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Lecturing and Presenting



Joan Middendorf, Director of the Teaching Resources Center and
Alan Kalish, Associate Director,Teaching Resources Center Indiana University.

Instructors and students often have the same mental image of how a college class works: The professor talks (lectures); the students usually listen and occasionally write something in their notes. But as teaching consultants visiting a great many classes, we’ve found the real picture looks somewhat different.  Listen to a colleague reporting on a recent visit: I sat in the back of the classroom, observing and taking careful notes as usual. The class had started at 1:00 o’clock. The student sitting in front of me took copious notes until 1:20. Then he just nodded off. The student sat motionless, with eyes shut for about a minute and a half, pen still poised. Then he awoke, and continued his rapid note-taking as if he hadn’t missed a beat.

Not infrequently we observe students having lapses of attention. And we’ve found that it’s not enough for us to tell faculty with whom we are working about the problem. They’re often aware of it already. What really makes a difference is for us to be able to offer a little theory, which we will do in the first part of this article, and then some concrete suggestions of activities they can use in their classes to break up a particular lecture on a particular day.

One explanation for the lapses in students’ attention is that the “information transfer” model of the traditional lecture does not match what current cognitive science research tells us of how humans learn. Research tells us that the brain does not record information like a videocassette recorder. Instead, it handles information by reducing it into meaningful chunks, that we call categories.

Learning consists of fitting this reduced information into already existing categories or, sometimes, of forming new ones. Categorization determines how a concept is acquired, how it is retrieved from memory, and how it is put to work in abstracting or generating inferences. Examples are a primary means of making connections between old knowledge and new knowledge. Their concreteness allows students to draw connections between the new, abstract idea or principle and what they already know. Once a new concept has been introduced, students need an opportunity to practice thinking in terms of that concept. Right in a lecture class, you can ask students to generate their own example of the concept, summarize it, write an exam question for it, or explain it to someone else. This approach works with the mind’s natural processes, and thus improves learning (Savion & Middendorf, 1994).

Studies on attention span also shed light on why students have difficulty with the traditional lecture format. Adult learners can keep tuned in to a lecture for no more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time, and this at the beginning of the class. In 1976, A. H. Johnstone and F. Percival observed students in over 90 lectures, with twelve different lecturers, recording breaks in student attention. They identified a general pattern: After three to five minutes of “settling down” at the start of class, one study found that “the next lapse of attention usually occurred some 10 to 18 minutes later, and as the lecture proceeded the attention span became shorter and often fell to three or four minutes towards the end of a standard lecture” (pp. 49-50). Other studies appear to confirm these findings.

In 1985 Ralph A. Burns (1985) asked students to write summaries of presentations and tallied the bits of information reported by the “half-minute segment of the presentation” in which they occurred. He reports that students recalled the most information from the first five minutes of the presentation. “Impact declined, but was relatively constant for the next two 5-minute portions, and dropped to the lowest level during the 15- to 20-minute interval” (Burns, 1985). Both of these studies note the severe lapse of attention 15 to 20 minutes into a lecture. As researcher P. J. Fensham observes, “During the falls [in attention] the student has, in effect, phased out of attending to the information flow” (1992, p. 510)

Given that students have an attention span of around 15 to 20 minutes and that university classes are scheduled for around 50 or 75 minutes, instructors must do something to control their students’ attention. We recommend building a “change-up” into your class to restart the attention clock. If your main mode of instruction is lecture, clearly the primary activity for most of your students is listening to one person talk; even in whole class discussion, only the student actually speaking at any given time is doing anything other than listening. Combining what we know about attention span and how the mind works, we suggest that lectures should be punctuated with periodic activities.

Johnstone and Percival (1976) report that lecturers who “adopted a varied approach . . . and deliberately and consistently interspersed their lectures with illustrative models or experiments, . . . short problem solving sessions, or some other form of deliberate break . . . usually commanded a better attention span from the class, and these deliberate variations had the effect of postponing or even eliminating the occurrence of an attention break” (p. 50). Many of our colleagues also report that when they intersperse mini-lectures with active engagement for students for as brief a time as two to five minutes, students seem re-energized for the next 15 to 20 minute mini-lecture.

By planning exactly when to insert an activity, you can make sure that your students pay the most attention to the issues which you feel are most important.

Don’t do activities for their own sake; they should be integrally related to giving students practice with the most important concepts in that day’s class. So, telling jokes about lawyers halfway through a fifty minute economics class will change students’ level of attention, but will add little to their learning of cost/benefit analysis.

