Advice for a first-time lecturer?

A reader of this blog posted the following question in a comment on a different post, and I thought it might be worthwhile giving it some prominence and inviting responses from other readers. Here it is:

‘Do you have any specific advice for a first-time lecturer?

I am starting my first course next week (international criminal law with a very small group of post-grad law students). I will be veering away from powerpoint; except to use some photographs to punctuate the class and hopefully hold their attention. In some but not all classes, I plan to do interactive exercises and simulations. A field visit is planned, and a few classes where we will use film as an avenue to explore a theme.

In general though, aside from hoping that they have passion for the subject, how can I keep the class “with me” and engaged? And hide that I am a first-timer?!’

In in these days of employment control frameworks and budget cuts, there must still be some others setting out on a lecturing career who might value suggestions from experienced academics; indeed there may be some of the latter who would appreciate such advice. And also, students reading this may also want to comment on what stimulates them and keeps them engaged.

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15 Comments on “Advice for a first-time lecturer?”

  1. Aidan Says:

    Love what you do and be passionate about it. I’ve sat through some very boring subject matter yet stayed engaged, simply by the enthusiasm of the lecturer who clearly had a passion for what they do and so brought great energy to the process.

  2. Perry Share Says:

    It’s pretty remarkable that tertiary education is one of the few professional fields where it is possible, indeed likely, to be thrown in at the ‘deep end’ without any training in pedagogy (or androgogy) at all. I know there has been some development in this area, with Post Grad Certs and Diplomas &c in HE, but in the majority of places these are not required. Would we accept the same in relation to other professions?

    • Al Says:

      Good point, but to add in everything required one may end up on the wrong side of 40 looking for work?
      Tis a major investment and to ask people to invest years in specialisation and then further study in education with the risk of no job at the end of it….
      Or to start employment and do a course and not expect it to impact in terms of time on ones working load….

      • Perry Share Says:

        It would not have to be a whole course. There are probably some key skills and tips that people could start to integrate into their teaching and then reflect upon, discuss with others &c. This would help people to focus on some of the key barriers/facilitators to effective teaching (many of which are listed here) and also give people ‘permission’ to talk about their teaching. Such discussions tend not to be encouraged in academia, where people are expected to talk about ‘serious’ matters like research and academic politics!

  3. Andy Says:

    I would agree with Aidan. If you have a genuine passion for your subject, you will have no problems in keeping your class engaged. The best lecturer I ever had was in DCU and it was for one of the most dull subjects I had. Still, I never missed a lecture (which is phenomenal for me) and actually began to enjoy the subject in the end

  4. Pat Says:

    Some brief comments/thoughts…

    The first is that, as with writing, the best tip about lecturing is to give the kind of class you would have enjoyed yourself. I think too often lecturers (experienced ones, as well as beginners) think too much about what they ‘ought’ to cover (and thus squeeze too much information into too short a period), or they dedicate a lot of attention to things like slides and handouts (and thus fail to make time to connect with their audience).

    It’s useful, I think, to place oneself in the position of the audience and to identify those things that were inspiring in one’s own education.

    Of course, the experience of someone who goes on to become an academic is unlikely to be exactly the same as the experience and attitudes of most other students (since such people are likely to have been more interested in the subject and thus to have achieved very high results in exams etc). So it’s also important to judge students on their own standards. Nevertheless, the qualities of an inspiring lecturer tend to be easily identifiable.

    The second is that students will have ‘passion’ for a subject if they see such passion in their lecturers. Students react well to enthusiasm, once it’s sincere, so I think it’s useful to access whatever passion one feels for the subject – and then use that passion as a resource while teaching. Fundamentally, lecturers are advocates for the importance of their subject. If we aren’t interested, students won’t be either.

    Third is to be positive. Many academics I know are quite negative, and there is a tendency to judge all students on the basis of the negative traits displayed by a small minority. Hence, many academics react badly to the small number of people in a class who are not paying attention, who arrive late or leave early, or who talk in class. There is also a great deal of focus on such problems as plagiarism, poor writing, and so on. Of course all of those things are problems, and of course they can be a little demoralising at times. But it often amazes me how many academics spend their time criticising an entire student group over the bad behaviour of a minority. It’s far better to praise the majority (again sincerely) wherever possible. Doing so tends to boost the morale of the good students, and may occasionally encourage those who aren’t doing well to engage more seriously.

    The above three suggestions are very generalised, I know, and of course there are more detailed and substantial techniques that can be used. And I would recommend that anyone considering teaching for the first time would (a) take whatever training is available and (b) ask advice from colleagues and friends wherever possible. But I’ve found the above three suggestions useful over my own teaching career, and indeed I periodically need to remind myself of them.

