One of the disclaimers I always make when invited to speak about my teaching is that I am not someone who has been trained in pedagogical theory. Rather, my journey into teaching has been about figuring out what I loved (and hated) about being taught, a bit of trial and error, not being afraid of making mistakes, learning from those mistakes and asking the students around me for honest and constant feedback.
Once some sort of pedagogical breakthrough emerges from these approaches, I review the literature, seeking pitfalls, opportunities and lessons.
So when I am asked ‘what advice can you give me about lecturing’, there are seven tips tend to share… Here they are and I hope you find them useful!
1. Want to be there…
Have you ever been on a date that you do not want to be on? The lecture room is exactly the same. Unless you want to be there, the students will wonder what they are doing there! I know we have bad days or even bad weeks, but I do believe that being an educator is a real privilege, and we should never forget that.
Just before I start a lecture, I always look at the classroom and think, ‘How lucky am I… I am about to introduce a bunch of exciting ideas and start some amazing conversations…’
Students pick up on attitudes: if you would rather be somewhere else, they will know and they will not bother turning up… and if they do, they may well be about as interested as you.
2. Don’t try and pack too much in…
When I first started lecturing, I wanted to tell students everything about every topic! I mean, if I was talking about ‘class and class relations’, I have to mention Marx and Engels… but that is Hegelian dialectics, which leads to master and slave relations, identity and so on. Then Lenin, and Castro, revolutions, feminist Marxists, Green Marxists… And on and on it goes!
What I have learnt is that it is more effective to have three or four clear messages in any lecture and build your lesson around each. This allows for a solid framework to build deeper knowledge of these key messages, or pillars, establishing the foundations to direct students to build their own knowledge.
The way I actually do this is to envisage 4 x 12 minute lectures for any single hour. Each ‘mini lecture’ begins with a case study that is relevant to students – getting students hooked, before delving into the theory and showing the broader links.
3. Make lectures ‘an event’ (giving students a reason to turn up)
I once was accused of providing ‘edu-tainment’ rather than lectures. I have also heard academics express concerns that a pod-cast is enough to replace our very existence – seriously, a pod-cast of a floating voice can replace what we do? No, I don’t think so!
My approach to teaching is to give students a reason to turn up by making the lecture an event. This is not dancing and singing (although I have introduced some dance moves), but class interactions that make the lecture a value-added proposition. In this way, the students gain something by attending lectures – something beyond a pod-cast or simply reviewing the lecture slides.
Lots of tips on how to do this, but ultimately it depends on the subject area (and more on that in a future blog). Importantly, and linking with Point 2 above, each individual interaction directly links students to one of the key messages embedded in the course content.
4. Make it applicable and relevant
One of my favourite ever students once asked me, ‘Why do we have to learn about dead white guys?’ (Yes Claire, talking about you!)
This is a fair question: in a diverse culture the focus of much teaching – especially in my area of the humanities – are the sociological classics. And let’s face it, they do not represent the most diverse range of historical figures.
While I am passionate about the classics, it is important to recognise that students do not see the connection between the theories being presented and their daily lives. Again returning to the four key messages in Point 2 above, I ensure that each one is linked and grounded in daily experiences.
If the students can make the connection and find relevance of the topic to their lives, then they are more likely to pay attention, buy-in, participate and take the lessons home.
5. Ask the students
In a recent review of the secondary school curriculum, those undertaking the review listed the many stakeholders who were consulted: industry, parents, government and teachers. So, who was missing? Students!
The best sounding board for pedagogical innovations, changes, strategies and focus are students. I always ask my students in both formal and informal settings for feedback, establishing an environment where feedback is valued and taken seriously. Beyond the university-driven Student Feedback forms, there are many ways to ensure students can tell you what is working and what is not.
Importantly, one of the principles underlying this concept is: If students don’t get it, it is more likely to be me (who is trying to explain it) – NOT them (who are trying to learn it).
6. Do it in bits: and don’t be afraid to get it wrong
When looking at any change to your pedagogical strategy or restructuring, it is often an overwhelming task. It is also an issue of confidence as you ask yourself, ‘Will that work?’
The best thing to do is start in small bits: making changes to one part of the curriculum, trialling it and then reviewing, to see how it goes! If this works, move on to the next section.
As you go, don’t be afraid to make mistakes – it is all part of the learning process. I once introduced a new approach into a lecture and about 10 minutes in looked around and realised I had lost the students. I asked them if this was the case and when they replied with a resounding, ‘yes’, I stopped the lecture, walked out for 2 minutes, came back in and started again.
Getting things wrong is all part of innovation – it is what I have found you need to do before you get things right.
7. Have fun
Seriously, how awesome is it being an educator? Enjoy it, and if you are, the chances are the students will too!
These are my guiding principles that I tend to share whenever I am asked… I am always looking to improve my approach, so feel free to give me feedback, share your own strategies, and let me know what works.