Varying your approach to teaching also allows you to get your students actively involved in their own learning. The research on the mind gives us the theoretic base for advocating active learning. A large body of literature tells us that when the goal is to foster higher level cognitive or affective learning, teaching methods which encourage student activity and involvement are preferable to more passive methods (Sorcinelli, 1991).

Active learning lets you give your students opportunities in class to practice with the concepts you want them to learn. Particularly effective for getting students actively engaged in the classroom are collaborative learning techniques. What better way to get students active than to have them explain their new knowledge to one another? By making the classroom a social learning experience instead of a solitary one, instructors can reduce the student passivity through which some students seem to hide out in large classes. Research confirms that breaking down the walls of anonymity promotes learning (Sorcinelli, 1991).

One colleague, who teaches journalism, told us that he fell into using small groups by accident, but they generated so much energy and interest in class that he now uses them regularly: “I wanted to show some slides and have the entire class talk about [them], but the slides didn’t get processed in time. So I got half a dozen magazine spreads, and I divided the [students] up into six groups. I was really, really shocked, but delighted, to see what a tremendous wave of energy this released in the class. All of a sudden these students who had been sitting there listening very passively got very energetic; they began to talk to each other, and they were actually doing exactly what I wanted them to do.” (Cookman interview, 1994)

When you plan your classes, you will want to decide how often to add a change-up and what activity to use. Use the 20 minute attention span as a rule of thumb: in a 50 minute class, use one change up in the middle; in a 75 minute class, use two change-ups, at roughly 1/3 and 2/3 of the way through the class period. But don’t follow this slavishly; anything that becomes predictable will have less impact. Variety is a powerful force. Having a handful of activities you can use comfortably will keep the students guessing, wondering what you will do next. Be sure to earmark at least one third of the time you allow for the activity for debriefing afterwards; this is when most of the substantive lessons of the activity will be confirmed. Without a wrap-up, students see these activities as amorphous and sometimes confusing; a concluding debriefing helps them understand what was important and what was not.

A Change-Up Sampler

The list below presents many options for changing the activity for all of your students at once, allowing you to revitalize their attention when you want to do so and to get them actively involved with the material. You should be able to find a few here that work for you. On that dark night of the teaching soul, when you have run out of ideas for a change-up, pick something new from this list.
Student Generated Questions:
Write a Question  The simplest of these techniques: instead of saying, “Are there any questions?”, ask each student to write down one to three questions they have about the material just covered in class. Then ask several (volunteers at first) what their questions are and answer them (or get other students to answer them). Writing their questions down gives them all a chance to work out what they really do not know and seeing the questions in writing helps them feel authorized to ask them.

Guided Reciprocal Peer Questioning
Show students a set of generic question stems (see samples below). Each student writes down questions about the material just covered in class. They need not be able to answer their own questions; the purpose is to generate discussion. Groups of four students then discuss possible answers to the questions each group member wrote. Sample Generic Question Stems * What is the main idea of Š? * What is a new example of Š? * What is the difference between Š and Š? * What are the strengths and weaknesses of Š? (Millis & Cottell, 1993)

Press Conference
Alone or in pairs, students generate press-conference style questions to ask you or a panel of students who had been assigned to prepare on the topic. (Thiagarajan, 1988)

Exam Questions
Alone, or in pairs, or groups of three, students write an exam question about material just covered in class. (They should follow the format of your actual exam – essay, multiple-choice, etc.) After a brief time for discussion, you select at least four groups to report their questions to the whole class. Write these on the board and ask other students to critique them (give specific criteria). You can collect all of the questions in writing; use the best ones on the exam! (Angelo & Cross, 1993)

Send a Problem
Each team member writes a review question on a card and her teammates try to answer it, writing their consensus on the back. The cards are then passed to the other teams for their answers. (Wright, 1994)

Student-Developed Cases
Alone or in small groups, ask students to develop a case (a fictional situation which presents a problem) based on the theory of the current topic. This can be done in class, as homework, or both. The class should then discuss several of the cases.

