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From the Graduate Students Forum in the October 2004 Perspectives

A Recipe for a Successful Lecture

Peter Filene, October 2004

Close your eyes and picture the best history lecturer you recall from college. Perhaps she is striding back and forth across the stage, never looking at her notes, her voice ringing out, each sentence flowing eloquently into the next and the next. She delivers a complex, passionate argument, spiced with vivid details and wit. She reaches her last sentence as the bell sounds.

Are you feeling inspired? Or are you discouraged, thinking: "How in the world can I emulate that?"

Like other aspects of teaching, lecturing is less mysterious than it seems. Let me begin to demystify it by providing a three-part recipe for designing and delivering effective lectures. I wish someone had given me these suggestions when I was starting out or even when I was 15 years into my career.

1. Don’t Be Brilliant

First, don’t emulate that lecturer whom you just now imagined; don’t try to write and deliver a brilliant lecture. Altough you were inspired, you were not a typical undergraduate. You are a lifelong academic. After too many years in graduate school, it’s hard to remember college students’ mentality. Recently I overheard a TA remark: "Can you imagine! One of my students asked ‘what is a monograph?’" Few of your students will be history majors and fewer still will be looking toward an academic career. They arrive in your classroom for a myriad of reasons: maybe they enjoy watching the History Channel, or they are fulfilling a college requirement, or they needed a class at noon.

Moreover, the questions that interest you as a professional historian are probably not ones that will interest them. As scholars we’re interested in certain questions because we were once interested in earlier questions, which intrigued us because of even earlier questions. Don’t forget that our students have not yet taken that intellectual journey. While we are digging deep underground at rich intellectual ore, they are standing on the surface wondering why anyone in his right mind would be engaged in that subterranean expedition.1 So, brilliance will likely be counterproductive. It may dazzle you but leave your students with drooping eyelids.

And then there is this very practical consideration: you won’t have time to write trailblazing lectures for every class. Let’s suppose that you’re teaching three different courses three times a week, while also grading papers, holding office hours, shopping for groceries, and (one hopes) spending time with family or friends.

Under such circumstances, how can one write nine even semi-brilliant lectures every week? The answer—gather three or four textbooks or general sources, subject them to a critical reading, and synthesize a coherent narrative lecture from them. Give the students a bibliography of the sources you used. You can then use the opportunity to introduce the students to the important notion that although the information in different books may be the same, interpretations can (and do) differ. After all, a lecture is a live communication—an interaction with an audience. Imagine sitting at a café with someone who spreads his notes on the table and reads aloud nonstop for 50 minutes!

As you gain experience and self-confidence, you can transform these rough lectures along more original lines.

2. Communicate

How do the best teachers engage their students’ interest and understanding? Enthusiasm is one ingredient that undergraduates almost unanimously cite.2 Clarity and organization form the second ingredient and, intellectually, the more important one.3 Undergraduates typically can absorb no more than two new ideas in a single session. So you will do well to divide your lecture into two parts—two main ideas, themes, or issues.

Moreover, audience attention sags halfway through the hour.4 So, before launching into Idea Number Two, do something different. Create an intermission—like a bench beside the mountain trail, allowing the hikers to appreciate what they have accomplished thus far.

  • You may pull out that lame expedient, "Are there any questions?" But I recommend several more effective ways to elicit critical reflection.
  • Tell students to write a one-minute synopsis of what they’ve heard. Then ask for questions or confusions.
  • Better yet, add two steps: Think (pose a question, about which they briefly write); Pair (compare answers with a classmate for three minutes); Share (ask a pair to report their answers, then ask whether other pairs have different answers).
  • Pose a question and divide students into five-minute "breakout groups" to devise answers.
  • Show a slide or a video excerpt.
  • Walk away from the lectern and say nothing for 30 seconds, allowing time for mental digestion. Silence also teaches.

3. Hook Them at the Start

I’ve used up my quota of two main ideas. But since this is an essay, not a lecture, let me cheat and add a third recommendation.

The most effective lecturers open the hour with a question—a problem—a grabber. Something is at stake today, so stick around and see how I solve it. You can dramatize this "so what?" with a vignette.

  • Perhaps a quotation.
  • Or an anecdote that dramatizes the day’s topic.
  • Or a cartoon.
  • Or a device like the one with which I began this essay.

All of this may sound dauntingly complicated, but it soon becomes second nature. After a few weeks you’ll structure your lectures automatically.

As you become familiar with your 60 or 100 students (and they with you), you will develop a rapport. They will laugh at your jokes. You will learn at what level to pitch your ideas and vocabulary. They will trust you and their classmates enough to answer your questions or even ask their own. Your lectures will not be "an essay standing on its hind legs."5 Rather, they will form one half of a dialogic relationship in which you teach and your students learn.

Peter Filene is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This essay is adapted from the author’s forthcoming book, The Joy of Teaching: A Guide for New College Instructors (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

Notes

1. Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 37.

2. For tips on how to display enthusiasm, see Joseph Lowman, Mastering the Techniques of Teaching 2nd

3. Thomas M. Sherman et al., "The Quest for Excellence in Higher Education," Journal of Higher Education, 58 (January/February 1987), 66; Peter Seldin, The Teaching Portfolio: A Practical Guide to Improved Performance and Promotion/Tenure Decisions (Boston: Anker, 1991), 1.

4. Lowman, Mastering the Techniques of Teaching, 136; J.R. Davis, Teaching Strategies for the College Classroom (Boulder: Westview Press, 1976), cited in "Improving Lectures by Understanding Students’ Information Processing" Wilbert J. McKeachie ed., Learning, Cognition, and College Teaching: New Directions for Teaching and Learning 2 (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 1980), chapter 4.

5. James Winans and H.H. Hudson, A First Course in Public Speaking (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1931), 17, quoted in Elisa Carbone, Teaching Large Classes: Tools and Strategies (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1998), 21.