Lecturing

In recent years, the lecture has come in for a healthy dose of criticism, including more than a few predictions of its extinction as a standard classroom practice. (Even Harvard's alumni magazine has spoken of the lecture's "twilight.") The arguments against it seem difficult to ignore: given the growing volume of research demonstrating the benefits of having students engage actively in their learning—not to mention what we know about how easily large, anonymous rooms lend themselves to student distraction—asking our students to sit passively in a darkened auditorium and listen to a "sage on the stage" might seem tantamount to educational malpractice. At the Bok Center, however, we think it's likely that this criticism will result not in the disappearance of the lecture, but rather in a re-examination of its purpose—and that, as often happens in such cases, instructors will wind up rediscovering some of the things which lectures do extremely well.

Some of these advantages, admittedly, sound modest: things like the fact that, particularly in an age of technological fragmentation, there is power in gathering all of your students together for a shared experience. If done well, the lecture is one of the few remaining places that a coursehead and her students can all see and interact with each other in real time. Effective lecturers—like effective communicators in a range of disciplines, from the theater to politics—are capable of creating a sense among their students that they are engaged in an intimate conversation regardless of the dozens or hundreds of other people around them. With the advent of real-time polling apps (or even just an old-fashioned dedication to encouraging student participation), the lecture can—and should—transcend mere content delivery to become a meaningful convening experience for you and your students.

But the lecture has other, even more impressive, virtues, too. Perhaps chief among them is the opportunity which the genre affords an instructor to model a mode of inquiry for the learner. That is to say, a lecture should not be a seamless narrative decanted into the ears of a passive audience, but rather a raw and vivid display of how an expert in a discipline or field of knowlege defines a problem, thinks through its possible solutions, and discerns among them. Your lectures should offer your students something much more valuable than a set of just-so conclusions, laundered of the messy research that produced them: they should render an account of how someone with your hard-won mastery got to those conclusions in the first place. In this way, the best lectures are not unlike the best conference or job talks: they give the general listener enough access to the raw data to allow him or her to have an intelligent opinion about the strength and accuracy of the lecturer's claims. Achieve that, and you'll be well on your way to levering your students out of the "passive receptacle" mode that critics of the lecture so fear. 

Here are some guidelines that can hep you structure an effective lecture:

  1. Define a problem. Even if the main objective of your lecture is to explain a concept that you've understood since before your students were born, remember to pitch it as an interesting mystery—which it probably is to the roomful of eighteen-year-olds in front of you. The key is to do it in a way that's authentic to your discipline. Different fields naturally have different ways of identifying and explaining what counts as an interesting problem. It may be that the problem which your lecture is meant to solve comes out of some anomaly in the existing research: given what we learned in the previous two lectures, why does this protein not behave in the way that we would predict? Or perhaps it is motivated by a conflict between two or more schools of thought in the existing literature: was the French Revolution driven from above, or from below? Maybe the motivation is even closer to home: did you ever wonder how people reckoned distances before the advent of GPS? By framing your lecture as the solution to a problem, you'll help motivate students to engage actively with your explanations. (In fact, you might even begin by probing their prior knowledge and asking them to predict the answer—even the students who have no expertise in the subject will benefit from making a wrong guess, as they'll be listening more intently in order to figure out where they went wrong.)
  2. Acknowledge the approaches not taken. While you may well have naturalized the norms and preferences of your discipline, your students almost certainly haven't. It's worth stepping back, then, and admitting that there is more than one way to attack the challenge that you have set out for yourself. If you are going to offer a lecture on how sociologists understand poverty, for example, it would be helpful to remind students of some of the other approaches to poverty that might also be of value to them—how economists, for example, might go about investigating the topic. This, in turn, will compel you to explain even more clearly how your discipline thinks, what your students will gain by analyzing the problem through its distinctive lens—and also what they might lose if they were to forget that your is not the only way of thinking. Again, this gives students an immediate framework on which they can arrange the facts and arguments which follow.
  3. Lay out some possible scenarios for solving the problem. Now that you've chosen a problem and a discipline, what is the situation that would allow you to make progress in solving it? If you've taken a sociological approach to understanding poverty, what would be the kind of evidence you would need to collect? If you're an evolutionary biologist trying to understand how bees navigate, how would you begin to develop a hypothesis and design an experimental protocol to test it? Are there paths that can be ruled out immediately? How do you develop the expert intuitions which allow for that sort of discernment?
  4. Expose the data. As mentioned above, that fact that you are less concerned with students remembering data than with them mastering a concept does not mean that you can forgo using real data. Quite to the contrary—in many cases, if students are going to grasp the concept under discussion, they will have to spend some time manipulating the data until they see the patterns for themselves. What happens to the model when one number increases? When another number decreases at the same time? If students cannot see representative samples of the raw material behind your scholarly conclusions, then they have no basis on which to know whether you are right or wrong—or even to develop the habits of mind to discern when a scholar is making a claim that could be controversial.
  5. Deconstruct your expert "moves." If you've given students some data to play with, you'll also have the opportunity to show them exactly how your analytical process works. Project an image of your medieval manuscript, show them the context in which your particular document is found, and walk them through how you deciphered the handwriting and abbreviations to make a transcription.  Then show them how you drew inferences about the identity of the unknown author—how he must have favored one army over the other, because of his use of "our" and "their"; how he might have been an ambassador or merchant, because his letter seems intended to inform a distant patron; how a reference to his own clothing reveals his social class; etc.
  6. Don't fear the dead end. There is a critical mass of pedagogical research indicating that students learn well when their instructors make errors; the act of spotting the error is a kind of self-check for them which also allows you to see how well they are following. It's not a bad idea, therefore, to walk students a certain distance down the "wrong" path to solving the problem you've defined. Try drawing too strong a statistical inference from your experimental data, or make a convenient logical error, and see whether your students shift uncomfortably in their seats. More likely than not, one of them will raise her hand; in the event that no one does, you can always pause and ask whether anyone sees a problem with your method. It's never a bad idea to remind students that even experts experience false starts, and that developing incorrect interpretations is not so much time wasted as it is time spent clarifying where the right answer is to be found.
  7. Obey the "Rule of Three." Professionals in disciplines ranging from rhetoric to advertising have discovered, through a combination of research and trial and error, that concepts are more memorable when presented in trios. This "rule of three" seems to apply to lectures, too: in the typical 53-minute (soon to be 75-minute) lecture, students can probably retain about three big concepts. Don't overdo it—and remember to offer just the right amount of signposting and summary along the way.