The Three Es for Lecturing

Yet another very busy day looms in front of me. I’m off to the smoky bigness of London for an examiners’ meeting at Queen Mary this afternoon, but before that I have to squeeze in my first tutorial of the year, with a group of fresh-faced freshers. Actually I don’t know if they’re fresh faced or not because I haven’t met them yet. I had my first teaching encounter with the first years yesterday morning during an exercise class on mechanics, which I enjoyed despite some teething troubles with the facilities in the room we were using. I was very happy with the way the students chipped freely in with answers whenever I asked questions, which is a good sign.

A while ago I attended a session on teaching for our new lecturers. Actually I didn’t attend most of it, I just dropped in at the end to deliver a few tips I’ve picked up from observing other lecturers. Here in Cardiff we have “peer observation” of lectures in which one member of teaching staff sits in on a lecture by another, followed by a feedback and discussion session. While I was at Nottingham it was a different system; two nominated staff members (myself and another Professor) sat in on  lectures by each of the other staff. It was a lot of work, but gave me the chance to see quite a lot of different approaches to teaching and was consequently very interesting.

Anyway, over the years it became obvious that there are some obvious basics which lecturers need to do in order to teach competently, including being prepared, talking sufficiently loudly, writing clearly (if relevant), and so on. And of course turning up at the right theatre at the right time. But there are also those things that turn mere competence into excellence. Of course there are many ways to lecture, and you have to put your own personality into what you do, but the main tips I’d pass on to make your lecturers really popular can be boiled down into the Three Es. I add that these are things that struck me while watching others lecture, rather than me claiming to be brilliant myself (which I know I’m not). Anyway, here we go:

Enthusiasm. The single most obvious response on student questionnaires about lecturing refers to enthusiasm. My take on this is that we’re all professional physicists, earning our keep by doing physics. If we can’t be enthusiastic about it then it’s clearly unreasonable to expect the students to get fired up. So convey the excitement of the subject! I don’t mean by descending into vacuous gee-whizz stuff, but by explaining how interesting things are when you look at them properly as a physicist, mathematics and all.

Engagement. This one cuts both ways. First it is essential to look at your audience, ask questions, and make them feel that they are part of a shared experience not just listening to a monologue. The latter might be fine for a public lecture, but if a teaching session is to be successful as a pedagogical exercise it can’t be passive. And if you ask a question of the audience, make your body language tell them that it’s not just rhetorical; if you don’t look like you want an answer, you won’t get one. More importantly, try to cultivate an atmosphere wherein the students feel they can contribute. You know you’ve succeeded in this when students point out mistakes you have made. On the other hand, you can’t take this too far. The lecturer is the person who is supposed to know the stuff so fundamentally there’s no symmetry between you and the audience. You have to be authoritative, though that doesn’t mean you have to behave like a schoolmaster. Know your subject, explain it well and you’ll earn respect without needing to bluster.

Entertainment. To be absolutely honest, I think lectures  are a  fairly useless as a way of teaching physics. That is not to say that they don’t have a role, which I think is to highlight key concepts and demonstrate their applicability;  the rest, the details, the nuts and bolts are best done by problem-based learning. I therefore think it does no harm at all if you make your lectures enjoyable as pieces of entertainment. By all means introduce the odd joke, refer to surprising examples, amusing analogies, and so on.  As long as you don’t overdo it, you’ll find that a bit of light relief will keep the attention levels up. A key element of this is spontaneity. A lecture should appear as if it develops naturally, in an almost improvised fashion. Of course your spontaneity will probably have to  be very carefully rehearsed, but the sense of a live performance always adds value. A lecture should be a happening, not just a presentation. Lecture demonstrations also play this role, although they seem to be deployed less frequently  nowadays than in the past. Being a showman doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and the audience will know if you’re forcing it so don’t act unnaturally, but at the very least try to move about. Believe me, watching a lecturer drone on for an hour while rooted to the spot is a very tedious experience. You’d be surprised how much difference it makes if you can convey at least the impression of being alive.

On this last point, I’ll offer a few quotes from a physicist who definitely knew a thing or two about lecturing, Michael Faraday. First his opinion was that the lecturer should not be

…glued to the table or screwed to the floor. He must by all means appear as a body distinct and separate from the things around, and must have some motion apart from that which they possess.

Conventional wisdom nowadays suggests that one should take breaks in lectures to stop students losing concentration. I’m not sure I agree with this, actually. It’s certainly the case that attention will flag if you persist with a dreary monotone for an hour, but  I think a lecture can have a natural dynamic to it which keeps the students interested by variation rather than interruption. Faraday also thought this.

A flame should be lighted at the commencement and kept alive with unremitting splendour to the end…I very much disapprove of breaks in the lecture.

Finally, here is one of my all-time  favourite physics quotes, Faraday’s take on the need for lectures to be entertaining:

..for though to all true philosophers science and nature will have charms innumerable in every dress, yet I am sorry to say that the generality of mankind cannot accompany us one short hour unless the path is strewn with flowers.

Well, that’s all I have time for, but please offer your own tips through the comments box if you feel so motivated!

2 Responses to “The Three Es for Lecturing”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I agree with what Peter has posted here. And the primary requirement for competent lecturing in my view is preparation. Lecturers need to put in the hard work to prepare a well-thought-out analysis of a subject. It requires a lot of thought about how best to present the course material and how to explain each and every detail.

    My preference was to prepare personal notes for my own use to keep me to the chosen explanations. This maintained a consistency of mathematical notation and kept my lecturing to the point.

    Feedback questionnaires are illuminating about how well or badly the module is going. They provide information about whether the lecturer is succeeding in enthusing, engaging and entertaining the students. However, it did puzzle me sometimes when students reported that I was enthusiastic in teaching material that I personally considered very dull. That makes me wonder whether lecturing can be a little akin to acting in that it is all a performance and that there is an element of creating an impression.

  2. […] For other comments on what makes a good lecture, see here. […]

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