Minute Papers
At the end of a class or a section of material, ask your students to write for a minute or three. Questions such as “What was the most important point of today’s class?” or “What question do you still have about this material?” give you important feedback about the students’ comprehension and a useful starting point for the next class. (Schwartz as described in Wilson, 1986; see also Angelo & Cross, 1993)

Problem Solving:

Think (or Write) – Pair – Share
Pose a question which requires analysis, evaluation, or synthesis. Each student thinks or writes on this question for one minute, then turns to the person next to him to compare ideas. Then the pairs share their ideas with some larger group (pairs of pairs, section of the class, or whole group). (Wright, 1994)

Paired Discussions
In three or four minutes, have students discuss something with the person next to them: summarize class so far; react to theory, concepts, or information being presented; relate today’s material to past learning; etc. Make your question as specific as you can. (Wright, 1994)

Practice Exam Question or Homework Problem
Give the students a sample exam question or homework problem for practice. Either works quite well with more quantitative problems. Ask several students at random to report their answers to the class. Giving the students a chance to practice the type of questions they might see on homework assignments or examinations will give them more confidence when they have to work them alone. (Derek Bok Center, 1992)

Finding Illustrative Quotations
Alone or in small groups, ask students to reread the text for the day to find quotations to support a specific position. You can have all groups look for support for the same position or several different ones. (Frederick, 1981)

Concrete Images
To help students to make specific references to the text, go around the room and ask each one to state a concrete image/scene/event/moment that stands out to them. List them on the board. Follow up by having them find themes or patterns, missing points, etc. Then discussion can move to analysis with a common collection of facts. (Frederick, 1981)

Generating Ideas:

Help students to see what they know by recording all of their ideas, recollections, etc. on the board. Ask students to call out any ideas they have. Write the ideas down first without analyzing them, then move to critical discussion.

Buzz Groups
Give one or two prepared questions to groups of three to five students. Each group records its discussion and reports to the whole class. Then help the class synthesize the groups’ answers. (Berquist & Phillips, 1975)

A brainstorming technique in which students take turns writing on a single pad of paper, saying their ideas aloud as they write. Each tries to add to what has already been said. (Wright, 1994)

Truth Statements
Ask several small groups to decide on three things they know to be true about some particular issue. This is useful when introducing a new topic which students think they know a great deal, but their assumptions about it need to be examined. (Frederick, 1981)

Picture Making
Choose (perhaps with help from class) several principles or questions which could be illustrated. Groups of four or five students each illustrate one on the board or on large chart paper. Each group explains its picture to the class, followed by discussion. (Berquist & Phillips, 1975)

Kisses and Crackers
To overcome the flagging of attention, when you notice energy and attention diminishing, pass out crackers and Hershey’s kisses. The professor who taught us this technique tells us that research in “accelerated learning” shows that eating about once per hour actually promotes learning. Not only does the food wake students up, the mere act of passing the bags around changes the activity and refocuses attention. He says that this also helps students feel good about his class and him and to overcome science anxiety. (A. Basu, personal communication, February 1991)

Controversial Topics:

Structured Controversy
Class members (or groups) to take different positions on an issue (you can assign positions), discussing, researching, and sharing their findings with the class. (Wright, 1994)

Reaction Sheet
After presenting a controversial topic, pass around several sheets to collect written reactions to these three questions: “What ideas do you question,” “What ideas are new to you,” and “What ideas really hit home?” Follow up with discussion. Variations are to ask each student to write their own sheet or to have small groups do so. (Berquist & Phillips, 1975)

Value Lines
Students line up according to how strongly they agree or disagree with a proposition or how strongly they value something. This gives a visual reading of the continuum of feelings in the group. Next, sort students into heterogeneous groups for discussion by grouping one from either end with two from the middle. Ask students to listen to differing viewpoints in their groups and to fairly paraphrase opposing positions. (Wright, 1994)

Forced Debate
Ask all students who agree with a proposition to sit on one side of the room and all opposed on the other side. Hanging signs describing the propositions helps. It is important that they physically take a position and that the opposing sides face each other. After they have sorted themselves out, switch the signs and force them to argue for the position with which they disagree. This is one of very few activities which gets people to consider viewpoints in opposition to their own strongly held opinions. (see also Frederick, 1981)

Role Playing
Ask several students to take on the roles of participants in the situations being studied, characters from a novel, historical figures, representatives of political or theoretical positions, science foundation grant evaluators, etc. To reduce the students’ fear, you might allow them some choice as to how involved they get, asking for volunteers for major roles and allowing some roles to be played by groups of students. You might also give them some time to prepare: a few days outside of class to research their roles, 15 minutes to confer in small groups, or five minutes to refresh their memories. Also, the definition of the roles and their goals must be clear and concrete. (Frederick, 1981)

Student Self-Evaluation
Have the students write a brief evaluation of their learning. After an essay (or project) have them answer the following: Now that you have finished your essay [or project], please answer the following questions. There are no right or wrong answers; I am interested in your analysis of your experience writing this essay [or doing this project]. 1. What problems did you face during the writing of this essay? 2. What solutions did you find for those problems? 3. What do you think are the strengths of this essay [project]? 4. What alternative plans for this essay [project] did you consider? Why did you reject them? 5. Imagine you had more time to write this essay [work on this project]. What would you do if you were to continue working on it? (Allen & Roswell, 1989, as cited in MacGregor, 1993) See MacGregor for several other ideas on student self-evaluation.

