What students have to teach us about lectures

On Feb. 20, 2014, as part of the Queen’s Medical Health Talks, a group of first year students gave a lecture to the community about heart health one of a planned series, with the next coming up March 27.  It was a terrific presentation and the students had obviously worked very hard at putting the medical expertise together.  I learned a great deal about heart health and obviously from their questions, so did other members of the audience.


Student Heart Health Speakers Nothando Swan, Nadia Gabarin, Matthew Haaland, Rajini Retnasothie  and Tyson Savage with Dr. Sanfilippo

Student Heart Health Speakers Nothando Swan, Nadia Gabarin, Matthew Haaland, Rajini Retnasothie and Tyson Savage with Dr. Sanfilippo

But the students taught about more than medical issues.  They taught about what makes a good lecture.

Now I know it’s a little conservative in these days of flipped classrooms, collaborative learning, and other very effective teaching and learning methods.  And I know that there are alternative and often better ways to teach and learn depending on the purpose.  I for one am a proponent of collaborative learning (such as our FSGL and SGL) and it’s the way I have taught about 70% of the time—again depending on why I was teaching.  But there is still room for a lecture and there are methods of effective lecturing.  The students taught us that last Thursday.  I’d like to use their successes as a way to share with you some ideas about effective lecturing.

So…lectures…Their meaning derives from the medieval times:  from the late Latin “lectura”, a reading (from Latin “lectus” to read.) In the medieval times with limited written texts, one person would read from the text to a group, who would take notes or more often, commit to memory.  The lecture format evolved (traditionally) from that, with the meaning:  “a discourse on a given subject before an audience for purposes of instruction” evolving from 1530s. (online etymology dictionary http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=lecture )

Have things changed since then?

Well, the purpose of lectures is still to instruct, but with these caveats:

If lectures are devised and delivered properly, there are several purposes for them.  Donald Bligh offers these in his work, What’s the use of lectures? (Bligh, 2000)

  • They are an effective way of providing information that is not available from other sources
  • They can be cost-effective for transmitting factual information to a large audience
  • They provide background information and ideas, basic concepts and methods that can be developed later by private study, or in small tutor-supervised group activities
  • They can be used to highlight similarities and differences between key concepts
  • They can be a useful way of demonstrating processes.

McKeachie and Svinicki (2006) note that lectures:

  • Are appropriate for communicating up-to-date information on the most current research;
  • Can efficiently synthesize related information from scattered sources rather than sending students out to seek them on their own—a particularly useful technique for novice learner embarking on a new topic;
  • Can motivate students to learn more about the topic, particularly if the lecturer shows enthusiasm for the topic.

Thus, harkening back to our February Medical Health Talk,  our students Nothando Swan, Nadia Gabarin, Matthew Haaland, Rajini Retnasothie  and Tyson Savage, all class of 2017, gave an excellent example of an effective lecture to provide background information and basic concepts, efficiently synthesized a great deal of information and certainly motivated me with their enthusiasm.

Let’s look at 4 points of what they did as a model for an effective lecture for all of us to follow.   I’ve listed each point, shown how the students did it, and then provided a “How to do this” piece for each.  They’re listed in chronological order of planning a lecture, and point 3 is a critical one for teachers. Along the way, I’ve sprinkled some resources.

 I.                    Work with others to plan:  First, the students gave an excellent example of team teaching and planning.  It was obvious they had planned together how to divide up the work, and how to present the work.  They were seamless in their presentation and each knew what the others had discussed, and referred often to it.

Context:  The lesson here is not only for team teaching, although that is an effective method of teaching and planning, but for the way we have to teach within our medical courses where there are many teachers in one course.  Ideally members of the teaching faculty within a course would know what each other is teaching, and can make reference to this.  They also would know their place in the curriculum, and what has come before, and what is coming next.  These are important initial steps for all teachers and we have some excellent examples within our curriculum.

How to do this:  faculty can request a curriculum search from the UGME Ed Team, or can try one themselves, inputting key words into the search field in MEdTech: https://meds.queensu.ca/central/curriculum/search The Course Directors and Year Directors can often provide context along with the Education Team, for individual teachers.  Working to locate your teaching within the context of a course, or the entire curriculum is an important aspect of any teaching.


Plan with others.


