Preparing a Lecture

This teaching module is designed to help you develop more effective lectures by defining and limiting the topic; using structure for maximum effectiveness; and presenting material in a clear and engaging way.  Successful lecturers are not simply those with the most expertise or the most outgoing personalities. Knowledge of the subject and comfort in public speaking are helpful, but a lecture is only successful if it communicates the material effectively to the listeners. Thoughtful planning is the key.

This process can be broken into four parts:

Defining and Limiting the Topic
The topic of the lecture may be assigned or left to your discretion. Even when the topic is given in the syllabus, there still is  latitude in terms of what angle you take and which aspects you choose to highlight. In order to narrow the scope of the topic, consider the following question:
“What am I trying to accomplish?”
In other words, what should students know or be able to do at the end of your lecture? You need to be very specific in your answer to this question. Starting to prepare a lecture without a precise vision in mind can lead to all kinds of problems, as will be discussed shortly.
  • Keep in mind the audience and its ability level: undergraduates (and at what level), graduate students, or both.
  • Also, think about how much time you have. What can you realistically cover in the time you have? Avoid the temptation to do too much or to feel that you need to say everything you know.
Let your goal(s) guide you and help you discern what to include and what to leave aside.
Structure and Clarity
Structure is your friend, because it can significantly increase your overall clarity. Remember that brilliant material wrapped in a convoluted package is not a successful lecture. Consider issues of clarity from your perspective first. You must clearly organize your thoughts in your own mind. If the structure is not clear to you, then it certainly will not be clear to your students. That said, there is no single structure that produces clarity in every situation. Based on your topic, you may find it most effective to present a simple list, a classification hierarchy (with points and sub-points), a chained structure (in which you lead students through an argument or proof step by step), or one of many other options. You may even use several of these different models within the same lecture. Think also about clarity from the student’s perspective. It is strongly advisable to give the students a roadmap for your lecture. If they know where you are going, they are more likely to follow you. Then indicate obvious transitions between points. Use repetition to emphasize particularly important points, and explain any technical vocabulary. As the lecturer, the onus is on you to lead people along the path you set for them; the onus is not on them to discern your direction.
Other Elements of Preplanning
Whether you lecture from an outline or from a script, it is important to verify that you have the right amount of information. Typically, lecturers tend to have too much material, so they rush or awkwardly skip over parts of the lecture. Once you begin to time the lecture, you may find that you have to go back and narrow your topic. It is much better to do this seated at your computer than standing in front of a room full of undergraduates. Consider the pace at which you are speaking, and be sure to vary your delivery in order to avoid monotony for the listener. Remember that examples can take up a lot of time, so use them judiciously. Also, if you plan to include an interactive component in your lecture, be prepared for the fact that this may throw off your timing. You may need to decide ahead of time how much time you will set aside for discussion at given points.
Use of Teaching Aids
When used well, handouts, examples, PowerPoint, images and graphs can illustrate complex ideas succinctly. They can prompt discussion, and the change of pace can keep students more interested. On the down side, these same tools can also be a distraction. Handouts and PowerPoint presentations that are not accurately synched to the lecture can cause confusion. Use these items judiciously and intentionally. Using PowerPoint (and its amazing swirly-text features) simply because you think you are “supposed to” can ultimately undermine clarity and student learning.  In fact, with PowerPoint, less [text] is more [engagement].

If you are thoughtful and clear at every step of the planning process, the result will be a successful lecture. Students will be more likely to understand the material, and they will want to hear from you again.



Let Them Play the Game: When Lectures Fall Short as a Teaching Tool,” by Sarah Demers, Assistant Professor of Physics at Yale University, April 13, 2014 (Inside Higher Ed)
“Designing Smart Lectures.” A tutorial from the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Minnesota.

“Getting Started with Large Lectures,” “Teaching and Learning in Large Lectures,” and “Technology in Large Lectures.” From Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Excellence.

“Interactive Presentations: Avoiding the Audience ‘Dead Zone,’” Psychology Today.

“Lecturing.” From the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Lecturing.” From Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching.

“Presentation Tips” by the University of Washington DO-IT Programs and Resources Office.

“Teaching and Persuasive Communication: Class Presentation Skills.” A useful handbook covering many aspects of classroom communication, including verbal and nonverbal communication, structuring your presentation, using audiovisual aids, and dealing with common problems. From the Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University.

“Twenty Ways to Make Lectures More Participatory.” From Harvard University’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.

Additional links and articles can be found on Michigan State University’s Office of Faculty and Organizational Development “Lectures and Large Classes” page.

Module developed by David L. Eastman (Religious Studies), 2008.  Edited by Risa Sodi, 2013.