By Monica B. Glina, Director of the Office for Faculty Development
Stevens Institute of Technology
I would have willingly listened to them read bubble gum wrappers.
That is how I would describe two of my college professors. It didn’t matter what they were talking about, I just wanted to listen to what they had to say. And they talked. A lot. My Renaissance Literature class had about 15 people, and my 19th-century American and European Art and Architecture course filled a 300-person lecture hall. One could argue that lectures about Raleigh and Marlowe or endless pairs of slides comparing fine art and architecture would scare off or bore even the most stalwart, but I couldn’t wait to go to class. Both of these professors were stellar in their ability to be completely captivating. It may sound like I’m overstating it, but I assure you, it was pure magic.
What made their lectures so magical?
The ability to leave your audience transfixed is a unique and rare talent for anyone. Most of us can ramble on, but how many of us can keep our students mesmerized during 2-1/2 hours of unilateral oratory? The answer is not many of us. But I think the real question here is: Even if you are good at it, should you still do it? Well, it’s not that simple.
Although my two professors were phenomenal orators, best practice encourages the exploration and implemention of different methods of teaching in order to complement students’ different learning styles, i.e., visual, kinesthetic or social (Flemming, 2014), and increase their autonomy, engagement and motivation. Research also suggests the importance of alternating teaching methods to address varying learning styles (Boneva and Mihova, 2014; Flemming, 2014). According to Naimie, Siraj, Abuzaid & Shagoholi (2010), “learning style specialists have confirmed the theory that students will learn more and enjoy the class experience and environment when they can use their preferred learning styles” (Naimie et al., 2010). Even dazzling oratory doesn’t satisfy all learning styles all, or even some, of the time.
So, yes. Lecturing is a tool in an instructor’s toolbox, but it is one of many. And, as with all tools, there are times when some are more appropriate than others. For example, you wouldn’t use a 12-inch ruler to measure someone’s height when you have a tape measure. If all you had in your toolbox was a 12-inch ruler, it would do an adequate job but would not be nearly as effective as a tape measure. Think, too, about using a produce scale to weigh a person; that tool doesn’t house the capacity to measure someone’s weight rendering its use futile. The process of selecting a tool should be about more than just getting the job done; it should be about finding the most suitable pedagogical approach. Thus, it is incumbent upon the instructor to add other approaches to their toolbox and learn when and how to most tactically and thoughtfully implement them.
Privileging a variety of strategies over straight lecturing 100% of the time can benefit faculty who aren’t effective speakers, as well as those who lack the self-awareness to recognize it. Mindfully diversifying pedagogical approaches can level the playing field for all instructors and offer access to all learners.
So, what can good lecturing look like?
I’m suggesting that we move away from talking at our students and use the most effective teaching method to actively engage them as our co-learners. There are several strategies that you might consider implementing that can shift your lecture from all talk and no action to lots of talk with a whole lot of action.
1. Ensure your students have all the prerequisite skills they need to understand what you plan to teach them.
This can include material that you believe they should have learned in a prior course but may not have. It can also include material that you covered in a previous class, but they didn’t grasp for any number of reasons. Honor the knowledge that you students bring into the class by diagnosing your students’ prerequisite knowledge using a poll or a survey. For example, you might create a survey using Survey Monkey, Google forms, Qualtrics or the survey function in your LMS (learning management system). After administering the survey, give students a 10-minute break during which you review the results and identify the questions that most students answered incorrectly. Then, when students return from the break, you can review those questions, offer the correct answers and contextualize the content within the course. You might say, ‘The answer to that is assimilation, which we will learn more about in a couple of weeks when we address Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development.’ You can also create a poll using Poll Everywhere, Zoom or Kahoot. The latter will allow students to see the returns as they come in, which is a fun, interactive and probative way to assess students’ pre-requisite knowledge. If an overwhelming number of students answered a question incorrectly, offer the correct answer and contextualize the content within the course as illustrated above. This is not just an opportunity to survey your course and connect the questions on your survey or in your poll to the course content; there is value in the predictions that students make, even if their answers are wrong. ‘Unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem encourage deep processing of the answer when it is later supplied, creating fertile ground for its encoding, in a way that simply reading the answer cannot’ (Brown, Roediger and McDaniel, 2015, p. 88).