Level of Learners:  Another part of the students’ planning involved how to align the teaching with the level of the learners.  Because the session was open to the community, it was hard for the students to judge who their learners could be.  However, they discussed with Dr. Sanfilippo and among themselves at length how best to tailor the material to the potentially novice levels in the audience.  Thus they first spent a lot of time thinking about the key points they wanted to make.  Then they began to order, and re-order the points, to get the maximum clarity and flow.

 How to do this:  They broke the material into chunks, and then broke the chunks further into key points creating an outline for their session.  They debated about what to leave in and what to leave out.  In essence they created a realistic and organized outline.  (Here’s a typical lecture outline:  http://www.monash.edu.au/lls/inclusivity/Strategies/2.1.1.html)

A good outline helps students know where they are and helps organize your talk

This time-consuming planning and making choices pays off when teachers consider how important it is to reach the learners that are in front of them.  The students worked in a team, and so can our faculty.  They can plan collaboratively, with a partner, or with a team.  With the Course Director, they can get a sense of whether their material will make its mark.  Albert Einstein is famous for saying, “if I had 6o minutes to solve a problem, I’d spend the first 55 minutes figuring out what the problem was.”   Planning is key.

In Ken Bain’s “What the best college teachers do,” he writes of his exhaustive study, “Exceptional teachers treat their lectures…and other elements of teaching as serious intellectual endeavours as intellectually demanding and important as their research and scholarship.”  (Bain, 2004).  They ask themselves what their students are supposed to learn as a result of their teaching, and he cites these 5 questions from his research into effective college teachers:

  1. What big questions will my course help students answer, or what skills, abilities, or qualities will it help them develop, and how will I encourage my students’ interest in these questions and abilities?
  2. What reasoning abilities must students have or develop to answer the questions that the course raises?
  3. What mental models are students likely to bring with them that I will want them to challenge?  How can I help them construct that intellectual challenge?
  4. What information will my students need to understand in order to answer the important questions of the course and challenge their assumptions?  How will they best obtain that information?
  5. How will I help students who have difficulty understanding the questions and using evidence and reason to answer them?

II.             Design your slides:  Back to our February session, demonstrating another feature of the successful lecture, the students excelled at their slides.  They were colourful, informative, but not busy.  They were not “slide-uments.”  They used clear graphics to make many of their points, while speaking to them.  They employed excellent images—clear, distinct, not too complex for the screen, and had sought out and cited copyright for the images. There were an appropriate number for the amount of time they had.

Clear, colourful and informative images make a slide

Clear, colourful and informative images make a slide

How to do this:  In this they had the assistance, as do all teachers in Health Sciences, of Sarah Wickett the Informatics Librarian at Bracken Health Sciences Library.  Sarah’s repositories of images, and her ability to find what the students were looking for were a great help to them.  Here is one example she has provided:  Images.MD brings you a collection of over 50,000 images spanning internal medicine and including histology, pathology, radiographs, original artworks, graphs, and tables.

Consider the amount of slides you have for the time you have. If you’re putting a lot of notes on a slide, factor about 2 minutes for one slide, minimum for learners to process.  And, consider a handout or reading vs. “slide-uments”.  Make your slides hit the key points and visuals only.

Dr. Bob Connelly, Head of the Department of Pediatrics, and also an excellent teacher,  has made the concept of powerful presentation one of his areas of inquiry.  He’s helped me make the acquaintance of Garr Reynold’s (Presentation Zen) who writes for the “design mindful” and Nancy Duarte whose research into what she calls “sparklines,” the map of the underlying story narratives of powerful presentations.

Most recently Bob’s shared some great ideas from a new book he’s reading, Designing Science Presentations: A Visual Guide to Figures, Papers, Slides, Posters, and More.   May I recommend in turn, these authors to you?  They will provide you with provocative ideas for your slides and designs for learning.

III.             Plan how to explain difficult concepts:  If I had to pick the most important of these 5 points, it would be this.  After all, we’re in the business of being explainers and “knowledge translators.”  It is not how much is delivered but how much is understood and retained that is most important.

