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Career Advice

Five ways to energize your lectures

Give your students the gift of a better lecture


We say “we give” lectures and we are right to say this. They are gifts. And like all gifts they work best when they are given with the recipient in mind.

Most often the gifts we give are things we think others will love because we love them. And when we care enough about the recipients to give them something we love, we also try to give it in a way that shows we care. We not only choose our gifts thoughtfully but we make the act of giving special too. In the end, we don’t want just the mere intellectual recognition of our efforts by the recipient, we want their emotional engagement in the whole process.

Like all meaningful gifts, the lectures of highly rated lecturers display three general qualities that create intellectual and emotional engagement in students. They communicate the lecturer’s:

  • Love of the subject matter
  • Appropriate preparation and structure
  • Obvious care for their students

As lecturers we can consistently achieve these positive effects if we follow a few basic guidelines.

Bring your energy to each lecture

Like all great gifts, energetic lecturing communicates your love of the subject and it gets your audience to pay attention. From their point of view, your thoughts and your feelings are the lecture. You energize the material.

For information, the students have the text and other reading materials. What they really need is something only you can give: your understanding and enthusiasm. You can provide the larger context to what might be an endless list of research results or cacophony of analytical perspectives. You can personalize the material by connecting it to your research or personal search for truth. The students want to know what’s important to you. Tell them.

And when you do this, communicate with genuine anticipation. Don’t simply say “This is important” – show it. Raise your voice. Use your hands for emphasis. After all, if you’re not excited by the material, then why should they be?

Even when you have to trudge through the minutiae of the field, your students will keep their minds open long enough to hear you, if you cast a glow of higher purpose over their journey. Enthusiasm is infectious and if you have it, they will pay attention.

Give them a map

Emotional energy is vital to a quality presentation but not sufficient. Your lecture must also be well structured or the energy in the room will rapidly dissipate. Giving them an overall map of your thinking, and providing local directions as you go, really keeps them with you.

Your opening: Start by telling them where the lecture is heading in a short overview at the beginning of the lecture (“Today we will cover … “). Also use this to arouse their interest in the important topics of the talk.

Structuring on the fly: Use verbal signposts to indicate what’s going to happen next as your talk unfolds. Let the audience know you are moving to a new point (“Let’s turn now …”). This can be another chance to let them know how vital the next point is to your argument and their understanding.

Your ending: Most importantly, tell them where they’ve been and where they are going in your next lecture.

If you smoothly integrate these directional indicators into your content – as if you are just thinking out loud – the students won’t even notice the structuring but they will feel like they’ve accompanied you on the journey and learned something along the way.

Tell a great story

When preparing your lecture be aware of the balance between transmitting information and generating understanding. The best lectures emphasize principles instead of a detailed coverage of data. To cover less material but strike a deeper chord of recognition in the audience, tell a story. This is one of the best ways to connect cognition and emotion. Narrative matters as much as fact and findings when it comes to getting students’ attention and deepening their understanding.

Think of your lectures as unfolding stories and if a particular topic doesn’t lend itself to narrative, then use smaller narratives throughout your talk to make the topic come alive for your audience. Connect the topic to your own and your students’ lives whenever possible. In fact, it’s important to tell stories that reflect our personal experiences because it humanizes us. It also encourages us to speak in less formal language, which can make a real difference for the students’ attention and retention.

Show and tell

Students hear what they see, so help your thoughts be seen. When you have their visual attention you have their cognitive attention, so support your lectures with visual technology. Students live in a world of moving visuals. Time to stop blaming them for that and take advantage of it. To support your talk, use still graphics, moving graphics, animation and video. Even sound bites in the right visual context are a real help.

The most effective way to do this is with presentation software (most commonly, PowerPoint) and overhead projection. Despite criticism of this technology (mostly based on poor usage), it’s still the easiest way to provide seamless, visually engaging support for your words.

Just remember that you are the lecture not the PowerPoint slide. The text on the slide should be only the backbone of the lecture – a series of textual cues to what you are going to say next, enhanced where possible with images. In my large classes I insist that students download and print my slides before they come to lecture so they will take notes on what I’m saying rather than “take dictation” off the slides.

In addition, to use this technology effectively you need to learn simple animation techniques that permit you to present only what you want the students pay attention to at a particular moment. Build your argument visually as you build it with your words.

Care about your students

The only reason you would follow any of this advice is that you care about your students and what they learn in your presence. For many of us, caring about undergraduates and how they learned was hardly a first priority in our graduate training. So it requires a real commitment on our part. And the students notice.

They notice when we make an effort to get off our notes or slides and actually look at them when we talk about something we love. They notice when we adjust our words or repeat ourselves as frowns of uncertainty cloud their faces. They notice when we energize our lectures, structure them well, tell stories, and learn to visually engage them.

The front of the lecture hall is a place where minds can be changed: sometimes through the force of words but always through the gift of words and enacted care. I continually collect data on my students’ perceptions of all aspects of my courses – lectures, web sites, use of learning technologies – and they openly acknowledge my efforts and, surprisingly often, say thanks. They get the idea of the gift well given and they reciprocate with their attention and a renewed interest in learning.

Dalton Kehoe is a professor of social sciences and communication studies at York University.

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  1. Barbara A. Macaulay / December 23, 2008 at 16:28

    Even though my connection to online learning make me an unexpected commenter on the use of lectures, I agree with and value what Dr. Kehoe has to say about the ways in which a lecture can be energized. Technology and online teaching tools are certainly a given in current learning environments but this reality does not equate to the “death” of the lecture. What Dr. Kehoe makes abundantly clear is that the lecture cannot be taken for granted (nor should it ever have been) as it is not a tool that works regardless of the form in which it is delivered. Only recently was I laughing with my husband about our days as undergraduates together in which I would kick his chair so he would stay awake in an early morning class…Dr. Kehoe’s recommendations for making the lecture experience engaging and energetic are critical to building an effective teaching and learning situation.

  2. David Matsinhe / December 24, 2008 at 03:32

    As an aspiring teacher i find your points quite helpful. I look forward to putting them to use. I can’t wait for my first lecture.

  3. Margaret Dechman / December 24, 2008 at 08:02

    I am very impressed with the article on energizing your lectures provided by Dr. Kehoe. I am in complete agreement with each of his points and am pleased to see acknowledgement of the importance of inter-personal aspects of teaching.