2. Check for understanding.
Checking for understanding isn’t something that only happens at the beginning of a course. It is crucial to be aware of and observe your class for understanding throughout the semester. In addition to surveys or polls, which can be administered at any time throughout the semester, not just the first day of class, you might also consider inviting your co-learners to complete entrance and/or exit tickets. You can ask questions, such as, ‘What concept is still unclear?’ It is in everyone’s best interest to spend some time making sure students have the foundational knowledge before you move forward. Imagine trying to build a house on an unstable or non-existent foundation; the results would be less than ideal.
3. Review what you did the last time your class met.
This is a great way to invite students to participate by asking them to summarize what they learned the last time you met as a class. You may even begin your class by asking all students to write a summary on a sheet of paper and ask for volunteers to share what they wrote. This is a particularly useful strategy for students who are shy, require extra processing time or are non-native English speakers. Asking them to have something written to refer to positions them to more comfortably contribute, whether they volunteer or are invited into that learning experience by their instructor. You may still have to fill in some of the blanks, but be patient and kind as your students develop the confidence and the trust required to engage in this kind of exchange.
You might also consider asking students to share with you anything that might have been unclear from the last class or the reading they might have been asked to do in preparation for the class. Students can even submit ‘muddy points’ anonymously by writing them on a sheet of paper or completing a survey.
4. Present new material in interesting, engaging and logically-organized ways.
Instead of talking at your students, think of ways to involve or excite your students. For example, if you’re teaching about the conversion of gravitational potential energy to kinetic energy, it might be far more compelling to demonstrate the phenomenon using a miniature wrecking-ball experiment rather than talking about it. Before releasing the miniature wrecking ball, ask your students what they think will happen or invite a kinesthetic learner to release the ball. You may even ask them to use the theories and formulas they’ve learned to support their prediction. (See Item 1 in the section for a discussion about the importance of predictions.)
What are the kinesthetic, tangential, or experiential ways that you can bring to life for your students what you are teaching them? Are there opportunities for students to role-play scenarios? Collaborate in teams? Co-create a plan? These learning experiences can be powerful but are often treated as add-ons, instead of woven into the fabric of the class as an activity toward which everything builds. Consider integrating the activity into the class, e.g., begin the class with a discussion, embed a demonstration in the middle of the class, etc. Then, provide time at the end of the class for students to reflect on the activity, so that it becomes an essential component for understanding.
5. Organize your lecture into chunks.
Instead of lecturing for extended periods of time, chunk your class time into 30 to 45-minute blocks. Begin each block by sharing content with your co-learners. Then, take a few minutes to answer any questions your co-learners might have about what you just shared with them. Finally, invite students to apply practically what they have just learned. For example, students might participate in a discussion or (co-)create something authentic, such as a demonstration, exhibition, interview, infographics, how-to manuals, brochures/pamphlets, persuasive letters, multimedia/interactive posters, budgets, collages, sales pitches, etc. Once students have completed the activity, you can either take a short break or begin with the next chunk, which can build on the previous one.
6. Check for understanding and grow comfortable with silence.
Formulating blocks invites multiple opportunities to check for understanding. Ask more targeted questions and wait for your co-learners to answer. There is often the need to fill empty space but resist the urge to break the silence. Wait time is critical because it gives your co-learners, especially those who require extra processing time or are non-native English speakers, extra time to process your question. If 10 seconds pass, you can always propel the dialogue forward by saying, “While we’re thinking of questions or identifying points that may be unclear, here is something that I wonder about/am curious about/would like to know.”