The students presenting spent time sharing their organization and plans with the audience in an outline—the equivalent of a relevant set of learning objectives and an organizer as the first 2 slides of any lecture.  They summarized each “chunk” of material, and made reference to prior material to link the learning.  And there are some other important tricks too:

How to do this:  There are several components to good explanation that I always lean on:

  1.  State the learning objectives up front.  By the end of the session, students should be able to have met all those objectives.  And check yourself:  are there an appropriate number of learning objectives for the time at hand?
  2. Use plenty of examples:  Often it’s the examples that you employ that do the actual teaching for you.
  3.  Repeat:  Harken back to concepts;  repeat key phrases;  remind your listeners of how things are connected.
  4.  Use an outline and signal stages of the organizer:  give “warnings” or “cues.”  For example, you may say, “Now here is a key concept which I’ll explain,” or “If you recall back to our first concept, I said…” or “in summary there are three main causes…” or “Here’s our outline again…we’ve moved to this point here…”
  5. Use metaphor:  Sometimes we need a concrete example from our own experience to help us understand a new concept.  Metaphors have been shown to be of great assistance in learning.  The brain is an analog processor (Sylwester, 1995) – liberally sprinkle your lecture with analogy and metaphor.
  6.  Chunk the material.  Consult the organizer and build in 10-15 minute conceptual chunks and pauses for questions or other forms of active learning.
  7. Stop every 15 minutes and ask the students to do something with what you’ve just said.  They can answer a question, ask a question, rework their notes, work with a partner, solve a problem, work in a group, fill in a blank in a worksheet…there is a lot of active learning that can be packed into a 2-5 minute period that gives them practice and allows them to manipulate the work you’ve just spoken about.  No time for this?  Revisit your number of concepts and amount you’re trying to get into the time.  Change either the time allotment, or the amount of concepts.  And see point II above.  Are you pitching this at the right level for understanding?

    Students solve a problem after a short piece of a lecture in obstetrics.

    Students solve a problem after a short piece of a lecture in obstetrics.

  8. Summarize:  The February student speakers did this well after each main set of points.  It’s helpful for all learners.  Want to kick it up a notch?  Ask the students to summarize—get them to fill in a worksheet, or note the top 3 points and share with a group or the class—it will be very informative—not only for them, but for you.
  9. Plan the timing:  The students planned the session to last for 40 minutes.  And it did.  They didn’t go overtime, and they used their time well, in order to have time for questions.  Their planning paid off in that they were able to make all their points and still have discussion time for active learning.

IV.                Speak well.  How you speak is key to effective lectures.  Our students were familiar with their material and were comfortable speaking about the material.  They didn’t read from a text or from the screen behind them.  Rather, they spoke to the audience, making eye contact, and they spoke extremely well.  Their words were well-paced and not rushed, they projected (which one has to do even with a microphone), they enunciated clearly and they spoke with inflection.  All this contributed to the learning—it’s hard to learn if the teacher can’t be heard or understood.

How to do this:  While an analysis of TED talks revealed that speakers spoke on average 163 words/minute (http://sixminutes.dlugan.com/speaking-rate/), acccording to the National Center for Voice and Speech, the average rate for English speakers in the US is about 150 wpm. (http://www.ncvs.org/ncvs/tutorials/voiceprod/tutorial/quality.html)  That’s still pretty speedy.  Students take notes much more slowly,—on average of 25 words per minute (Stanford Centre for Teaching and Learning http://www.law.harvard.edu/current/student-services/taking_notes.pdf)

We know that taking notes helps students retain. (Bligh, 2000, Kiewra, 1991, Johnstone and Su, 1994).  So a deliberate pace is critical to your lecture.  And variety of speaking rates during a lecture is an important tool to use to retain attention.  Whichever way you slice it, speaking slowly enough to enunciate clearly, using pauses effectively, and ensuring your audience is with you is important.  Remember we’re talking about speaking here—not reading out loud!

Here are some tips for modulating your speed:

  • Record yourself.  Listen.  Adjust where necessary.  It’s painful sometimes, but a good idea.  Almost all our sessions are podcast.  Play a podcast and listen to what’s happening.  After the first wince, you should get an idea of what your pace, articulation, etc. is like.
  • Pause.  Every once in awhile.  It helps the learner.  Make sense of what.  He/she’s hearing. (ok, maybe not that much pausing,  but you get the idea.)  At least pause at the end of a sentence, wherever you’d put a comma, and/ or for breath.