Vary Media:

Slides, overheads, pictures; Video clips; Music or sound
Use a brief selection of a medium to provide a shared example or experience as a basis for discussion or analysis. Follow these guidelines for active viewing or listening:

Pre-viewing or listening:
Introduce the video/film/sound by providing an overview of its content, a rationale of how it relates to the current topic  being studied, and a reason students need to know about it.  Direct student attention to specific aspects of the presentation by asking them questions to answer following the  presentation.

Viewing or listening:
You do not need to show all of a video or film, nor to play an entire song; just the relevant parts, for best use of class time  and greatest impact.  It may also be useful to stop the presentation at appropriate points for discussion or clarification.

Post-viewing or listening:
Follow-up a video or film with an activity that allows students to respond to or extend ideas presented.  Discussions, short writing assignments, or application exercises, for example, will reinforce the concepts and increase  learning from classroom audio-visuals. (Middendorf, 1993)

Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Berquist, W. H. & Phillips, S. R. (Eds.). (1975). Classroom structures which encourage student participation. In Gary H. Quel (General Editor). A handbook for faculty development (pp. 118-121). The Council for the Advancement of Small Colleges in association with The College Center of the Finger Lakes.

Burns, R. A. (1985, May). Information impact and factors affecting recall. Paper presented at Annual National Conference on Teaching Excellence and Conference of Administrators, Austin TX. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 258 639)

Cookman, C. (1994). [Interview with Joan Middendorf]. Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University (Producer). (1992). Thinking together: Collaborative learning in science [Videotape]. (Available from Anker Publishing Company, Inc., P. O. Box 249, Bolton, MA 01740-0249).

Fensham, P. J. (1992). Science education at first degree level. International Journal of Science Education, 14 (5), 505-514.

Frederick, P. (1981). The dreaded discussion: Ten ways to start. Improving College and University Teaching, 29 (3), 109-114.

Frederick, P. (1986). The lively lecture: Eight variations. College Teaching, 34 (2), 43-50.

Johnstone, A. H., & Percival, F. (1976). Attention breaks in lectures. Education in Chemistry, 13, 49-50

MacGregor, J. (Eds.). (1993). Appendix to New Directions in Teaching and Learning, 56, 101-117.

Millis B. J., & Cottell, P. G. (1993, October). Moving beyond the basics: Cooperative learning strategies for advanced practitioners. Paper presented at 1993 POD National Conference, Rochester, MN.

Middendorf, J. (1993). Active viewing for video, films, and other audio visuals. Teaching Resources Center Newsletter, 4 (1), 3.

Savion, L., & Middendorf, J. (1994). Enhancing concept comprehension and retention. National Teaching and Learning Forum, 3(4), 6-8.

Sorcinelli, M. D. (1991). Research findings on the seven principles. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 47, 13-25.

Thiagarajan, S. (1988). Reading assignments: 13 interactive strategies for making sure your students read them. Performance and Instruction, 27(9), 45-49.

Wilson, R. C. (1986). Improving faculty teaching. Journal of Higher Education, 57 (2), 195.

Wright, D. L. (1994). Using learning groups in your classroom: A few how-to’s. Teaching at UNL (University of Nebraska – Lincoln), 15 (4) 1-2, 4-5.

Improving Lecturing Skills: Some Insights From Speech Communication

Patricia Hayes Andrews, Department of Speech Communication, Indiana University, Bloomington

Most college teachers lecture. Even those who embrace a modern view of participatory learning still turn to the lecture from time to time. As a teaching method, the lecture has been used for hundreds of years. Certainly, today, no student can acquire an advanced degree without listening to dozens of professors lecture. As perhaps with other teaching methods, the lecture gets a mixed review. Although most of us have been inspired by brilliant lecturers, all of us have been bored, confused, and anesthetized by poor lecturers. We have vivid memories of the psychology teacher who read from his scripted notes without once looking up for an entire semester, the geography instructor who spoke to her maps, and the mathematics teacher who spoke so softly and obliquely that he could neither be heard nor understood. It is little wonder that we sometimes worry about our own lecturing practices, hoping that we will escape the traps that other well-intentioned teachers have fallen into.