The questions you ask are equally as important and can range from basic recall and comprehension questions to higher-order questions that ask students to synthesize or evaluate what they’ve learned. If you limit your questions to the former, you’re not scaffolding how to approach the latter, which are the hallmarks of critical-thinking. This could make it difficult for students when they see these types of higher-order questions (for the first time) on a high-stakes exams or when they are called upon to exercise higher-order thinking skills in the work place.
7. Incorporate exciting and engaging learning experiences around the material that they’ve just learned.
This means rationing your class time to make room for these activities. In fact, research suggests that students often experience more productive learning by engaging with each other, but these engagements should be purposeful and transparent in their intent (Coates, 2005, 2006). Ask your students what they see as the connection between the activity and what they’re learning. This places both the content and the purpose of the activity on the meta level. Then, debrief with them and make connections to the larger curricular gestalt. You might consider saying something like, “This is how what we just did connects with what we discussed yesterday, today and will be talking about tomorrow.” Another extremely effective alternative is to ask your co-learners to suggest the importance of what they learned and make those connections to the greater context. Don’t fall victim to the erroneous idea of: “If I’m not the one saying it, they’ll never learn it.” That’s simply not true.
8. Don’t let all that work to go to waste!
Offer students opportunities to concretize what they’ve learned in class with external assignments, such as reflective journal entries that directly and practically connect what they’ve learned to their lives. You might also consider asking your co-learners to build on the authentic activities that they created during class. (See Item 5.) The goal should be to help students apply practically what they learned theoretically.
Imagine for a moment that you have been offered a prestigious fellowship at a university in a foreign country where you don’t know the language. Somehow, though, your new colleagues expect you to understand their daily vernacular and academic language, their culture and their customs the second you step off the plane. I suspect that most would find this completely unfair. After all, how can you be expected to have full command of something that you’ve never experienced or encountered? Well, now you know how most of your students feel. Even those who may have had several college-level courses in your discipline may never have taken your course. To them, it’s a foreign language. Just as a tour of that new city would go a long way in helping you to interact with your new environment and create a foundation within which to ground your new experiences, the same is true for your co-learners’ experiences with your course and its content. And remember to be patient and caring. This was new territory for you once, too.
The magicians’ limitations
I’d like to suggest that brilliant lecturing, albeit magical, has its limitations if it doesn’t open up space for students to engage, interact and actively evolve their thinking. You might argue that this can happen during a powerful lecture, and I would agree with you. I’ve experienced that. But not all of us have that magic touch, so that’s the first problem. The second is that students are still passive participants whose particular learning styles might not be addressed through lecturing. Even audience members can offer their feedback by clapping, laughing or booing, but that is rarely the case in a classroom. (And you definitely don’t want to wait until evaluation time to see the ‘booing!’) I wonder how much more powerful these experiences could have been if my professors had facilitated a dialogue with us or created an experiential learning opportunity? That would have certainly been more challenging in a 300-seat lecture hall, but not impossible.
Lecturing is an important tool in an educator’s toolbox, and great lecturing can be extremely compelling. I would like to suggest that lecturing that incorporates opportunities for co-learners to actively engage with concepts has the potential to be transformative but is still just one tool in an instructor’s toolbox.
Boneva, D., Menova, E. (2011). Learning Styles and Learning Preferences - Module 8. Dyslang.
Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L. & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Coates, H. (2005) The Value of Student Engagement for Higher Education Quality Assurance. Quality in Higher Education. 11 (1), pp. 25–36. Coates, H.C. (2006) Student Engagement in Campus-based and Online Education: University Connections. London: Routledge
Fleming, N.D. (2014). The VARK Modalities. https://vark-learn.com/
Naimie, Z., Siraj, S., Abuzaid, R. A., & Shagoholi, R. (2010, October). Hypothesized Learners' Technology Preferences Based on Learning Style Dimensions. The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 9(4), 83-93.
Monica B. Glina is the Director of the Office for Faculty Development at Stevens Institute of Technology and Instructor at Montclair State University. She has extensive experience conducting educational research and teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, such as Psychological Foundations of Education, Methods of Research and Testing and Evaluation.