The first few minutes of the lecture are important. A good beginning is to ask the class specific questions about the lecture topic. This helps determine your students’ background knowledge, helping you adjust the lesson plan if necessary. An outline can assist your students in understanding the lecture organization. Attention-getters such as short video clips, warm-up activities, or stories relevant to the lecture can help students focus. Another technique includes revisiting the previous lecture and inviting students to ask questions. This activity resolves misunderstandings and helps students connect prior material with the next lecture.
Questioning is an important way to monitor student comprehension during lecture, but managing that process can be difficult for new instructors. After you ask a question, a silence known as “wait time” occurs and may be perceived as awkward.1 Since this silence can feel uncomfortable, instructors typically wait less than a second before calling on a student or answering their own question. However, extending the pause results in more voluntary student responses, more correct responses, and increased test scores.2
To answer a question, students must:
- Stop listening
- Make sense of the question
- Retrieve the answer
- Form a coherent answer
Before most students will volunteer to answer a question, they must engage in these cognitive tasks which require time. One helpful technique is to mentally count the number of seconds elapsed until you become comfortable waiting for student answers. It is recommended that you provide sufficient time for the whole class to process the question for a full 5 seconds. To practice this technique, remind yourself not to call on the first student who raises his or her hand.
Remember that each student comes to class with many rich ideas and experiences. All of this understanding is called prior knowledge. Learning occurs when new information connects to students’ prior knowledge. Activate your students’ prior knowledge by using illustrative examples.3
Examples can be from everyday life and are especially important when content is introduced for the first time.4 Also, real-life scenarios can help maintain your students’ interest during lecture. You can also bring in pop-culture to gain students attention and facilitate learning (see how one Chemistry professor does this in his class). Try to provide multiple examples from differing contexts, especially when explaining difficult concepts. To illustrate, when explaining a hydraulic system, you could employ analogies such as a car’s fuel pump and the human heart, allowing you to reach more students. Also, provide class time to let your students identify and share their own examples.
Connecting Through Personal Stories
Students’ emotions, interests, and motivations are connected to learning. For this reason, connect with students in a personable way. Personal stories can help you appear more approachable to students and can convey your passion about a subject to your students.5 This passion is contagious and can help your students become more engaged, resulting in increased student learning.6
When planning your personal stories, remember the following:
- Relevant: Choose examples that are relevant to course subject matter. Your examples should be focused to reduce confusion for students.
- Professional: Maintain professional relationships with students as you work to connect with them. Use personal stories that illustrate the content and show your personality without revealing intimate details.
- Inclusive: Think about the purpose of your example and its intended audience. Refrain from using examples that could alienate students.
Encouraging Classroom Participation
Students come to the classroom with different personalities, comfort levels, knowledge, beliefs about learning, and views on their role as a student. They may not understand the value of speaking and interacting with the instructor or with other students in the class. However, active participation is important for deep understanding.7 It can be challenging to illicit participation from all students during class. For example, watch this well-known clip from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" in which the instructor has trouble getting the students to participate.
As an instructor, communicate your expectations for class participation early in the semester. You can record a participation grade or add a section about participation in your syllabus to demonstrate these expectations from the beginning. Explain why class participation is important for learning and consider encouraging participation by identifying "students of the day" who are responsible for summarizing readings or facilitating discussions about readings.
Another consideration is to provide multiple opportunities and methods for students to participate in activities and interact with each other in class. Some students are uncomfortable speaking in large groups or are English language learners which may discourage their immediate engagement in discussions. To address these issues, provide opportunities for smaller groups or pairs of students to discuss a topic.
Informal writing during lecture provides a moment for reflection and can also stimulate discussion. A quick writing activity is the minute paper.8 Students are given one minute to respond to a prompt during class. The minute paper responses can be used to start a discussion or you can collect them to inform how you start the next class period. Another writing activity is the write-pair-share. Have students take a few minutes to write a response to a prompt and then, share their responses with a classmate. Use those responses to start a discussion with the entire class. Both of these short writing activities give students an opportunity to reflect on the lecture material.
(1) Rowe, M. B. (1987). Wait time: Slowing down may be a way of speeding up. American Educator, 11, 38-43 & 47
(2) Tobin, K.G. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57, 69-95.
(3) Resnick, L.B. (1983). Mathematics and science learning. Science, 220, 477-478.
(4) Brown, G.A. & Armstrong, S. (1983) On explaining. In E.C. Wragg (Ed.) Classroom Teaching Skills. London: Croom Helm.
(5) Revell, A. & Wainwright, E. (2009). What makes lectures “unmissable”? Insights into teaching excellence and active learning. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33(2), 209-223.
(6) Perry, R.P. (1985). Instructor expressiveness: Implications for improving teaching. In
(7) Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.
(8) Cross, K.P., & Steadman, M.H. (1996). Classroom research: Implementing the scholarship of teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Boss.