How to give a great lecture

21 February 2014

Virology class 2013There are many elements that go into making a great lecture, but the most important one is to lose the notes.

If you are giving lectures in a course at any level, the worst practice you can engage in is to rely on notes. This behavior is problematic for several reasons. You will not properly know the material, necessitating frequent glances at your notes. The students will notice this and consider you to be unengaged and not knowledgeable. Requiring notes will more or less tie you to the lectern, or to some kind of platform at the front of the room. If you carry the notes around the room as you talk you will be perceived as confused and not authoritative with respect to the subject. Get rid of the notes.

Not relying on notes will have huge benefits for your lectures. You will be able to speak conversationally instead of in a stilted manner necessitated by looking at an outline. You can move around the room. There is no better practice than to move away from the lectern directly in front of the students. You can look them in the eye as you speak, and engage them. They will feel that you have moved among them, rather than hiding behind the lectern. Let’s face it, the lectern is a crutch – it’s a good place to hide behind if you are nervous, and clutching the sides of the podium provides false confidence. Forget about all that. I use the lectern to hold my laptop and then stay away from it for the entire lecture.

When I lecture, I move along the front and sides of the classroom, looking at the students as I talk. I only look at each slide initially to receive my cue about what I will be saying. Do not to speak to the slide – it’s the audience you are interested in. Of course there might be times when you have to walk through a complicated pathway with your laser pointer. I always look at the class while I am pointing, rather than turning to the slide and forgetting the students.

Please do not complain that you cannot remember all of the material without relying on notes. You should either study the material until you know it by heart, or do not give the lecture at all. And do not make your slides a surrogate for notes. Even  worse than relying on notes is showing the class slides full of text and simply reading them. Keep the text to an absolute minimum. Use simple images and let them trigger what you have to say. You must know the material well enough to do this, otherwise you are wasting the students’ time.

It’s very important to focus on the audience; by doing so they will sense that you have a command of the material and that you are interested in teaching them. Look at them as you speak. An added benefit is that you will get many more questions this way than if you stand with your back to the audience and hide in the slides. And there is no better supplement to a great lecture than fielding questions from the audience.

There are many other elements to a great lecture, of course, such as proper delivery, having a genuine passion for the material, and arranging the elements to give a compelling story arc. No matter how hard you work on those elements, you lectures will suffer unless you lose the notes.

  • Daniel Weiand

    I am a medical microbiologist and am currently studying for a postgraduate certificate in medical education at University College London. What are your views on some of the alternatives to the traditional lecture? I have been working on a literature review concerning team based learning (TBL), which I am gradually introducing into my own teaching (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22471941). I am very interested in your views. I also really enjoy your podcast! Thanks, Daniel Weiand

  • Guest

    Yes, notes are a crutch. Using them only for preparation from now on, not for the delivery.

  • urbantravels

    When I was just out of college, I worked for an organization that sponsored public lectures & programs on international affairs. So it was part of my job to listen to three or four speakers a week. One of the best speakers I ever heard was a professor & author of a recent book on Islam. (This would have been around 1992 so it *might* have been John Esposito, but I can’t swear to it.) He had the audience spellbound – and the staff, which is much more of a feat. Afterwards we all came up to him to compliment his lecture, and he said he had accidentally left his notes in his hotel room.

    Another thing I learned in that job – ALL speakers improve during the Q&A period. Even dull droners have to abandon their notes and think on their feet. Many, many times I wandered around doing other tasks during the lecture, but came back into the room for the Q&A. Not only was the Q&A more interesting, but I found I retained information much better if it came up in the Q&A.

    I have a plea for all speakers and lecturers, including the very excellent speaker who runs this blog – during Q&A, if the questioners are not miked, REMEMBER TO REPEAT THE QUESTION before you answer it. I’M BEGGING YOU. Even people sitting right next to the questioner may not be able to hear the question, and the people listening to the lecture in recorded form and/or online are really screwed. Sometimes you can deduce more or less what the question was from the answer, but sometimes the answer gives you no information at all if you didn’t hear the question.

  • CourseraStudent

    A list of things you don’t do in your Coursera lectures.

    Also doubles as a list of things the other 500+ Coursera professors do.

  • Dorian McILROY

    You are 100% right Vincent, and it’s also good advice for students when they have to give presentations. I have just evaluated a whole bunch of student presentations on virology topics, and most of them turned their backs to the class, and looked at the screen as their slides were projected. Others read notes, because they lacked confidence with the material. The ones who communicated best, and got a message across, were the ones who actually looked at the people they were talking to.

    That said, I must admit that my own lecturing is probably not a perfect example of great lecturing techique.