Towards More Interactive Lectures

I suppose I should start off by explaining why I care about having an interactive classroom in the first place. There are actually 3 reasons:

1. I’m lazy. The reality of the situation is that giving a really good 50- or 80-minute lecture is unspeakably hard work and it takes me hours to prepare my carefully planned and tight-knit presentations. Therefore, anything I can do to cut down on the length of my lecture (and thus my required prep time) is a welcome distraction. Leaving space for meaningful student participation is a great way of reducing the time that I need to fill and of giving students a more active role in their education.


[Yup. Guilty. I will take the path of least resistance every time.]

2. I’m boring. Let’s face it, when I see a student nodding off in my class, I don’t get mad. Instead, I think to myself: “Yeah, I hear you. If I wasn’t up here giving the damn lecture, I’d be falling asleep too.” No one wants to listen to me prattle on for an hour and a half, least of all me, so why pretend that they do? If I break up my talk into smaller pieces, the learning process becomes less monotonous and the occasional change of pace makes absorbing the lecture content proper much easier to do. Most students like the break and the possibility of contributing keeps them off of Facebook and interested in the course material.

3. One of my mantras is to use all available resources. I’ve mentioned several times that my guiding principle as a teacher is respect. But my second favourite pedagogical rule is to always use all the tools at my disposal. Many of my colleagues also ascribe to this wisdom, but they often forget that this includes students as well as power point slides, white boards, online classroom tools, and other such things. Especially in large classes, students are likely to possess unique knowledge that they’ve gleaned from other programs, or from pleasure reading. Letting them share their insights helps make the material more personal.

I’m just going to assume that you find this convincing and that you too, dear reader, are interested in creating an interactive classroom. However, if I’ve failed to make my case – or even if I’ve convinced you, but you have something to add – I’d love to hear from you in the comments below! Either way, lecture-courses don’t naturally lend themselves to student participation and the bigger the class, the harder it is to get people talking. So you’re probably starting to wonder how one might actually go about encouraging dialogue in a lecture hall. I have a number of suggestions, but be warned: all of them require you to be comfortable with the fact that sometimes no one will want to participate, and other times you’re going to get questions that you just can’t answer. Running an interactive lecture opens the door to all sorts of new possibilities, but it also brings new problems. C’est la vie.

There are a million different ways of inviting participation, and I by no means feel like mine is the best. I have colleagues who integrate Facebook or Twitter, and I’ve heard that some of the Ivy League schools in the US use electronic clickers so that students can respond to questions. Being a humanist, and having taught at Canadian schools, I’ve chosen the low-tech solutions because I usual get put in the broke-down rooms where the wifi can be flakey and you don’t even know if the microphone will work. So, for what it’s worth, here is my approach.


[The desired response]

First of all, I always lecture to a question. This is an adaptation of a technique I have shamelessly plundered from my own undergraduate mentor who used to emphasize that she was teaching us how to argue, and even how to write, by presenting us with a verbal essay every class. She clearly divided the material into subtopics, and taught us how to think about the big picture. And she was never afraid to take questions. I simply do what she did, but even more explicitly, and I open every lecture with a question. I ask things like: “Were the mid-century troubles in Britain a civil war or a revolution?”; “How Transformative was the Industrial Revolution?”; or “Does the end of the Cold War mark the end of modernity and the start of a new era in history?” These questions are broad, and allow me to range widely through the narrative while still asking students to think about the significance of specific events and the terminology that accompanies their study. Such questions also allow me to introduce students to historiography, AKA the constructedness of the stories we tell about our past. A fact is one thing, as I tell my class, but what it means is an entirely separate question.

By opening the lecture with a question, I set a tone that encourages inquisitiveness from the outset. And although I do not immediately ask them to answer our overarching question, I do toss out smaller, more manageable questions throughout the lecture. These range from things like “what do you already know about Napoleon?” to terminological questions like “does anyone know what the word Bolshevik literally translates to in English?” As I said before, this breaks up the monotony of the lecture, and at least one student often has an answer. For those who like to engage with their instructor, this offers a unique opportunity to interact with the lecturer in large classes, and it’s a way for profs to get to know their students better as well. For other students, especially those who are shy and uninterested in making a spectacle of themselves, such moments are still valuable because they provide a pause to catch up on notes, a new voice to help wake people up, and sometimes a more memorable tidbit of information because it comes from a peer or with an interesting anecdote. The number of questions I ask varies from lecture to lecture, but it’s usually between 5 and 15, depending on the length of the talk.


[What questions do you ask when writing your lecture? Why not ask your students what they think about these issues?]

Finally, at the end of class, I have a slide called “Conclusions?” The question mark, as I explain to my students, is intentional – it signals my willingness to have my narrative challenged. This slide reiterates the main points of the lecture (so it’s also a helpful study guide), and then repeats a modified form of our opening question. At this point, the floor is opened for discussion, and students get 10 minutes to talk about the lecture material even in classes of 150. I know, you don’t believe students will talk, but they do! And I have 2 peer reviews that will attest to my success in this regard, I swear! Oftentimes there is a brief pause before they get going, or comments are a mere reiteration of things on the last slide, but at least students get to dig in and get their hands a little dirty. Interacting with the material like this can help to make it more meaningful.


[A sample concluding slide, from a lecture on Napoleon]

The key to getting students to engage seems to be the successful creation of a safe and respectful environment. When I start a course, I go over classroom rules (I will write about these at some point, I promise), and these include a point about respectful disagreement and appropriate discussion. I also tell students point-blank that I don’t expect them to know the answer to any given question, so they won’t look stupid if they don’t know the answer. I even go so far as to give them my rationale – in much the same way that I shared it with you – because it makes the whole process seem more reasonable. And as I earn their trust, I will get up to 25 different students talking on any given day. As I said, there are sometimes problems, particularly when an assignment is due and people haven’t slept. But I think the pros outweigh the cons, and I’m not convinced I want to abandon the strategy any time soon. For the most part, my students appreciate my style, although I routinely get at least 1 review that says it’s obnoxious and the whole thing sucks. I’ll let you be the judge.


2 thoughts on “Towards More Interactive Lectures

  1. This technique is sound. The more students interact with the material through discussion, the more connections they’ll make to the readings and the lecture. Bravo Sarah.

  2. Hi Erin! Thanks for stopping by. I find that my style works, but I know it’s not for everyone. I also know that many of my colleagues do other things: read quotes, show video, or do group work in class. I do a lot of this too (I just didn’t want to write a prohibitively long post), and I try to work in a little art whenever possible because it’s easy to discuss in an interactive way. In fact, my most popular Tudor/Stuart lecture is always the one on Elizabethan portraiture.

    One thing your comment has me thinking about is the change/continuity in presentation styles from high school to university. I don’t think professors should necessarily be trying to accommodate old learning styles, but I think most of us have very little sense of how are students were taught before they got to our level. Perhaps interactive lectures help make the transition period easier?

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