Lecturing is essentially a form of public communication. We can borrow, then, from the public speaking literature to learn more about how to improve our lecturing skills. The ability to lecture well, like speaking well, is an acquired skill. However, unlike public speakers, as lecturers we have multiple opportunities to communicate with the same “audience.” Thus, we can assess our mistakes, think analytically about our actions, and take steps to improve while teaching the same group of students. We may lecture as many as forty or more times to the same class. Improvement, then, is possible within the same semester as well as over several semesters or years.


As with any teaching method, the choice to lecture should be a strategic one. Lecturing is not the only way to teach, but it can be very effective if it is used with appropriate goals in mind. What are some objectives we might hope to achieve by lecturing? Among them are: (1) exercising/gaining control of the class, (2) highlighting major ideas, (3) setting the stage for forthcoming activities, (4) showing one’s own interest and enthusiasm for the subject, (5) providing a role model of good public communication skills. Some brief elaboration may clarify.

Exercising/Gaining Control of the Class
Communication research clearly reveals that those who talk the most (in terms of frequency and duration) exert the most control over the rhetorical environment. The classroom is no exception. The teacher who chooses to lecture is asking students to listen. She is also setting the agenda, choosing the pacing and emphasis, and deciding the order in which concepts will be introduced. In addition, she sets the “rules” for interaction. Will she allow interrupting questions during the lecture? Will she save time after the lecture to address student concerns? The lecture, then, serves as a method of control over interaction patterns, organization, and substance.

Highlighting Major Ideas
Students are exposed to large quantities of information over the course of a semester. Sometimes, they find it difficult to distinguish major themes, ideas, or concepts from those of less importance. They may also find some of the material they encounter to be difficult or confusing. Through a lecture, the instructor can emphasize those concepts that are really valuable, help students put their knowledge in perspective, and through example and explanation, clarify confusions. Although the number of major points stressed will vary with the length of the class and the sophistication of the student, generally students can absorb about three to five major ideas during a typical classroom lecture, with seven as an absolute maximum. Ideally, these major ideas should be broadly conceptual, presenting stimulating perspectives or idea scaffolds, upon which students can “hang” facts and attach their own insights and experiences.

Setting the Stage for Forthcoming Activities
In nearly every class, we ask students to perform many tasks. We may ask them to read a novel intelligently, prepare a persuasive speech, solve a set of math problems, observe a dramatic presentation, or pass a difficult examination. In some instances, we use these tasks to assess their knowledge and achievement. In other cases, we view the task as an opportunity for students to learn. Whatever our purposes, we want our students to understand the nature and purpose of the assigned task, to have a clear sense of our expectations, and to be well equipped to successfully grapple with the material. One method of preparing students for their out-of-class learning is to set the stage with a lecture. If students were to watch a videotape of Mario Cuomo’s speech to the 1984 Democratic convention, for instance, the instructor might lecture about the rhetorical environment in which the speech was delivered, highlighting Cuomo’s background, his relationship to other candidates, and his likely role in the future of the Democratic Party. After listening to this kind of lecture, students should be reasonably well prepared to understand and learn from the speech.

Showing Your Own Interest/ Enthusiasm for the Subject
It is probably safe to say that students do not always come to our classes with a high level of intrinsic interest in the subject. If the class is required (e.g., finite math, microeconomics, public speaking, freshman composition, accounting), students may view it as little more than a potential impediment to their career or professional school goals, as something to be endured, or overcome. This attitude stands in sharp contrast to our own. As teachers, we have devoted our intellectual lives to exploring our disciplines as subjects of great interest and intrinsic worth. When we lecture, through the way we speak, we have the opportunity to show our students how we feel about the subject. If we speak with enthusiasm and energy, our students may eventually grow to better appreciate, and even enjoy, the subject. As Emerson once wrote, “the lecturer aims not to drill but to . . . set the hearts of youth aflame.” However dramatic Emerson’s statement, most of us can think of teachers with whom we studied who, through their love and enthusiasm, so influenced us that we were inspired to pursue our present disciplines. Like them, we, too, can teach with inspiration and conviction.

