January 29, 2013

(This article first appeared in the Graduate Teacher Program Handbook. Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Regents, University of Colorado.)

Philip Langer, Professor and Chair
Educational Psychological Studies

Lecturing is about the oldest form of instruction, probably invented by the first generation of cavemen. I have a reproduction of a woodcut, drawn in the fifteenth century, of a class held at the University of Paris; change the style of dress and you have E050. Interestingly, while it is probably the oldest instructional technique, not that much research has been done on factors contributing to effectiveness.

However, there are several things we do know. First of all, we can all remember that as we moved up the public school ladder, we encountered more and more lecturing as the preferred teaching strategy. By the time they reach college, students are obviously familiar with lecturing and have developed some reasonably good skills in coping with lecture styles, formats, and note-taking. Second, within a given lecture hour, some research suggests that there is a lot of initial enthusiasm in both the instructor and class, which slowly diminishes as time wears on. Indeed, by the midpoint, learning begins to significantly diminish. What is interesting is that students tend to recover some enthusiasm at the end of the hour, while there is no corresponding motivational boost for the instructor. And finally, if there is any truth to the axiom "we teach as we were taught," it is certainly valid for lecturing. We often wind up imitating the best lecturer we ever had.

Overall, a lecture has three parts: introduction, main body, and conclusion. Each of these serves a different function. It should be emphasized that all three must be correlated prior to giving the lecture. That is, it is impossible to prepare a valid introduction unless you know full well what you will be doing throughout the body of the lecture. I would like to briefly discuss what should be done in each. It should be clear to you that lectures must have a clearly defined structure in order to assist student learning. All other things being equal, your preparation bears some relationship to student learning.

What should the introduction include?
Generally, I like to include at least two elements. First of all, I review key concepts from the previous lecture, especially as they are likely to assist in the comprehension of new materials. Second, I set out for the students what I intend to discuss in terms of basic concepts. There are a number of ways to present an overview of the lecture. Sometimes a good beginning is simply a statement such as: "Today I will talk about the key processes involved in the perception of color." On the other hand, you should alert students to the fact that you may be presenting a number of somewhat diverse topics. In that case, try to relate them in some manner if possible: "Operant conditioning has made a number of contributions in various applied settings. I would like to discuss the critical principles derived from behaviorism that have led to these applications." Anything that helps the student grasp the overall structure of the lecture is helpful; it provides, at least, a basic framework for organizing the information.

What should I do to help the student grasp the main body of the lecture?
I cannot overemphasize the necessity of avoiding minute detail. Lecturers often feel pressed to cover everything. My own experience has been that a good lecture not only helps organize the content better than most texts, but also gives the student some idea as to what the instructor considers important. You must help students make some critical discriminations, or they may end up trying to memorize trivia as well as critical concepts and ultimately achieve neither.

This assistance can be provided through the use of teaching aids such as charts, graphs, the blackboard, vocal inflections, and/or direct statements by the instructor as to relevance. I should have kept the cartoon I once had in which the student has come up to the instructor after class, and says: "Congratulations, Professor. I have never attended a lecture in which the main points were more cleverly concealed." Finally, when you move from topic to topic, you should provide "markers" in the form of specific comments. Hence, if you are moving from Topic A to Topic B, tell the students directly. Otherwise, some may spend a lot of useless time trying to relate what they unfortunately think is information on the same topic.

And the conclusion?
Basically you should summarize the main points, but do not add any radically new information. In addition, if there is anything in the forthcoming assignment which relates to what has just been covered in class, point out the relevant relationship. Do not let students tyrannize you into cutting short concluding statements by such tactics as closing books, getting packs, etc. What I have learned to do is speak a bit more softly and watch peers apply pressure to curtail confusion.

What's the best style?
Do not imitate a style in which you do not feel comfortable. It is not necessary to be a standup comedian; indeed, student learning is more related to good management rather than jokes. Humor has its place in a lecture; the value of a lecture composed of one-liners is debatable. However, do not read directly and continuously from your notes. I have learned to review my notes carefully before lecturing so I have a good grasp of what I intend to cover. I then refer to them when I want to be precise about a critical concept or make sure I have covered all the key points.

Should I ask for questions?
It is sad but true, the larger the group size the fewer the students who will ask questions. That is why we use discussion sections. However, one simple technique is to wait around a few minutes after class and let students come to you. In fact, if students keep asking questions about the same content, I take time before starting the next lecture to clarify the issues raised by the questions. On the other hand, if the section's size is small enough to encourage questions, remember two things: Treat each question as important to the student (as opposed to: "Only an idiot would ask that"). Answer the question directly; this means pay close attention to the question itself. Too often we answer what we wanted to hear.

What about the student who keeps butting into the lecture?
In a large lecture session, frequent interruption by a student is not likely to happen. Where it does occur, (usually in a smaller group), simply tell the student you do not want to interfere with the lecture, but will answer the question after class. If it gets really serious, I would most definitely talk to the student.

How close to the text should I stay?
That is the most difficult question of all to answer. There are several guidelines which may help. A lecture is, after all, a way of presenting relevant content that should complement as well as supplement the text. On the basis of this belief, I do not hesitate to include additional concepts and examples which I feel will contribute to student learning. Secondly, I do occasionally include content related to some research I am doing. Generally, I can defend the decision on the grounds that it is marginally relevant and personally motivating. Third, I never devote any significant time to content which I cannot justify on the basis of the first two guidelines. This is especially true in beginning courses such as Psychology 100; you can bet the students are having enough problems without you sailing off into the wild blue yonder. If in doubt, ask yourself if students can use the text to make sense of the lecture and vice versa.

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