them what it would tell us about behavior if we altered certain parts. Waiting out the silence and eye-contact evasion can be excruciating, but I find it crucial for encouraging students to engage with the material. And it tends to pull them all in -- not just the frequent contributors. When a quiet person in the back starts to mouth something quietly, I nod vigorously and ask them to say it louder or tell their neighbor. Using these small but frequent moments, students review earlier principles, practice analysis and reasoning, and create connections to new concepts or principles.

I also begin the entire course by telling students about five key ways the course might be challenging and offer go-to strategies for when those challenges arise. We also review and practice such challenges and strategies throughout the course, so they become common themes of our larger story and slowly shift how students approach the material. The unexpected reviewing facilitates flexibility and manipulation of the course material, easily incorporating many of the keys to effective learning practices.

No. 3. Take things one moment at a time. You should never lose sight of where you need to go in the story, but you should also allow a bit more of “choose your adventure” for how you get there each time. Thus, I generally steer clear of most presentation software like PowerPoint slides. Some people may use them effectively, but when I use preconstructed slides, I move very quickly and can lapse into rote delivery of information. I cease to be present, creating undesirable student experiences.

So I keep it old-school, almost exclusively using the board, which paces me and helps me stay in the moment. Yes, students must navigate (or call me out for) my questionable handwriting and unscrupulous abbreviation tendencies. But I move at a much more reasonable pace and am more connected to their moments of struggle or breakthrough when interactively present and considering what to write on the board.

When I discuss a study and outline it on the board, I am literally thinking through it again, just as they are for the first time. I am considering in real time how to best capture the necessary points based on what has happened this time in this class (e.g., earlier questions, previous stumbling blocks). Thus, I am able to adapt in real time more easily because I am in the trenches with them.

No. 4. Invite messy predictions. From day one, I ask the class to predict the results of any experiment I present. We take votes by hand, by shouts, by racing to the board. The point is to get them willing to make predictions and to consider what different predictions would mean regarding the answer to the original question.

Unsurprisingly, those early predictions are based on wild guesses or our remarkable human overconfidence in our ability to intuitively understand behavior. I ask for rationale and applaud them for taking a chance, independent of depth or accuracy. As the semester continues, their predictions and rationales start to shift. They start comparing the question or methods to studies discussed earlier in the course, predicting based on other findings and principles.

I frequently draw their predictions graphically, using both their gestures and their words, inviting them to note the differences and revise if desired, allowing messiness and delays in getting to “the answer.” I encourage them to reason about differing results and possible conclusions, give them practice interacting with visual representations (even poorly drawn freehand graphs on the board), and force them to reflect on whether they are really saying what they mean.

And they encounter and learn finer distinctions and nuance by wrestling with the minutiae under my close direction so they do not get mired or entirely derailed. These are opportunities to review, reflect and integrate, without direct prompting other than having created a habit of predicting outcomes and meanings in our continuing story.

No. 5. Fail proudly. Celebrating failure and building resilience is all the rage right now, so jump on board. The predictions I encourage my students to make highlight risk taking and navigating being wrong. Being incorrect or “failing” is virtually required for science to properly progress, and teaching our students to be comfortable in “productive stupidity,” to quote Martin A. Schwartz, is paramount.

We have a policy in my class: “Say it loud, and say it proud.” We will honor your risk, even if the “worst” happens, and you are wrong. To which we will say, “Good try, but nope.” (No working around or softening it.) And then we’ll all learn more and improve next time.

Part of being in the trenches with students is being OK with letting them see me struggle in everyday ways related to the class. Seemingly simple things like flaking on word retrieval, losing my train of thought, starting the design of a study and realizing I have the conditions backward are chances to be real and a potential model. I encourage students to include me in our efforts to improve everyone’s understanding and use of terminology and our application of principles; if I break one of our cardinal language rules, for instance (which I inevitably slip up and do), they can and should call me on it.

No. 6. Bring the silly. Sustaining interactive lectures and supporting the other pedagogical moves I’ve recommended favors being silly at times myself and cajoling students into occasional silliness, too. Purposeful silliness can enhance learning with salience. Among other things, students see me imitating a babbling baby, ridiculously exaggerating infant reflexes and acting like a rat moving through a maze (nose twitches and all!). We have class mantras that I make them practice aloud in unison: “We don’t know it unless we have data to show it!” “When in doubt, draw it out!” “Don’t ask why, ask under what conditions!”

Such antics ease students’ tension when struggling with new, challenging material. They practice ways of thinking and gain fast recognition of pitfalls. And it introduces an acceptable and safe way of calling out their peers or me with good-natured intent so everyone gets better with the material.

Moreover, the silliness also helps ease my tension as a shy introvert. By embracing silliness and occasional mistakes, I reclaim energy otherwise diverted to trying to avoid such embarrassments. Consequently, I connect more with the students and stay in the moment, tracking both their verbal and nonverbal cues better. We take the learning seriously, but not ourselves.

Together, these underlying interactive lecture moves give students the comfort of predictability and practice yet allow for enough surprise to keep them engaged. They require that I also stay engaged, tracking the story and their participation in it. They work well for me as well as the students whom I’m assisting on this journey of learning.

This approach also fits my nature and sensibilities, which is important because perhaps more than all else, authenticity matters. We should all “do you” as best we can, and your approach may certainly vary from mine. Still, it helps to consider under what circumstances you choose one method over another and why it’s the best choice for both you and your students.

Bio

L. Kimberly Epting is an associate professor of psychology at Elon University.

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