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Faculty Suggestions for Lecturing

This page contains direct quotes from the following faculty from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities at the College of William and Mary: Larry Becker, Clay Clemens, David Dessler, Bob Fehrenbach, John Graves, Barbara King, Chris MacGowan, Sue Peterson, Laurie Sanderson, Tolly Taylor, Hans Von Baeyer, Tom Ward, Barbara Watkinson, Larry Wiseman.

Quotes by individual faculty were compiled, edited, and arranged according to the following aspects of giving good lectures by Heather Macdonald (College of William and Mary) and the page was constructed by R.E. Teed (SERC)

I think the key to good lecturing is to be interested in and excited by the material one is lecturing about!

Content| Organization | Interactions with Students | Preparation | Personality | Other Issues


Each lecture is a compromise between imparting information to students and encouraging them to think critically about the information. The more information presented, the less time/interest students have for thinking and synthesizing. It's more important for me to stimulate my students to think critically about information than for me to present as much information as possible.

I plan a lecture including everything I want to explain or get across that day--and then cut it by at least 25%. It never fails to amaze me how rarely I get to everything, and rushing to cram it into a lecture is in nobody's interest.

I am definitely of the "less is more" school. Trying to cram 100's of facts down students' throats is a waste. I prefer to winnow down the number of examples provided by the text and really spend time examining one work from lots of different points.

I try to keep in mind just one major point that I want to be sure to get across, and as the class develops (often with unpredictable input from students, who ask questions or answer ones I may throw out) I try to remember that I want to get at least this point across. A mistake I used to make was to try to force myself to cover too much material---not just many concepts, but too complicated a structure of ideas. I assign complicated readings, but in lecture, I now believe that less is more.

Find at least two different ways to 'hammer home' the two to three main points: the basic once-through presentation plus, say, slides or diagrams or even just phrasing things a different way.

Beginnings, Ends, Organization, and...

Before covering new material, I don't summarize where we are going with it. Some people I know start out with the "tell them what you're going to tell them" approach. But that risks anesthetizing them. I do give some sense of a direction, by identifying a topic, but I try to turn lectures into problem-solving sessions... The lecture then is a process of trying to solve a problem or puzzle. The summary of important points from that lecture can then be saved for the next class.

I start each class by giving a brief synopsis of what we did in the last class. This always has the elements that I feel are most important as highlights.

I always present something like a "table of contents" of my lecture before I give it: i.e., a map of what I'm going to do that I then refer back to as we move through the lecture itself -- so that the students know "where they are" at all times.

Write out a very bare-bones outline, literally no more than a few words, on the board, along with any key names or concepts ahead of time (in the rush of a lecture it's easy to forget that students may fall behind). Start the lecture with a very brief preview of the single most important idea or concept students should expect to take away with them that day (it sounds simple, but can be useful).

Give an overview/direction in the beginning, and a sum/retrospective in the end, both designed to tie the particular subject to the 'bigger picture' of the course or course segment.

At the outset of each lecture I tell the students what three or four (sometimes more, sometimes less) main points they should be getting from the lecture. Those questions then structure the lecture and I return to them at the end. I do follow leads and tangents but always return to a very explicit outline. When following a tangent, I also physically remove myself to the side of the room, so my body language reinforces that this is not a central point like the ones I deliver from behind the lectern.

At the beginning of each topic I also return to the syllabus and explain how the topic fits within the overall logic of the course -- why we are examining it at all and why at that specific point in the course. (This, of course, requires a very detailed syllabus.)

I read a study once that said students retain most of what they hear in the first ten minutesof a lecture, and then retain less and less as the class goes on. So one thing I do is summarize important points from the previous class before going on to that day's material. What they missed after fading out on Tuesday they get reminded of at the beginning of class on Thursday. That also gives a sense of continuity from class to class.

Make it a story with a plot and characters and actions and conclusions... even if it is about molecules or rocks or equations.

I think of lecturing as a performance, and prepare (and raise my energy level) accordingly. I think of the performance as improvisation on a theme, every phrase of which I should be able to articulate in several memorable ways. I think of the specific path of the improvisation (but not its theme or content) as audience-driven, and try to get the necessary audience reaction in a non-obtrusive way. I make it clear that every specific path the audience drives me down is a path to my destination. I think of every specific path to the destination as having a clear beginning, middle and end -- the scale of each of which is variable. I always get to the end, no matter what. Well, that's overstated. Not if the audience is having a panic reaction.)

Interactions with Students

Make them use the information. Facts are good, but what is more important in the ability to apply knowledge. When possible I try to make students take some facts they've been given and have them apply them to a new situation. It immediately reinforces a principle or indicates that the information transfer wasn't as good as I had hoped.

