It’s a common belief that some people are “natural teachers”: able to get any audience to pay attention to what they have to say about any topic. The truth is that when you break it down, lecturing is mostly based on learned skills. Some of the factors involved may surprise you! Here’s some advice on how to make your lectures more interesting, more accessible and more memorable.
Student evaluations of university lecturers can be cruel, especially when they home in on “boring” vocal tone or “incomprehensible” accent. But let’s face it: if you’re listening to someone with a singsong delivery style, an inaudible voice, or an accent so thick that you can’t understand their words, you’re going to tune out.
This is probably the easiest issue to tackle. Simple vocal exercises can improve your vocal quality and dynamics, and vocal coaching can help with both skill and intelligibility. You can get started without paying a penny. YouTube serves up hundreds of video clips on vocal exercises, enunciation, and motivational advice for public speakers.
Improving your delivery may save more than your career. Teachers and lecturers are susceptible to vocal cord nodules, which can affect your ability to speak and require treatment. Better speaking habits are preventative.
Preparation is a two-part process: knowing your audience, and preparing a great lecture. You can’t do one without the other.
Learn as much as you can about who your students are, and pitch accordingly. What’s their prior educational level? Why do they take your course? What do they find challenging? Review key terms and concepts regularly, and think of ways to stretch the advanced few with well-placed extra points.
Give your lecture a structure: an introduction, a body, and a conclusion that recaps crucial points. Digressions can be fun, but watch out for losing attention when you go off-topic. Find ways of accentuating material you expect students to remember. This may be using the white board or highlighting it on a PowerPoint slide, but students remember best when they have active engagement with concepts.
That brings us to interactivity. We’re all familiar with calling on students in class Here are a few alternative ways to get students interacting with ideas, each other, and you.
- Various “takes” on the Socratic Circle method, where students work in groups to discuss and take apart a text (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socratic_method for a more complete discussion). This engages students as speakers, thinkers, observers and questioners.
- Research activities that set students a task to complete in pairs or small groups, either inside or outside class, about which they must feed back to the larger group. Examples include surveys via questionnaire or interview, audits of places, services or processes, and structured observations.
- Small group brainstorming, in which you set groups a problem to solve and ask them to produce a drawing, diagram, mind-map or chart.
- Individual attention: when students are working on their own, stop and talk with individuals for just a minute or two, especially those who are least likely to speak in class.
Lecturers have parallels with documentary presenters, public speakers and stand-up comedians. Grab and hold attention through judicious use of visuals and humour. You’re standing in front of a group—don't just hold forth, show them something. They’ll remember it.
On a happy final note, improving your lecturing skills can pay off: High ratings from students for your teaching can lead to fellowships and promotions.