    And it’s important also to remember that teaching is difficult, even for experienced lecturers – that nervousness is normal (again, even for experienced lecturers), and that teachers at every level are in a very vulnerable position (in that they are the ones performing) – so it’s vital to keep a robust sense of one’s self-esteem and confidence.

    So I would not worry at all about the need to ‘hide’ the fact that a person is a first-timer. There’s no harm in just being honest to students and oneself: it’s far better to say that you’re going to do the best you can, than to go into a class hoping you won’t be found out (and that goes for experienced lecturers too).

  5. wendymr Says:

    All excellent advice above. I would add one thing: don’t pretend you know more than you do. Students are quick to spot bullshitters (amazingly, I still remember a secondary-school English teacher, even 30 years after the fact, telling me that there was no word to describe ‘brothers and sisters’ – and that’s all I can remember about his teaching). If you don’t know the answer to something, far better to say that you’ll find out for next time than to make it up or pretend the question’s not important.

    Good luck! I think the fact that you’re asking for help is a very good sign that you’ll do well 🙂

  6. Jack Says:

    I trained as a Synectics facilitator earlier this year, as a large part of my work involves leading (i.e. facilitating) creative problem-solving sessions for NPD. A few of the more interesting things they thought me (and in no particular order):

    * People can listen to a speaker at the top of the room for about 8-10 seconds before their concentration dips. They then start daydreaming, rehearsing a question they want to ask, etc. Be aware of this (and the following point) and exploit it by changing your delivery or content frequently. Never forget to encourage people in the room to take notes while you speak – and to use these notes to contribute interesting points or ask questions that may otherwise be lost.

    * Different channels of communication have different levels of impact. The three channels my training identified were words (which account for just 7% of what people ‘absorb’, tone (38%) and non-verbals – e.g. body language (55%). People are usually suprised by these percentages, so I often start a session by highlighting them.

    * Never apologise. People tend to, usually involuntarily, apologise for minor slip-ups (e.g. mispronunciation of a word, skipping a PowerPoint slide). This merely serves to show people that you’re not confident and in control – so don’t do it. Ever!

    * Use ‘climate-setters’. If people’s minds are obviously wandering, leave your ‘message’ aside for a second. Grab the attention of the room and do a quick exercise to involve the group. One example of this an ‘excursion’ which makes people force a connection between your subject matter and something unexpected/unrelated. The most recent one I used was during a session to generate new ideas on ‘street food for the mass market’. I asked people to stop for a second and imagine that the street WAS the food. It threw up some interesting ideas and refreshed people’s minds.

    Good luck with the first lecture!

    • Jilly Says:

      It is worth bearing in mind that there is considerable responsibility on the student to concentrate, stop themselves drifting, take good notes etc.

      I do think there’s a danger in some advice like this (however well-intentioned) that it suggests that the lecturer should work down to the lowest level of preparation or concentration-span in the room. By all means make your lecture a gripping narrative adventure through whatever your topic is (and any topic can be made into a narrative). But do demand that they keep up with you, keep focused and do their share of the work. Sometimes a sustained, carefully-structured focus has to be maintained in order to communicate a complex idea or set of ideas. Not everything can be broken into easy-to-digest chunks.

      So here’s another piece of advice for a new lecturer – it’s a good thing to be demanding of your students. They’re there to learn, and to learn quite complex material, after all.

      • Perry Share Says:

        I would imagine that at this stage there must be a considerable body of work in the science of learning that could be applied to third level teaching. Is there a good source of information available to lecturers that relates the most recent research in learning, cognition, memory &c to 3rd level teaching and learning?

  7. Dan Says:

    I was told two things 10 years ago, weeks before I started teaching several courses in my university. Firstly, you should try and teach your course well; brilliantly can come later. Secondly, always be honest – the class will spot bluff and will respect it accordingly. If there are subject areas you don’t know well, say so – and work with them. Otherwise, work hard, prepare very well and enjoy the learning yourself!

  8. Al Says:

    I remember someone saying when I started:
    Get through first year
    Improve in the second
    The third year will allow you the foundation from then on.

    While it is a nice thought that all lectures should be brilliant and so on, the constant chirpings of inadequacy might prompt some of us to take lecturing viagra prior to our performance.

    A student should have the ability to wade through a boring as hell lecture and extract whatever is necessary for it. Call it a skill if you will.

    One could argue that lecturing is an art/science, as is studenting.

  9. Pamela Says:

    My first academic lecture, was pretty nerve-wrecking, as I had no formal training in this area. I did however, have ministerial training, which taught me how to prepare a sermon, by laying out my opening, topic and conclusion. This worked very well for me, and I was able to keep my line of though, and conclude with effectiveness.

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