And here are some tips for clarity/enunciation and ease:

  • Speak to a large group with slightly more enunciation than you would in normal conversation.  You’ll sound odd to yourself, and perfectly lucid to everyone else.
  • Use a lapel microphone when you can.  And test to see whether you can be heard at the back of a room.  A lapel microphone allows you to wave your hands and use a pointer, and do all sorts of things that a hand-held prevents.
  • You still need to project with a microphone, especially if you’re soft-spoken.  Speak louder than you would in normal conversation—again you may sound like you’re bellowing, but the students at the back will hear you.
  • Ask if students can hear you, and if they can’t, speak up and stay spoken up.  J

All in all, the students in the February talk on heart health had a lot to teach us—and not only about healthy hearts!  Do you have questions or ideas about how, when and why to lecture?  Reply here, or contact sheila.pinchin@queensu.ca.

To hear another student talk, come to lecture theatre 132A,  School of Medicine, March 28, from 6:00-7:00 on Mental Health with Dr. Kevin Varley for Q and A.


Some reading on lectures:

Van Melle, E. & Pinchin, S.  (2007).  How to Make Lectures WorkThe Teaching Doctor. Office of Health Sciences Education, Queen’s University.

Brown, G & Manogue, M.  (2001).  Refreshing lecturing:  A guide for lecturers.  AMEE Medical Education Guide No. 22. Medical Teacher, 23, 231-244.

Bligh, D. (2000).  What’s the use of lectures?  Jossey-Bass.

Bain, K. (2004).  What the best college teachers do.  Harvard University Press.

Chickering, A.W. & Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in
undergraduate education. The American Association for Higher Education Bulletin, 39, 3-7.

Steinert, Y. & Snell, L. S. (1999). Interactive lecturing: Strategies for increasing
participation in large group presentations. Medical Teacher, 21(1), 37-42

Bland, M., Saunders, G.&  Frisch, Jennifer Kreps. (2007). In defense of the lecture.  Journal of college science teaching 37(2), 10-13.

Ruhl, K.L., C.A. Hughes, and P.J. Schloss. 1987. Using the pause procedure to enhance lecture recall. Teaching education and special education 10(1): 14-18.

McKeachie, W.J., and M. Svinicki. 2006. McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. 12[supth] ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.



Leave a Reply

Post Timeline

Curriculum Committee Information – September 28, 2017
Published Wed, November 15, 2017

Faculty and staff interested in attending Curriculum Committee meetings should contact the Committee Secretary, Candace Miller (umecc@queensu.ca), for information relating to agenda items and meeting schedules. A meeting of the Curriculum Committee was held on September 28, 2017.  To review the topics discussed at this meeting, please click HERE to view the agenda. Faculty interested in reviewing the minutes of the September … Continue reading

Grade Inflation – the “dirty little secret” of academia
Published Mon, November 13, 2017

“Would any of us have gotten into medical school today?” This was the tongue-in-cheek question I posed to my classmates at our medical school reunion last year. They were rather amused by it and, being very much aware of the high academic standards required by our current admissions processes, believed the answer was an obvious “no”. I tried to raise … Continue reading

Facebook thinks I’m a doctor…
Published Mon, November 6, 2017

  And other unusual things that happen when you’re an educational developer at a medical school It’s a unique and interesting thing being one of the non-medically-trained employees who work (mostly behind the scenes) to help run the undergraduate medical education program at Queen’s. On the one hand, friends and family can sometimes think I’ve magically completed medical school in … Continue reading

Nominations open for next Exceptional Healer Award
Published Mon, October 30, 2017

Instilling the values of patient-centered care is one of our goals in the UGME program. It’s also what the Kingston Health Sciences Centre Exceptional Healer Award recognizes in physicians from both the Hotel Dieu and KGH sites. Launched earlier this year, the Exceptional Healer Award is sponsored by the KHSC Patient & Family Advisory Council. It honours a physician who … Continue reading

Students striving to make a difference in our community
Published Mon, October 23, 2017

One of the attributes that our Admissions Committee works very hard to identify in applicants is a commitment to service. This has multiple dimensions, involving service to both individual patients and communities. It’s therefore always very gratifying to learn of efforts such as that described below in todays guest article provided by students Lauren Wilson, Katherine Rabicki and Melissa Lorenzo. … Continue reading