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What are some effective lecture techniques?


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What are some effective lecture techniques?

The in-person lecture has been a prominent teaching method for many generations, and while current teaching practices have expanded the number of methods at educators’ disposal, lectures can be a very effective format for delivering some types of content. Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning summarize some purposes for which the lecture is especially suitable:

  • Presenting information otherwise unavailable to students, such as personal research and inquiry trends of your discipline.
  • Synthesizing information from a variety of sources.
  • Engaging students through storytelling.
  • Providing context, such as how course content relates to other areas or how it is relevant to students’ experiences.
  • Presenting up-to-date material (in contrast to text-books).
  • Modeling thought processes, such as:
    • How problems are approached.
    • How information is organized and synthesized.
    • The logic structures and frameworks commonly used in the field.
    • How new knowledge can be integrated with what one learned previously.
  • Clarifying confusing concepts, principles, and ideas, particularly when the lecture is crafted in response to questions from students, or after quiz/test results reveal misconceptions

(Paraphrased from this website.)

On this page, you will find a range of suggestions of ways to make your lectures as effective as possible, and some of the tools and technologies that might prove helpful to you.

Table of contents
General notes
Transparency and motivation
Crafting good visuals
Chunking
Taking the temperature
Google Doc ‘back channel’
Guided note-taking
Interactive elements in the course of a lecture
Peer instruction as a lecture activity
Annotation or organization activities
Think-pair-share
Helpful tools
Poll Everywhere
Plickers
FigJam
Padlet

General notes

Transparency and motivation

Ahead of a lecture, it is a good idea to be clear about the learning objectives you are hoping to fulfill, and being transparent with students about the purpose of a lecture can help them to focus their attention and feel oriented. This can also help you to be transparent with yourself about the purpose of the lecture, and so to plan the lecture intentionally to serve learning outcomes and resist tangents. It can be really helpful to students to start a lecture with a short introduction outlining what is to come and what you’re hoping that students will get out of it. Another good technique is to start the lecture with a story, problem or vignette that exemplifies the problem or ideas you’re hoping to address, so that students get a rich, motivating sense of the problem space. (You can even share this ahead of time as a provocation). It can also be worthwhile to talk about how what you’re covering today connects with students’ existing learning, so as to call that learning to students’ minds.

One structure for doing this kind of work is to have students complete an advance organizer activity at the beginning of, or before, class. See a handy guide to these tools from Virginia Tech’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning here.

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Crafting good visuals

Offering informative visuals alongside oral content can provide context and depth. Photographs, maps, and diagrams can lay out information in a visual way, or connect it to real-world situations. When creating the visual components of a presentation it is worth giving some serious thought to the cognitive work involved in watching a lecture; in particular, it is important to avoid overloading your students, and you can thoughtfully design your visuals with that principle in mind.

An area of study that can offer some principles to follow is Cognitive Load Theory. It is worth reading through this guide from Wiley University Services to see some of its main insights, but here are some key points paraphrased from the guide:

  • People learn better when cues that highlight the organization of the essential material are added.
  • People learn better from graphics and narration than some graphics, narration, and printed text. Text can be important, but should be used judiciously.
  • Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively.

Including videos in your presentation can be a great way to illustrate your points or to exemplify some mode of analysis, but they can break your flow or disrupt the atmosphere if they are too long. Aim for short videos–60 seconds is a great length–and offer analysis and discussion before, after and even during the video.

It can be worth checking how your slides look displayed on the classroom projector ahead of time to ensure that the text is large and clear enough, and that the colors are displaying well if the particular look of the visuals is important.

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Chunking

Delivering material in 5-15 minute chunks can be an effective way to keep students engaged and oriented, and provide time to digest, especially when interspersed with interactive elements (more on those here). For each section, consider what the core idea is, and communicate this to students. Consider pauses between the sections, or changing your pace or delivery style between sections to keep the lecture engaging.

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Taking the temperature

Simple interventions can help you to assess students’ level of comprehension and comfort with the material. You can ask for a simple show of hands at key points to assess whether students feel confident with a concept, or which topic they’d like to spend more time with; you can also ask students to indicate this with thumbs up, down, or somewhere in between, or using their fingers and thumb to give a position on a 1-5 Likert scale, if you want to get a more nuanced response.

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Google Doc ‘back channel’

A great way to create a space for constructive discussions in real-time situations such as discussions or lectures is to share a link with the entire class to an editable blank Google Doc that is open for anybody in the class to use to share responses during class time. This can be a place for students to share comments or questions that they feel hesitant to speak aloud, and students can answer one another’s questions, share responses and make suggestions. The instructor can consult the Google Doc during a quiet moment to see what kinds of questions are coming up, and whether there are unresolved points they can address.

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Guided note-taking

Note-taking, when it is thoughtful and directed, can help students to stay engaged and active during lectures. Note-taking practices in lectures can vary widely among students, and some educators find it beneficial to offer note-taking guidance to students. You can let students know about different possible structures they could use in taking notes, provide printed templates for students to work on, and even spend a session at the beginning of the semester teaching students beneficial strategies that they can then use for the rest of the class. For a comprehensive guide with many helpful suggestions, see this article from the University of Illinois Chicago’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching Excellence.