The lecturer has to decide how much to encourage interaction with students during the lecture. Will students be encouraged to ask questions? Will the lecturer ask questions? Will students answer questions in small groups? I favor some degree of interaction, even in large lecture classes, but students often prefer to simply sit passively and take notes from the lecture.

While I lecture a lot, I believe in the value of a lot of give and take and deliberately foster a classroom environment that occasionally borders on the chaotic. I use two tools to do this. The first is humor. Sad but true, I think students do need to be entertained. They learn better and remember longer what was more fun to learn in the first place. So, not surprisingly, I am a bit of a ham in the classroom. Second, despite the size of the classes, I try to encourage student participation. The hardest thing for me to learn was to tolerate silence in order to encourage (or guilt) students into asking questions and participating in classroom discussions as part of a lecture course.

Stop one or two times and try to see if the class has 'got it' either by 'reading the class', asking for questions, or asking questions, etc. By this time in the semester I can 'read' the class. Last week I could tell I must've made some absurd error by their facial expressions, but had no idea what. In fact I had reversed two facts on the board and written them backwards. No one raised a hand but their faces told!

I call on people. If they are engaged or feel that might be, they pay better attention and learn more. I often wait a long time to get an answer early in the semester but they catch on soon.

Never ask "Do you have any questions?"which in student ears sounds something like "Do you want to show your peers how slow you are?" I try something indirect, like "If you had to challenge this, how would you do it?" or "I bet I haven't explained this clearly--where have I left it vague..."

Preparation and Presentation

While the lecturer doesn't have to practice the entire lecture in advance, it's helpful to think through the entire lecture carefully in advance, paying particular attention to complex concepts and to the explanation of visual aids. Be aware of the difference between listening and reading--a listener cannot go back--thus the need for clarity, and an appropriate pace, both in delivery and in laying out the argument.

It's important to leave my last hour free before a lecture, not allowing students into my office at that time, for instance. I basically rehearse the lecture during that hour: i.e., I go through my notes one by one and make sure that I have more to say on each point than what is actually written down. I find this allows me to stay further away from my notes during the actual lecture and to present the lecture in a more colloquial mode, with more eye contact, etc.

I'm very much for enthusiasm and using pitch to differentiate between what's important and what isn't.

I think using the black or white board a lot is important, even if what you end up writing on the board is inane, redundant, or obvious. What's important is that you are doing different things while you're up there in front of the class and varying the way the students are taking in information.

Personality, interest, connections...

Let your own personality show through, but don't invent a personality that is not you. Loud, quiet; funny, serious; whatever is you let it show. A few personal asides so the audience makes a connection to you as a human being are good (with caution).

To be an interesting lecturer it is good to be an interesting person. Whatever interests you, bring that to the classroom (art, music, sports, cooking, automobiles, history, whatever it takes to bring life to the stories and examples you use in your own discipline and courses).

I require students to read a daily or weekly newspaper or periodical. Early in the semester, I often begin class by raising some current events issue that fits with the day's lecture topic. By a few weeks into the semester, students are usually raising the issues for discussion themselves. Related to this, when it fits in with the purpose of the class, I also have one assignment that requires students to follow an issue in the media throughout the semester. This is a useful means of making the lecture material more meaningful to students and also to help integrate discussion with lecture. Students come to "own" their issues and want to discuss them in class and demonstrate their expertise.

Connect to their lives, use examples and stories that they will relate to - it draws them in. Everyone learns faster and better when they are interested.

A little humor is essential and can liven an otherwise boring lecture. It also breaks the pace which prevents monotony. Also, for the most part we tend to take ourselves far too seriously. Make it fun.

I try for humor. Although some research shows that humor can deflect from learning what is important, I think that humor has a way of releasing tension.


Respect your audience, your students, your subject-but especially your students, even those having difficulty. Don't talk down to them, don't talk up to them, talk straight to them.

Be prepared. Know what you are talking about. Genuinely like what you're talking about. Come to the whole exercise with a reasonable amount of energy, which, at the very least, tells your audience that you respect them for taking the time to show up.

I'm embarrassed to admit that some of the advice I would have given you has recently been disparaged by psychologists. A notice in SCIENCE, vol. 278, p. 229, October 10, 1997 refers to an article in the September issue of CHANGE. A Cornell psychologist taught the same course twice, once normally, the second time with "more enthusiasm, varying his vocal pitch and using more hand gestures." Grades were identical in both courses, but the student evaluations were "staggeringly" better in the second. The conclusion is that "evaluations are sensitive to things other than the amount students learn." - I disagree with the implication that the final grade is all that matters, and an accurate measure of what has been learned. I think learning has an important emotional component, which seems to be downgraded in this study.