A Quick Technique for Making Your Lectures More Active

While reading a recent interview with Christine Harrington, executive director of the New Jersey Center for Student Success, I was reminded of how some practitioner-scholars in the more technical academic fields experience discomfort with the pedagogy of active learning, although they needn’t. In these instances, faculty feel obliged to present very specific information to students, usually in response to precise disciplinary/workplace expectations or to satisfy accreditation standards that mandate specialized knowledge objectives.

Practitioner scholars

This obligation, whether philosophical or prescribed, can exacerbate the friendly tension that may exist in faculties between “those liberal arts types” and “we practitioner-scholars.” In my experience, practitioner-scholars feel obligated to define instruction as delivering information to students, even while accepting the premise that active learning almost always facilitates stronger outcomes.

Faculty by nature may be risk-averse. Or maybe our classes require us to employ a tightly constructed, practitioner-specific ethos that we fear might be undermined by too much pedagogical experimentation. Or perhaps we buy into the value of active learning but lack the time and resources needed to pivot an already-developed lecture course towards a more learner-centered model. And often we bump up against syllabus outcomes within our programs that seem not to lend themselves to active learning techniques. The fallback position in such cases is usually the lecture, often facilitated through PowerPoint slides.

I challenge you to consider an alternative way, one applicable to even the most highly prescriptive of knowledge-based programs. That said, I do appreciate that substantive course redesigns and shifts in teaching philosophy may not be realistic goals for everyone at present.

If that is the case for you, I recommend instituting one small change, based on the research of Ruhl, Hughes, and Schloss (1987), which can boost the active nature of your lectures and presentations and yet requires little preparation or scaffolding: include a few strategic pauses (perhaps three two-minute pauses over the span of an hour) in your lecture, during which you invite students to compare their notes with their classmates’. This comparison gives them a chance to process the information you are giving them and to engage in supplemental critical thinking (by having them make judgements about relevance and importance of information). And you get access to real-time right-track/wrong-track classroom assessment as well.

While this technique presupposes a traditional face-to-face interaction, our learning management system can be utilized to facilitate valuable student-to-student interaction in your online courses as well. Consider setting up a discussion board thread that facilitates students’ sharing and comparing the notes they have taken about your microlecture. I could envision document collaboration apps, such as Google Docs, being successfully employed to this end.

If you are looking to initiate active learning in your classes, the lecture pause/note-sharing technique is a great way to dip your toe in the waters, complementing disciplinary instruction with learner-focused pedagogy.

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About the Author

matthew-vicklessMatthew Vickless is dean of the School of Professional Studies and an assistant professor of English at Central Penn College. He is a contributing editor to The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne, volume 4 (The Songs and Sonnets) (Indiana University Press, forthcoming) and is a recipient of the Central Penn College President’s Award for Faculty Excellence.

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