― Enrico Fermi
Few topics on teaching and learning are more polarizing on the effectiveness of and approach to lecturing. I’ll bet that you’ve experienced both very effective and very ineffective lectures. You may even have delivered lectures that could fall into either category. The same could be said for conducting a demonstration. They can certainly be evocative experiences, but they can also be confusing or disconnected from the learning goals of a class session. I think that what may be productive is to consider how best to implement lectures and demonstrations to optimally support student learning.
Key features of the strategy
One critical feature of an effective lecture or demonstration is the organization and flow of ideas presented. Without clear organization, transitions between topics, explicit connections to related ideas, and clarity, the specific delivery strategies or format don't matter. These are the foundational elements upon which you can build to create an effective experience. One thing that is critical in formulating an effective lecture or demonstration is to avoid what Chip and Dan Heath call “the curse of knowledge” in their book, Made to Stick. Essentially, this refers to the fact that we all have considerably more knowledge of the content than our students do. For this reason, we need to be careful to explain things in a way that someone with far less background and conceptual knowledge of the topic can understand it. They suggest using concrete language, stories to illustrate ideas, and clear demonstrations to thwart this curse. Additionally, you can draw on some of the strategies below to ensure that your lectures and demonstrations are helpful for your students.
Examples and Variations
Gross Davis (2009) offers extremely helpful tips in Tools for Teaching. She begins by suggesting that faculty consider the lecture as only a part of the class period. Rather, it’s helpful to change pace every fifteen minutes or so to keep students’ attention. She also suggests varying the types of lecture, including expository, interactive, problem-based, demonstration oriented, and discussion based approaches. She finishes by encouraging faculty to budget time both for questions/discussion as well as a brief summary of the key ideas.
Similarly, Light, Cox & Calkins (2009) offer some excellent ideas and tips related to developing effective lectures in their book, Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. They begin by outlining two models of lecturing – those that focus on transmission and those that focus on engagement. They identify a number of different structures, including the traditional linear lecture, a problem-oriented approach, comparison or sequence-driven structures, as well as concept maps and case studies. They argue that, whatever the structure selected, lectures should be planned with the students and learning goals in mind. The authors also suggest that lectures build in activities that assist students to process the information, similar to the strategies outlined in the Take Notes post on this blog.
Finally, it’s key to get feedback from students on the effectiveness of your lectures and demonstrations. The Stanford University Teaching Commons offers helpful suggestions on how to “read the room” and elicit suggestions from students. First, they suggest observing students’ non-verbal communication during the lecture to determine when you might slow down, stop and approach something from a different direction, or shift to a different learning activity. Asking students to respond to a “minute paper” at the end of class can be a useful way for you to learn what students took away from the lecture or are still confused about. Finally, periodic quizzes and anonymous, mid-term teaching evaluations can also help to see your lectures through your students’ eyes.
Connections to 21st Century Skills and Technologies
Lectures can help students to construct their knowledge of the course topic. Knowledge construction activities require students to generate ideas and understandings that are new to them – which can be difficult if the lecture is of a more passive nature. The best approaches to lecturing can be to combine brief lecture periods with other, complementary learning activities like group discussion, developing a model, or engaging in a simulation. These kinds of activities help to move the content from the lecture to a higher level of application.
Technology can support lecturing in a number of ways. First, the effective development of slides, handouts, and other materials can support and scaffold learning in lectures. Second, the use of brief video clips in a lecture can help to represent the content in different ways, appealing to diverse learners in your class, or to bring in more visual or nuanced demonstrations. Student response systems (or “clickers”) can help you to receive formative feedback during a lecture, using true/false, scales, multiple choice, or even open response questions to assess student understanding. If you don’t have a set of clickers available, you can use apps for mobile devices like Poll Everywhere or Nearpod to leverage the mobile devices students bring to class. Finally, online modules or courses can be supported with videorecorded lectures or demonstrations, including screencasts developed with tools like Office Mix, Camtasia, or Screenflow. Bear in mind, however, that the same principles of effective face-to-face lectures apply online as well.
What strategies have you used to help make your lectures or demonstrations effective in your classes?
Please post your comments below.
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