What makes a good lecture?

Despite being the most popular and widely used teaching method, the keys for good lecturing may not be obvious. Good lecturing results from a combination of the following elements: subject knowledge, study program awareness and student engagement, all wrapped up with effective communication skills.

When EPFL students rate teaching highly, they typically point to the following characteristics of the course:

  • the content is seen as being new, interesting or important.
  • the class is regarded as well-organised and well-structured.
  • the teacher’s explanations are clear (that is, the teacher explains things in ways this class would understand and the teacher can give alternative explanations if students don’t understand).
  • the teacher is enthusiastic or dynamic.
  • the teacher or their assistants are available and willing to answer questions or provide guidance.
  • the teaching resources (such as the polycopié or the moodle site) are good.

On this page we look at three key ideas to lecturing well:

  • Structuring and organising your lectures ;
  • Ensuring students are actively learning during lectures ;
  • Encouraging and facilitating students in taking notes.

Organizing a lecture

The structure of a lecture may vary depending on the discipline and the subject, but it can be said that the main parts of a lecture are:

  1. Introduction to the subject for that class.
  2. Development of the subject.
  3. Conclusion or summary.

Below are some ideas to inspire you in organizing a successful lecture.

1. Introduction to the subject:

  • State clearly the goal of the lecture, what it is that you expect students to know or be able to do by the end.
  • Make a link between what the course has already covered and what will be covered in this lecture. This will help students to make connections in their learning.
  • Activate students’ previous knowledge which is relevant to the lecture content. For example, if the lecture will use a mathematical technique they have seen previously but may have half forgotten, then let them know at the start. Another way of activating prior knowledge is to carry out a short “concept test” at the start. You can use clickers as support for this.
  • Give students a reason for paying attention.  For example, this can be done using an analogy, a cartoon, an experiment or a vignette.  Make an explicit reference to the academic or professional importance for covering the material seen in the lecture (that is, give them a reason to learn).

2. Development of the subject:

This should be the longest part of the lecture.

  • Use a narrative from the general to the particular, from “real-world” situations to abstract models, or from simple to difficult. Make this explicit by telling students the path you are following (even if it seems obvious to you, it may not seem obvious to many of them).
  • It can be difficult for learners to keep taking in new ideas continuously over a 45-minute period. Therefore it is a good idea to take one or two interactive breaks of five minutes or so. You can use this to ask questions, solve a first exercise or check solutions, and so on. This allows students to consolidate what they have heard before moving on to new material. Remember to allow for time to reply to questions.
  • Use AV supports (slides, black or white board, simulations, etc.) that help make the structure of your argument clear. Try to ensure that the support does not contain so much information that it ends up competing with you for the students’ attention.

3. Conclusion or summary:

Often teachers feel they run out of time and so they do not get to conclude properly. This is a terrible pity, because a good conclusion can really help students understand how the lecture fits together and how it relates to the rest of the course. From your point of view it may seem that you are repeating yourself, but from the student’s point of view it is often a chance to organise ideas and understand them better. Before the bell rings you may:

  • Remind students of the goal of the lecture and make a quick summary of the main points covered.
  • Remind students what is to be done for the next lecture / exercise session.
  • Take notes of students’ questions and points that need clarification after the lecture, to help you prepare the introduction for the following one.

For further support you can register for the workshop ‘Effective Lecturing‘ or you may contact a Teaching Advisor.

Active Learning

 A common metaphor for traditional teaching describes students as empty vessels which the teacher fills with knowledge. However, the last several decades of educational research have shown that learning is an active process performed by the learner, where each person constructs their own understanding through making connections to existing knowledge and experiences. Teachers can thus best support learning by creating opportunities for students to engage with new material.  In other words, what you do is important in a lecture, but what your students do is crucial.

Active learning has many definitions but all include the idea that students are actively involved with the content during class time, by reading, writing, talking, or reflecting. It is certainly not required that students move about or even speak, simply that they are engaged in actively thinking about and applying the information rather than simply receiving the information.

Active learning is possible in all sizes of class, but it can be good to use an approach which is suitable for your discipline, your teaching style and your students. Here are some examples of ways you can help students actively engage with material during a lecture:

  1. The Pause: After ~15 minutes of lecturing, give your students 2 minutes to review the notes they have taken, asking them to note any questions they may have, underline vocabulary which is unclear or add extra information useful for their understanding. You can conclude by asking if anyone would like to ask a question (although this is not always necessary). If students seem reluctant to ask a question in class, you can use the SpeakUp app to allow students to ask you questions through an anonymous, temporary chatroom. The goal is simply to give students time to actively integrate the new information and to prepare them to understand what you are about to present.
  2. Minute Paper: Ask students to take 1 minute and half sheet of paper to record their response to a specific question (for example, “Calculate the final temperature when [O2]=16 ppm” or “Propose an appropriate monitoring system for X”). Collecting the anonymous answers provides you with immediate feedback on students’ understanding and the nature of their difficulties.
  3. Clickers: Poll students in real time with small handheld clickers or an app on their mobile device. Use the results presented in automatically generated histograms to stimulate discussion and probe student reasoning. For more information, please visit the dedicated page on clickers.
  4. Think-Pair-Share: This 3 step strategy involves first having students individually THINK and write down their answer to a specific question, then PAIR with a neighbour to discuss their answers. To conclude, you can ask for a few pairs to SHARE their answer with the whole class. This strategy decreases barriers to participation with built-in thinking time and gives students the opportunity to check an answer before sharing before the whole class.  It is a particularly useful strategy when students are non-native speakers.
  5. Worksheets: Constructing a lecture worksheet for students can help them process complex information by having them complete each step at a specific point in the class. This allows them to immediately apply and assimilate the information. Consider if your goals would be best met by having students work alone or with a neighbour, remembering that groups of students can handle more difficult tasks than a single student, and groups will often persist longer on a task.

For further support, consider attending the workshop ‘Effective Interactive Teaching‘ or contacting a Teaching Advisor.

Note Taking

Although the availability of a polycopié and of laptops means that note taking by hand has somewhat gone out of fashion, there is evidence that students learn more when they take handwritten notes in class.  If it seems reasonable to do so, you might want to encourage students to take handwritten notes.

However, the volume and complexity of the course content in higher education can make it hard for students to take notes. You can assist students in developing good note taking skills, and thus the effectiveness of their attending classes, in several ways:

  • Explicitly share the logic that you used to structure the course and provide students with an overview of the day’s class to enable them to anticipate the layout and organisation of their notes.
  • Design hand outs to allow students to add supplementary information, as the quality of students’ notes has been shown to depend on having sufficient space to write clear, well-organised notes.
  • Encourage students to use active note-taking methods (using their own words, identifying connections between topics, jotting down any questions they have and marking passages that are unclear) rather than passive methods (underlining words or writing down the lecture verbatim).
  • Introduce students to different note taking systems, such as the Cornell System or mind maps, and encourage them to experiment in order to find what works best for them (Oxford has a nice page presenting several). Different approaches might be more appropriate for certain classes, but developing abbreviations and leaving plenty of space to allow for post-hoc amendments and additions is always useful.