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Ashley Wiersma is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at Michigan State University. You can follow her on twitter at @throughthe_veil.

As we prepare for a new school year, many of us will write lectures either by choice or because we feel or are told we must. I confess that I don’t like to lecture; I much prefer to facilitate student discussion, which places the responsibility for learning back on the students themselves. We have all experienced mind-numbing lectures and (most of us!) have vowed not to do that to our own students, but how do we break out of the mold in which we have been shaped?

I’ve collected a few ideas from my training and practice as a high school math and history teacher and graduate teaching assistant and hope they are helpful to others who seek to improve student learning and engagement in lectures.

When preparing a lecture:

1) Consider its purpose: As with a course in general, be very clear about your objectives and consider how the lecture fits into the rest of the course. Does it build on and add to what students are reading outside of class? Is it to convey information that is not available elsewhere or is it redundant to their texts? What is most important for the students to learn and why? State the learning objective(s) at the beginning of the lecture or class. The best instruction is transparent. Students will buy into what you’re doing if they understand why you’re doing it. It will also make it much easier for them to follow and take notes on your lesson or lecture if you state your objectives up front at the beginning of class.

2) Consider your approach: How will you engage students to transform the class from a passive listening exercise into an active form of learning?

  • Turn a lecture about a topic into an exploration of a problem that needs to be solved. Frame the topic of the lecture as one or two intriguing questions that you will explore together with the students.
  • Perhaps organize the lecture as a lawyer builds a case – presenting relevant facts and concepts in an order that makes sense and leads to certain conclusions. If you choose this method, don’t forget to present the opposition’s case! Along the way, ask students to consider the evidence and then present their “verdict” and reasoning at the end of the lecture.
  • No matter what style you choose to adopt, make sure the lecture is well-organized, includes the opportunity for students to actively engage with the material, and is flexible enough to accommodate student questions and relevant interruptions and redirections.

3) Provide breaks throughout the lecture in which students take several minutes to reflect on what has been discussed thus far.  Researchers have found that our attention begins to wander after about 10 minutes, so plan a short break in the flow of the lecture.  Here are just a few ideas

  • Think-Pair-Share
  • 1-minute write – summarize main ideas, the most surprising/interesting thing learned, etc.
  • Ask students to write questions they have about the material.
  • 60-60: Have students pair up and ask each person to speak about what they remember from the lecture for 60 seconds without interruption. The second person should relay different information from the first. Take it further by adding two 30-second periods to build on the ideas presented in the first two minutes.
  • Have students write one or two exam-style conceptual questions that ask for more than factual information.

4) Provide time at the end for students to summarize what they learned and found interesting.

  • Have them turn in their brief summaries as a ‘ticket out the door’
  • Explain two of the most essential concepts they learned to their neighbor
  • Create a class mind-map that could be posted on the course website

Other Ideas, Helpful Tools, and Resources:

• Focus on only a few big ideas and help the students to make connections between these ideas and the main themes in the course.

• Frequently return to the main point of the lecture – repeat, repeat, repeat. Remind students of why you’re discussing the specific topic and how it relates to other ideas in the course.

• If you use PowerPoint or a Prezi, use more visuals than words. If you use text, only put up keywords. Otherwise, students become so focused on what’s on the screen that they may not catch what you’re saying. Appropriate visuals also make a powerful impression and will help students to remember the main ideas.

  • The Interactive Lecture – The University of Arizona, College of Medicine  (Helpful suggestions for all disciplines)

What techniques and tools do you use when you lecture?  Have you found a way to replace lectures with more engaging learning activities?


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