Making Lectures Effective

There’s no doubt that lectures are often student’s and faculty’s least preferred method of instruction. After all, many believe that lectures are always long, boring, and bad for learning. However, this is not true, because when lectures work, they work well. But how do instructors make them beneficial for both them and the students? The answer is a mix of planning, interactivity, and student engagement. In the September 2011 issue of The National Teaching & Learning Forum*, Jason N. Adsit of SUNY Buffalo offers some advice on how to make lectures more effective and engaging. In this post, we’ll summarize the tips Adsit gives in his article.

First though, why lecture? The fact is, lectures have stood the test of time because according to Adsit, they have “been shown to be particularily effective for

• Setting the context of a topic or field for novice learners.
• Disseminating a common set of material to a broad audience.
• Providing a synthesis of information from various sources.
• Clarifying complex information.
• Transmitting conceptual and systematic knowledge.
• Offering students a model of professional practice, i.e., the lecturer and his/her approach to the subject.”

In other words, lectures are a simple way to reach everyone in a common and effective manner. However, to maximize these benefits, one must design their lecture in a way that effectively engages students and serves as a tool to help the learning process. Here are the tips Adsit gives to do this:

  1. Plan Your Lectures: Of course, all lectures require planning. Although you should absolutely make sure to have all the content planned and organized, you should also focus on helping points get through to the students. Provide examples, extra documents, and outside resources for further information. Make connections with your audience!
  2. Avoid the Tyranny of Content: Many times, instructors cram a lot of content they want to cover in a single class. It’s hard not to- especially when you are a school running on the quarter system, as quarters are drastically shorter than semesters. But instead of planning the maximum amount of content you can cover in the amount of time you have, focus on “three or four main ideas”. Put yourself in a student’s place: how much content could you digest in the class period?
  3. Know Your Audience: As an instructor, you are going to know the course material like the back of their hand. So even though some key concepts may seem simple to you, think about where your students are coming from. Make sure you know who you are addressing in your lectures. This can be accomplished by simple class introductions, or having students write a letter to you about their background, interests and learning styles.
  4. Create a Complete Lecture: In this tip, Adsit compares the lecture to a research paper…a good one needs to have an introduction, body and conclusion. This is surprisingly often overlooked and results in a disorganized lecture that students find hard to follow.
  5. Develop Lecture Notes: To avoid getting off track, be sure to keep lecture notes. This way, if the conversation gets too off-topic, you are less likely to lose your train of thought. You can jump right back in where you left off! Also, if you happen to be teaching a course, you can likely re-use these notes, or develop them further for a stronger set.
  6. Audience Engagement and Interactivity: It is very important to engage listeners when lecturing. The fact is, when instructors solely lecture to students for long periods of time, students get bored and tune out. Instead, take breaks within the lecture for things like small group discussions, activities, or multimedia viewing.
  7. Create Visual Backups and Supports: Speaking of multimedia, students really enjoy when they have any audiovisual aids to go along with a presentation. Consider adding relevant photos, graphics, videos, or sound clips. Keep in mind that the best content will be on-topic and uncluttered.
  8. Quality Control: Before each lecture, make sure to do a quick run-through of lecture content, technology, and supplements. Do things like check your PowerPoint for spelling/grammar errors, make sure all technology you plan on using is ready to go, load up any videos or photos…anything you need to do to prepare. This will guarantee that the lecture runs smoothly from beginning to end.
  9. Enthusiasm: Present your lecture with enthusiasm! The more excited you are about content, the more students will be as well. Your behavior also emphasizes the relevancy and significance of the material you are presenting. Do things like make frequent eye contact, move around the room, speak loud and clear, and pay attention to the pace at which you are speaking.
  10. Ask Questions: Or really, ask specific and thought-provoking questions. Also, don’t limit questions to the end of the lecture. Stop every once and a while and make sure everyone is on the same page. Don’t ask “any questions?” Instead, ask “does anyone have any questions about how _____ relates to _____”, for example.
  11. Answer Questions: Make sure to open yourself up to questions. Listen to the entire question before you give your answer. If you are unsure about exactly what the student was asking, repeat or clarify the question before answering it. End your answers with “does that make sense?” or “do you understand?” Also, it is very important you are not afraid to admit that you don’t know the answer to a question. Instead of giving an unsure answer, look further into it and get back to the student after a break or during the next class session.
  12. Reflection: At the end of a lecture, think back on what worked and what didn’t. Take a few quick notes to look back on while planning your next lecture. Ask for student feedback in class, and even think about recording the class if you have the resources. Remember, you can always improve your lectures!

*Adsit, Jason N. “Designing and Delivering Effective Lectures.” National Teaching & Learning Forum. 20.5 (2011)