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Teaching Tips for Grad Students: Liven Up Your Lectures

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Teaching Tips for Grad Students: Liven Up Your Lectures
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Velkr0 / Flickr
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Saad Faruque / Flickr

Many graduate students find themselves at the head of the classroom, first as teaching assistants and later as instructors. Ironically, however, graduate study often doesn’t teach students how to teach and not all grad student instructors first serve as TAs. Instead, most graduate students find themselves instructing a college class with little to no teaching experience. When faced with the challenge of teaching despite little experience, most turn to the techniques they have experienced as students, most commonly the lecture method.

Lecturing is a traditional method of instruction, perhaps the oldest form of instruction. It has its detractors who argue that it is a passive means of education. However, it's not always passive. Contrary to popular belief, a good lecture is not simply a list of facts or a rereading of the textbook. That said, a bad lecture is painful for both students and instructor. An effective lecture is the result of planning and making a series of choices - and it need not be boring. Below are some tips for planning lectures and classes.

Don't Cover It All
Exert restraint in planning each class session. You can't cover all of the material in the text and assigned readings. Your lecture might be based on the most important material in the reading assignment, a topic from the reading that students are likely to find difficult, or material that doesn't appear in the text. Explain to students that you won't repeat much of the material in the assigned readings, and their job is to read carefully and critically, identifying and bringing questions about the readings to class.

Make Choices
Your lecture should present no more than three or four major issues, with time for examples and questions. Anything more than a few points and your students will be overwhelmed. Determine the critical message of your lecture and then remove the adornments --present the bare bones in a succinct story. Students will absorb the salient points easily if they are few in number, clear, and coupled with examples.

Use Small Chunks
Break up your lectures so that they are presented in 20-minute chunks. What's wrong with a 1- or 2-hour lecture? Research shows that students remember the first and the last ten minutes of lecture, but little of the intervening time. Undergraduate students have a limited attention span--so take advantage of it to structure your class. Switch gears after each 20 minute mini-lecture and do something different: Pose a discussion question, a short in-class writing assignment, small group discussion, or problem-solving activity.

Encourage Active Processing
Learning is a constructive process. Students must think about material, making connections, relating new knowledge to what is already known, and applying knowledge to new situations. Only by working with information do we learn it. Effective instructors use active learning techniques in the classroom. Active learning is student-centered instruction that forces students to manipulate the material to solve problems, answer questions, formulate questions of their own, examine cases, discuss, explain, debate, or brainstorm. Students tend to prefer active learning techniques because they are engaging and fun.

Pose Reflective Questions
The simplest way of using active learning techniques in the classroom is to ask reflective questions--not yes or no questions, but those that require students to think (e.g., What would you do in this particular situation? How would you approach solving this problem?). Reflective questions are difficult, so be prepared to wait for an answer (likely at least 30 seconds - endure the silence).

Get Them Writing
Rather than simply pose a discussion question ask students to write about the question first for 3 to 5 minutes, then solicit their responses. The benefit of asking students to consider the question in writing is that they will have time to think through their response and feel more comfortable discussing their views without fear of forgetting their point. Asking students to work with the course content and determine how it fits with their experiences enables them to learn in their own way, making the material personally meaningful, which is at the heart of active learning.

In addition to the pedagogical benefits, breaking up lectures and interspersing it with discussion and active learning takes the pressure off of you as instructor. Fifty minutes is a long time to talk. And it's a long time to listen.  Try these techniques to make it easier on everyone and increase your likelihood of success in the classroom.

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