IT MIGHT BE DISHEARTENING TO LEARN THAT EVEN
WITH A PARTICULARLY ENTERTAINING PROFESSOR MOST STUDENTS ONLY PAY
ATTENTION FOR ABOUT 15 MINUTES AT A TIME.
Short lectures and lots of student participation
will make your classes lively and keep your students engaged.
When you think about the time and effort it takes to
prepare a lesson, it might be disheartening to learn that even with
a particularly entertaining professor, most students only pay attention
for about 15 minutes at a time. But don't lose heart; lectures
are one of the best teaching tools we have. They can motivate, transfer
information quickly, and provide overall structure for a topic. They
also allow students to hear, see, and interact with you—the expert.
So here are some suggestions for keeping your students wide-eyed and
attentive during the entire class.
Focus on the audience. How much do they know? The lecture
needs to be tailored to the group, whether it's first-year students,
seniors, liberal arts majors, or practicing engineers. Develop the
content accordingly and consider how you will interact with the class.
Arriving five minutes early provides time to chat informally with students
and may help to better assess the level of their knowledge.
Think about the 15-minute limit when structuring the
lecture. Mini-lectures separated by short breaks can be an effective
way to go. The mini-lectures can follow a simple format of opener,
main body, and summary. The opener should connect with what occurred
previously and the summary should connect with the break or with the
next class period.
Make sure the breaks focus on learning. For example,
give students a few minutes to catch up on their notes. By comparing
notes with other students, the interaction will increase the energy
level in the room and they will be refreshed. Have small groups brainstorm,
solve problems, or develop good questions to ask you. Demonstrations
also make effective, learning-based breaks.
Students prefer an energetic but relaxed presentation
style that includes time for questions, so be spontaneous—although
you can certainly check your notes for details. Rookie professors commonly
over-prepare and spend countless hours on their lessons. This can give
a lecture a "canned" feeling. Lecture preparation is best
done in a series of small doses. And whatever you do, never read to
your class from the book.
The best presentation medium—whether it's
traditional chalk board, overhead projector, or Powerpoint—depends
on your situation. Writing on boards and transparencies tends to be
more spontaneous, but can be difficult to see in large lecture halls,
especially if the professor has poor penmanship. Transparencies prepared
in advance and Powerpoint slides will be neater, but they contribute
to that dreaded "canned" feeling and usually make presentations
go much too fast. A combination may be the best way to go: Prepare
the main part of a lecture with high-tech tools, but use boards for
information that can be referred to throughout the lecture. Also, if
you provide students with partial lecture notes, they can learn by
filling in solutions to examples and problems that you intentionally
Students are motivated by grades. And while it won't
make you the most popular teacher, students will attend lectures and
pay attention if they know there will be a short quiz at the end of
the period. Be very specific about the topic, give an example during
your lesson, and be sure the quiz problem is straightforward. Since
students are just learning the material, problems that seem very simple
to you might be too challenging to them. A quiz every second or third
class keeps students' attention without wearing them or you out.
You can learn to be an outstanding teacher by watching
outstanding teachers in action and adapting some of their techniques
to your style. Try these new techniques, and get some feedback so you
can revise, refine, and try again.
Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering
and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering
at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications
specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can be reached
by e-mail at email@example.com.