Providing a Public Speaking Role Model
Nearly every critique of higher education in America published during the past five years has bemoaned students’ lack of oral and written communication skills. Every college graduate should be able to communicate effectively, to speak articulately and in an organized manner, to show a concern for clarity and conciseness, and to be able to support her views with evidence and sound reasoning. One way of attempting to improve students’ oral communication skills is to ask every student to take a course in public speaking. Another way is to expose students on a daily basis to good communication role models. The more we demonstrate through our lectures the sorts of qualities alluded to above, the more likely we are to have a positive impact on the way our students communicate. If we cannot establish eye contact with our students, if we ramble in a disorganized fashion, if we are unable to support our assertions with evidence, we will be hard pressed to expect better things of our students.


To acknowledge that good lecturing can allow us to accomplish many goals is important. But, lecturing is no panacea. The poor lecturers I referred to earlier are only too common. And even good lecturers can make many mistakes. Some particular problem areas involve: (1) trying to cover too much material, (2) failing to prepare adequately, (3) being perceived as disorganized or unclear, (4) inadvertently encouraging student passivity, (5) ignoring student feedback, (o) failing to formulate good examples, and (7) displaying distracting or poor delivery. Let me enumerate briefly.

Trying to Cover Too Much Material
It is simply impossible to say everything that ought to be said during the course of a single semester. This is true, no matter the specificity of the subject. Many lecturers, however, cannot accept that truth, except in the most general sense. They set forth, then, to be as complete and comprehensive as possible in each of their lectures. Soon, they fall behind. Or, they go too fast. Students complain that they don’t understand, that they can’t keep up with the notes. Eventually, everyone is frustrated, and all because the instructor felt compelled to “cover the book.”

Failing to Prepare
Most instructors have devoted many years of their lives to learning, thinking about, and doing research related to the subjects they teach. Thus, they are very well informed indeed. But, being an expert on a subject does not insure that one can teach it to others effectively. Each of us can think of professors we have known who had great minds but who were miserable teachers. Knowledge is the foundation of effective lecturing, but, other preparatory steps are essential.

Being Perceived as Disorganized or Unclear
The notion of “perception” here is very important. Even if a lecture is logically organized from the instructor’s point of view, if students fail to perceive its organization or clarity, they soon will feel lost and frustrated. Research has shown that listeners tend to perceive speakers as disorganized if (a) they cannot identify the main ideas, (b) no summaries are used (including previews, internal summaries, and final summaries), (c) transitions are weak or nonexistent, and (d) the organizational pattern is too complex to follow. Not only are disorganized speakers perceived as less credible, but listeners have great difficulty learning from presentations they perceive as poorly organized.

Inadvertently Encouraging Student
Passivity Most students who attend a lecture assume that their role is passive. Especially in very large classes, they may think that it is perfectly acceptable to sit back, relax, and take a few notes. Because they do not expect to be called upon to speak, they assume that they will not be actively involved in learning. The instructor,. of course, probably has different ideas. He may plan to engage students in brief discussion at selected points during the lecture. He certainly expects that students will remain actively engaged intellectually. He must recognize, however, that his expectations and the attitudes of his students are likely to be in conflict.

Ignoring Student Feedback
Much of this problem is related to the “cover the book” syndrome, combined with a measure of rigidity. The instructor who believes that she must cover 14 key points during a given lecture is not likely to welcome student questions or requests to slow down. In fact, she may prefer to focus on her lecture notes and to ignore more subtle cues that students are having problems. Much student feedback expressing boredom, confusion, or frustration is communicated non-verbally. Thus, unless the teacher is attentive to such cues and actively responds to them, she will lose students as she lectures.

Failing to Formulate Good Examples
In any communication situation, examples are needed to clarify, to bring ideas to life, and to make the general specific. As a public speaking instructor, I may discuss basic types of evidence to be used in speeches and tests for determining the quality of evidence. But, it is only when I show students concrete examples of evidence that they begin to understand precisely. Colorful examples are memorable. Some research suggests that listeners use their memory of examples to reconstruct key ideas. Thus, not only can compelling examples make one’s lecture clearer and more vivid; they can also assist students in recalling important ideas. Unfortunately, it takes time and effort to find or formulate good examples. Many instructors fail to do so, hoping instead that examples will come to them spontaneously as they lecture. Often, this is not the case.

Distracting or Poor Delivery
Whenever any speaker’s delivery or presentation style calls attention to itself, it serves as a source of distraction. Students who are counting the number of times their instructor says “you know” are not learning very much about the content being addressed. The list of poor delivery qualities is quite extensive. It includes (but is by no means limited to): speaking in a monotone, looking or sounding bored, using vocalized pauses, talking too rapidly, hiding behind the podium, reading lecture notes, failing to use reinforcing gestures, and playing with objects (such as glasses, pencils, or jewelry). Most instructors will never have flawless delivery, but whenever their delivery becomes the source of student boredom, distraction, or ridicule, a problem must be acknowledged.


