How to give a great lecture

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.