Well,” I would say, “There are a number of different techniques that can be used to break up 15 and 20 minute blocks of lecture. Asking questions is a great way to get students to figure out the information on their own. Cold calling on them can work especially well to keep the entire class engaged. I’ve even seen professors who have students stand up in front of the class. There are any number of ways to make students just a little bit uncomfortable so they keep paying attention.”
Every (good) teaching book will tell you that students learn much better when they’re engaged with the material. When they’re out of their comfort zone enough so that they’re constantly paying attention, but not so uncomfortable that that their learning is harmed. The goal, these books say, is to make them active learners. Not passive listeners. However, this can be difficult to do while lecturing. After all, the whole point of lecture is to talk through material that may be too dense or not important enough to have a class discussion about. So, how can we keep our class engaged while lecturing? What techniques have other lecturers used in the past?
(These are in no particular order.)
1. Telling Stories. “Remember that time Colin shot up heroin on Hennepin Avenue?...”This is one technique that most professors (and some high school teachers) have down pat. The human brain is designed to remember narratives. It’s why story-telling around campfires has been a human tradition ever since we could understand each other. As long as these stories relate to specific course topics, they can be an effective way of tying course material together and grounding it in reality.
2. Relating To Student Experiences. “What are some examples of synthesis that you’ve experienced in other classes?” This is one of the simplest ways to get students engaged. Tell them (or ask them to think about) something they already know. Then, show them how that relates to what you’re teaching.
3. Talking About Sex. Food, and Bodily Harm. (One of my friends once saw a problem in his Chemistry textbook that gave some background about how deadly arsenic was and then told a short story about Ryan, a man at a dinner. At the end, the question asked, “If Ryan died twenty minutes later, how much arsenic had his brother, Steve, used?” My friend still talks about that problem.) This concept is closely related to above. There’s a reason why Game of Thrones is so popular: there’s nothing that keeps people’s attention more than appealing to the three lowest tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
4. Doing Strange Things. (A kid stands in front of the class. The professor walks up behind him while miming a sword in his hands and says, “Kelton is completely unsuspecting while I walk up behind him with my katana. And, what’s a katana again, everyone?”
“A two handed sword.” The class says.
“That’s right. A two handed sword. So, I’m walking up behind Kelton with my katana. He’s completely unsuspecting.”Kelton looks at him. “Turn the other way.” Kelton turns around and the class laughs. “I’m walking up behind him with my katana, he’s not looking, and I cut him in half this way.” The professor mimes cutting Kelton in half on a line between his nose and his belly-button. “That’s the sagittal plane.”)
This may sound like a strange teaching style (probably because it is), but it’s extremely effective. That particular moment has been seared into my brain, and it had an incredible impact on the class I was precepting (Macalester slang for TAing). I heard a number of kids say things along the lines of, “Of course I remember it. It was so drastic. He had someone stand up in front of the class and cut them in half.”
5. Varying Pitch, Tone, Movement Style, and Facial Expression. (Watch Ian McKellen do anything.) There are any number of politicians, professors, actors, telemarketers, pieces of music, people who talk about dolphins at zoos, sales clerks, DJ’s, and general everyday people who can benefit from this one. The nervous system notices change. If we want someone to listen, the easiest thing we can do is make sure we’re not speaking in a monotone. If we want to make a music piece interesting, one of the first things we should do is change the dynamics. If we want to write something interesting, make sure to vary sentence length. It’s not complicated.
7. Adding Humor. “What’s the difference between a snowman and a snowwoman? Snowballs.” A couple course relevant jokes can go sooo far in a class. I can’t even begin to describe how essential this is. Humor can make even the most dull lectures palatable, and there’s no subject on Earth that can’t be made funny under the right circumstances.
8. Recapping Old Info. (Remember where the sagittal plane is? It runs from your belly-button to your nose.) What’s the point of teaching students something if they’re not going to remember it? Referencing old information or getting students to think about it is a great way to hammer home important concepts.
9. Lecturing About New Topics. Not Concepts Students Know. (One time, my Stats professor lectured for ten minutes about mean and mode. We had known that since we were twelve.) This is the cardinal sin of teaching. You never want to be spending time on something everyone in the class already knows. It’s the quickest way to lose their attention, and it’s time that could be spent on something else. That being said, teachers do this ALL the time. However, there are a couple easy ways to make sure this doesn’t happen...
10. Asking Students What They Know. (A number of teachers have given me a basic knowledge test on the first day of classes.) Students are more than happy to share what they already know with you. You just have to ask.
11. Having Students Talk To Their Neighbor. “Turn to your neighbor and remind them what the function of the hippocampus is.” This technique covers so many core educational concepts that I’m not sure why every professor doesn’t do it all the time. It gets students to pay attention in class because they don’t want to look like a fool in front of their neighbor. It increases their comfort in class because they realize that their neighbor knows just as much (or as little) as they do about the subject matter. It builds the interpersonal skills that everyone says is important as an adult. It gets the entire class involved in a topic. And, it doesn’t have to take very long. (My mom, a former professor, was rather surprised when I brought up this last point in conversation.) If you choose your questions well, students will be able to answer them in thirty seconds or less. When the conversation level in the room has died down, you can provide the answer, then continue with your lecture. This technique can be especially effective when you have students connect dots you have given them already. You’re much more likely to remember a concept that you figured out on your own.
The most important thing to do while lecturing is to watch student’s reactions and tailor your style appropriately. It’s usually easy to tell when students are paying attention and when they’re not. When you see a lot of them staring off into space, it’s time to try something different. Hopefully, some of these tips can help.