David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

What If You Have to Lecture?

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In writing about ways to overcome student resistance to active-learning strategies, I noted that it's a good idea to reserve at least some portion of class time to lecture. But what if you have to lecture for longer than 10 or 15 minutes?

For reasons of class size, course content, or departmental policy, some instructors simply don't have the option of abandoning a lecture-dominated course. If you must lecture, does it follow that your students have to be completely passive throughout class time, sitting there listening (or not listening) as though you were a recording?

Here are some ways to make sure that your students remain engaged and active, even when you can't leave the lectern.

Quizzes on the Go.

I've written in the past about the benefits of frequent low-stakes testing, in particular the way that answering test questions seems to do wonders for students’ long-term retention of the material. Tests and quizzes also have the benefit of keeping students engaged. It's hard to fall asleep when you're taking a test.

Mick Charney, an associate professor of architecture at Kansas State University, has written recently of a great idea that puts quizzes to use in the battle for students’ attention during lectures. At the beginning of class, he hands out a 10-question, multiple-choice quiz, and tells students that the answers can be found in that day's lecture. Students need to pay attention to get the answers right, but if they do, it's a gimme of a quiz: You're telling them the answers. You collect the quizzes at the end of class and grade them for a small portion of the final grade. The marking shouldn't take too much time—it's multiple-choice and, again, most students should get all of the answers right.

It sounds like a simple, relatively low-effort way to keep students engaged during a lecture. Even better, I think, would be to have students quickly attempt to answer the quiz questions before you start lecturing, and then correct their own answers as the lecture sets them straight. That approach can help demonstrate to students what they don't yet understand, and get them thinking about their thinking—a key behavior of successful learners.

Put Them in Pairs.

Group work is a commonly used component of active-learning pedagogies, and I certainly think dividing students into small groups is a good way to get them involved in the day's topic. But the best kind of groups may be groups of two.

Pairing students up rather than getting them into larger groups has the advantage of being a lot quicker: There’s no time spent deciding who is in which group (just turn to the person next to you), and far less time actually getting into the groups. It also has the benefit of leaving students with nowhere to hide. Each person is accountable to a partner in a way that isn’t always the case with larger groups.

What do you do with them once they’re paired up? The “classroom assessment technique” of think-pair-share is a classic for a reason. You interrupt your lecture to ask an important and open-ended question. Have the students take a minute or two to write down a response and share their answers with their partners. You can then call on students to share their responses aloud with the whole class.

Another useful strategy: Pair students up and, at various points throughout the lecture, pause and ask the pairs to share and compare notes for the previous section of the lecture. This is a good way for students to discover if they’ve missed anything important, and for misconceptions to reveal themselves quickly.

Cultivate Confusion.

Another classic technique is known as the “muddiest point” exercise. You ask students, either midway through or at the end of your lecture, to take a couple of minutes and write down the muddiest point from the day’s class. What don’t they understand? What isn’t quite clear yet? Whether or not you collect their answers—collecting them is particularly useful if you do the exercise at the end of class—I think it’s important that you immediately follow this exercise by calling on students to read their responses aloud. Put aside any reluctance you might have to put students on the spot: You’ve given them the opportunity to write down an answer first.

That exercise—in addition to asking students to think critically about the lecture and providing you with valuable feedback about their understanding—also has the benefit of letting students know that others may share their confusion. Whenever I’ve done this activity, I always notice heads nodding when students read their muddiest point to the class.

Building this into your lecture routine—a formalized ritual that acknowledges that the lecturer does not always make things crystal clear—is a great way to break students out of the role of passive listeners, unable to question the wisdom of the great sage in the front of the classroom. If you introduce this exercise early in the semester, and use it often, your students might even ask a question of their own accord sometimes.

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