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Interactive elements in the course of a lecture

It is worth remembering that listening is hard work! It can be really effective to punctuate a lecture with active learning activities, because these can allow students to put the ideas they’re hearing about into practice and prompt them to engage more deeply with the material and each other. In addition, varying the pace and delivery of a lecture with some more interactive elements can help students to stay engaged and attentive. There are a great many activities that could fulfill this role, from group discussions to games, and which will be most effective will depend to a large extent on the topic and the learning objectives. Below are summarized some examples of learning activities that you might insert into a lecture to change pace and deepen students’ learning.

Peer instruction as a lecture activity

This is a means for testing and developing students’ knowledge of conceptual problems during the course of a lecture. The instructor gives an introduction to a concept, then asks the students to choose among several answers to a question that challenges their understanding (this can be done using Poll Everywhere, or for a solution that doesn’t require students to get out their phones, Plickers). The best questions are challenging conceptual problems (as above, say, recall questions). The instructor can see how students are answering, display the distribution of responses on a projector, and tailor their response accordingly; often the next step will be to have students discuss their answers in small groups and give justifications for their answers–which is where the instruction comes in. Students then answer the question again as a group. Sometimes, the discussion process will cause the majority of students to come to the correct answer organically, and if not, the instructor can ask a group that had come to the correct answer to detail their reasoning.

For support setting up Poll Everywhere or Plickers activities in your classroom, please contact Kate McCallum on k.mccallum@pacificu.edu. For more resources on Peer Instruction, check out this survey paper or some of the resources on its creator Eric Mazur’s website.

Annotation or organization activities

A nice interactive method to use can be to have students complete a quick annotation or organization exercise in groups. You can set these up in Google Slides and have each group take a slide, and then add their own labels to a diagram, put a set of words into categories, fill out a Frayer Model for a particular concept, and so on. For examples and templates for activities of this kind, please contact Kate McCallum on k.mccallum@pacificu.edu.

Think-pair-share

This is a classic classroom technique in which the instructor prompts students to think about and write down their answers to a question, and then pair up to discuss them. Giving students time to formulate a response before discussing it can be good for confidence, and to see students giving a range of responses and defending them as they discuss. A nice variant on this is Pairs and Pods, a method in which students are asked to first share their responses to some topic in a pair with another student, and then in a pod of four students (two pairs put together). Students maintain the same pair and pod across a few classes, so that they build community within their group; students have time to prepare and then share their thoughts with iteratively larger groups, which provides a scaffold toward speaking in bigger discussions.

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Helpful tools

Poll Everywhere

A particularly useful tool for interactive moments in lectures is Poll Everywhere. Pacific University has an institutional subscription, and you can use Poll Everywhere to create multiple choice, pictorial or freeform written quizzes, polls and surveys, and embed them right in your slides. Students can use a QR code or a link to respond to the questions, and you’ll be able to display responses by percentages or as a word cloud. You can even track student participation if you want to give credit for these activities. This can be a really efficient way to have students think about and respond to a question without feeling too self-conscious, and have immediate access to the results. It is very readily integrated with activities like peer instruction, which prompt students to give an answer to a question as an opening to deeper discussion.

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Plickers

Plickers are another fantastic way to poll students on a multiple choice question, and one that doesn’t require them to get their smartphones out! Each student is given a printed, laminated Plicker (essentially a QR code) at the beginning of the class, and when the instructor wants to poll the class on a question, they have them hold up their Plicker in the orientation that corresponds to their answer. The instructor can then simply hold up their device to read the Plickers in the room. The Plickers themselves are free to download and print, and Pacific mathematics professor Ian Besse has been using them to good effect (feel free to reach out on besse.ian@pacificu.edu if you’d like to know more). Their use is a little more constrained than Poll Everywhere in that they can only support multiple-choice questions, but they have the great advantage that only the instructor needs to get out a device for them to be effective.

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Figjam

Google has now phased out their Jamboard application, but a great alternative for collaborative visual brainstorming in a class is FigJam. You can use it for free, and the application offers you an extensive virtual whiteboard space on which students can place images, sticky notes and even widgets like a virtual coin toss to visually map out ideas and processes. If students are working in groups, you can assign each group an area of a whiteboard in which to collect their ideas, making it easy to share at the end of an activity.

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Padlet

An increasingly popular tool, Padlet is a customizable bulletin board that can be used for sharing thoughts and organizing ideas. It offers a little more structure than some similar applications, with posts displayed in automatically-formatted boxes and often organized under headings, but offers the ability to share multimedia and an attractive interface. A free account is limited to three Padlets, which can be shared with as many participants as you want.
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Interested in thinking more about ways to make your lectures optimally effective? Reach out to us at edtech@pacificu.edu, and we can suggest more resources or schedule a one-on-one.

We are also always looking for more answers to this question, so if you have one that’s worked for you, please let us know!

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