As a form of oral communication, lecturing is an acquired skill. While some instructors seems to have an innate flare for lecturing, any instructor can improve significantly as a lecturer if he is willing to exert the time and effort required. Some particular improvement measures involve: (1) acknowledging/dealing with speech anxiety, (2) anticipating the teaching environment, (3) planning carefully for each lecture, (4) combining lecturing with other teaching techniques, (5) organizing the lecture according to sound principles of speech construction, (6) using visual aids when appropriate, (7) delivering the lecture extemporaneously, (8) demonstrating respect for student reactions, and (9) seeking feedback on teaching from multiple sources. Elaboration follows.

Acknowledging Speech Anxiety
Extensive research on communication apprehension has shown that the vast majority of public communicators experience some anxiety before (and often while) making a presentation. Speech anxiety is frequently accompanied by an array of physiological reactions, including cold, clammy hands, dry mouth, “butterflies” in the stomach, and rapid heartbeat. These dread symptoms are usually brought on by increases in adrenaline associated with the speaker’s fears about the speech. Some speakers become anxious because they feel like they are being evaluated when they speak. Others feel inadequately prepared. Still others only get nervous in certain kinds of speaking situations. For instance, the teacher might never be nervous while speaking to advanced students in a seminar, but may become quite nervous when asked to address a group of 300 undergraduates.

To deal effectively with speech anxiety it is important to recognize that being anxious is a normal reaction to speaking in public. Moreover, research has shown that communication apprehension tends to diminish over time. New teachers are more likely to be nervous than experienced teachers. And each of us is likely to feel less relaxed during our first few class meetings than later in the semester. Most important, experiencing speech anxiety in no way suggests that we will be ineffective as speakers or teachers. Some of the greatest public speakers of the past wrote and spoke of their speaking fears. Whenever we keep company with such orators as Cicero, William Jennings Bryan, and Abraham Lincoln, we should grow to believe that, indeed, it is possible to be excellent, even if we are apprehensive. In fact, some experts argue that we can be more effective as speakers if we experience some speech-associated anxiety. That is, because of the adrenaline associated with communication apprehension, we actually acquire some extra energy. That energy can be used to fashion a more enthusiastic, dynamic presentation. Viewed in this way, speech anxiety becomes a potential resource rather than a threat to teaching or speaking effectiveness.
Of course, no one wants to be paralyzed by stage fright. Whenever we feel our stomachs churning and our hearts racing, we need to remind ? The more one grapples with these kinds of questions before each class meeting, the greater the likelihood of conducting a good class.

Combining Lecturing with Other Teaching Strategies
Many instructors make the mistake of assuming that they must make a choice between lecturing and doing something else, like leading a discussion. This simply is not true. In fact, most of us will find that our lectures are better received if we lecture for briefer periods of time, using other activities and class discussion for variety and to encourage student involvement. Research has shown that typical student attention spans are limited to about 15-20 minutes. It makes sense, then, to lecture for about that long and then to ask students to talk, either among themselves, or with you as you lead them in class discussion.
Instructors who have had little experience leading student discussions should be prepared for some resistance at first. In a class they initially perceive as a lecture class, students will not expect to be called upon to speak. It is important, then, to use the lecture/discussion technique early in the semester and to continue to use it consistently over time. When asking questions, open questions (Why? What contributed to? Give me some examples of . . . What is your opinion of?) are usually most effective.

Pausing after asking a question is crucial. Research has shown that if an instructor asks a question and then counts to 10 (slowly and silently), he is very likely to elicit some student response. One study showed that the number of student responses increased by 80% when instructors used this technique.

Organizing the Lecture Effectively
Every lecture should follow basic principles of good speech construction. The lecture should have an introduction which gains the attention and interest of the class and orients them to the subject of the day, a body in which a few major ideas are highlighted and arranged in some logical order for presentation, and a conclusion which pulls the main ideas together and leaves the students with something to think about. Instructors should recall that transitions are important, as are previews and summaries. Any good public speaking textbook will suggest many specific patterns of organization and several examples of each. Sometimes organization can be emphasized by visually showing students the outline of the lecture.

Using Visual Aids
Most lectures can benefit from the use of some visual aids. Visual aids come in many forms, including objects, charts, graphs, and pictures. Most public speaking teachers use audiovisual aids regularly, showing their classes tapes of master speakers and videotaping and showing students their own speeches for analysis and discussion. Nearly any instructor will occasionally use the blackboard, handouts, or the overhead projector to outline the main points of the lecture. Since about 15% of all students are “visually oriented,” learning more easily with some form of visual reinforcement, it behooves us to think of ways to use visual aids to accompany our lectures.

Delivering the Lecture Extemporaneously
Extemporaneous delivery is a presentational style which relies on a carefully prepared outline, but allows for directness and spontaneity. The teacher who delivers his lectures extemporaneously need not worry about reading a manuscript. He is more likely to have good eye contact and to be able to adapt to student reactions. The extemporaneous style also encourages movement and gestures since the instructor need not stand behind a podium, and can usually carry note cards as he or she moves about.

One problem sometimes associated with extemporaneous delivery is a lack of fluency. Because the teacher is not reading from a manuscript, she may occasionally search for words or even lose track of the next point. Carefully going over one’s notes, either visually or orally, planning specific examples in advance, and occasionally reading direct quotes will help improve fluency. It is especially important to guard against excessive vocalized pauses and other intermittent fillers, such as “you know,” and “okay.” Through the effective use of extemporaneous delivery, teachers can communicate their interest and enthusiasm while staying in touch with student reactions.

Demonstrating Respect for Student Opinion
In part, by watching student feedback and responding to it, the instructor shows that she is concerned about how students are getting along in the course. Simply choosing not to lecture for the entire class period also shows concern for student thought. Other ways to show respect include: encouraging students to ask questions whenever they are confused, actively seeking their reactions to views presented in the lecture, actively listening to their comments, acknowledging the worth of their contributions, and asking for their feedback on the class early enough in the semester so that changes can be made.

Seeking Feedback on Our Teaching
Students are valuable sources of information about teaching effectiveness. They may not be experts in the field, but they can judge whether or not we are clear in our explanations, organize our remarks in ways that seem logical to them, and deliver our comments with a sense of interest and enthusiasm. It is important to ask students what they think, but it is equally valuable to seek feedback on our teaching from our colleagues and from other teaching experts. Peers can react to our treatment of the subject, and teaching consultants can suggest practical ways to improve our teaching and lecturing skills. One of the best ways to improve oral communication skills is to practice speaking, to receive good critical feedback, to devise strategies for improvement, and to try again.

Related Bibliography

Andrews, P. H. ( 1985). Basic Public Speaking. New York: Harper and Row.

Baird, J.E. (1974). The Effects of “Previews” and “Reviews” upon Audience Comprehension of Expository Speeches of Varying Quality and Complexity. Central States Speech Journal. 25, 119127.

Beatty, M.J. (1988). Situational and Predispositional Correlates of Public Speaking Anxiety. Communication Education. 37, 28-39.

Frederick, P.J. (1986). The Lively Lecture-8 Variations. College Teaching. 34, 43-50.

Knapp, M.L. (1976). Communicating with Students. Improving College and University Teaching. 24, 167-168.

Lucas, S. E. ( 1983). The Art of Public Speaking. New York: Random House.

McKeachie, W.J. (1980). Improving Lectures by Understanding Students’ Information Processing. In New Directions for Teaching and Learning: Learning, Cognition, and College Teaching, edited by Wilbert J. McKeachie. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 25-35.

Weaver, R.L. (1982). Effective Lecturing Techniques: Alternatives to Classroom Boredom. New Directions in Teaching. 7,

Ten Things a Teacher Can Do to Spice Up a Lecture 

Bridget M. Smyser

  1. Start the lecture with a demonstration that students will be asked to explain in writing at the end of the class.
  2. Stop the lecture after 15 minutes and give the students a problem to work on in pairs.
  3. Bring in a physical prop to hand around (Like a fractured part in a mechanical metallurgy class).
  4. Stop the lecture in the middle to ask questions. If the students don’t have any, ask them questions that test understanding.
  5. Do an activity that involves the students physically. One example is to give every student a paper clip and have them bend it until it breaks. This illustrates fatigue loading in a very concrete way.
  6. Have students turn in ‘minute papers’ at the end of class stating one thing they learned and one unanswered question. Then READ the responses and act on them.
  7. Give a short quiz in the middle of lecture, and go over the answers immediately afterward.
  8. Get out from behind the podium! Walk around as much as possible, and interact with as many students as possible.
  9. Use computer simulations, video clips, pictures, graphs – anything that appeals to the visual mode of learning. Remember, a picture is worth 1000 words!
  10. Have everyone stand and stretch in the middle of lecture. At least it wakes them up!