A. Explanation of the content
of this section: *
B. About the author: *
C. About this essay: *
Why Lecture? *
E. Learning styles: *
What do you want to teach??
How deeply?? *
A. Why are the students taking
the course? *
B. What are the backgrounds
of your students? *
C. What are their native languages?*
D. Do they have the background
necessary for your course? *
Macro Structure: Large scale
structures for the course and lectures: *
A. SOCRATIC: *
B. NARRATIVE (story telling,
personal experience, anecdotes, humor): *
C. Historical *
D. Derivations *
E. Observations >> Theory
versus Theory >> Observations *
Micro Structure: Procedures
and activities for good lectures: *
A. "Tell, Tell, Tell"
B. Methods of presenting the
material and involving the class *
C. Helpful activities and methods
during class: *
To encourage class participation: *
Teachers activities: *
Student presentations: *
Learn by doing *
D. AUDIO/VISUAL AIDS *
Lecture Demonstrations *
Microphones and Speakers *
Chalk boards, and/or white boards: *
Overhead Projectors *
Pictures from computers with a digital projector *
Presentation software for computers: *
Classroom Management *
Classes differ *
Taking roll *
D. Nightmares *
Example from the top: *
Late students, and early leavers: *
Over Argumentative *
Questions you feel you should be able to answer but cant
Questions about sticky points in your subject *
You forget a vital step in your analysis or derivation
or your results come out backward *
You never could understand this argument *
Everyone flunks the first test *
of the content of this section:
This "Lecturing" section discusses
the presentation of information by the instructor with student
responses. A number of modes of student involvement are discussed
along with topics of classroom management. "Lecturing"
overlaps with testing, homework, extra credit, etc. so these topics
are also discussed as appropriate.
Its probably worth knowing something
about me so you can take my advice with the proper amount of salt.
Im a physicist by profession. Ive taught at Pasadena
City College for over thirty years and am still trying to master
teaching, physics and computing. I worked for four years in aerospace
in the 60s and a summer at JPL.
We teach four different physics sequences
at PCC that range from "Physics for Physics Majors"
to "Physics for Poets (or voters)." We take the latter
course very seriously, and enjoy working with students from many
backgrounds and with many majors. "Physics for Poets"
is almost entirely non-mathematical and so is utterly different
from my (and all physicists) education, which centered on
problem solving and experimental techniques.
Our Physics and Engineering majors regularly
go to Cal Tech and to various University of California campuses.
Physicists have been and still are very active in experimenting
with new modes of instruction. As physicists, they regularly attempt
to measure the effectiveness of their methods. As with much of
education, everything seems to work for the inventor and his/her
We at PCC have been quite conservative in
our lecture methods, but have experimented considerably with laboratory
instructional methods. It has been said that if experiments wiggle
its Biology, if experiments smell its Chemistry, and
if experiments fail its Physics. This, at least for Physics,
has a considerable element of truth. An experiment that
cant fail isnt really an experiment: demonstration,
example, practice, but not experiment. Of course, designing experiments
that can fail without making the students fail is something of
If I seem overly negative about the habits
of students it is because you need no help with perfect students.
Perfect students will learn everything, think deeply about the
implications, and ask perceptive and pertinent questions regardless
of how you teach. What we are concerned with here is how you
and less than perfect students can survive and flourish.
style of this essay:
Following my own advice about presentation
styles, I have written this essay informally in the first person
with liberal use of personal examples and opinions. The reader
should keep in mind that they are personal opinions; little
is certain in education! My examples are, unfortunately, heavily
weighed toward math and science. This selection simply reflects
my experience, not my opinion that one field has a monopoly
on good or bad practices.
"Pitfalls" are discussed in many
sections so they do not have a section of their own, except
"Learning styles" has a short
section, but contrasting styles are also discussed as appropriate
in many sections.
There is a lot of very
convincing evidence that lectures are quite ineffective in imparting
knowledge. Why then should one lecture?
Schools are traditionally
organized around a lecture structure so it is hard to avoid lecturing.
And, we teachers have generally been trained by lecturing so it
is natural to do what we observed. If we are training future college
teachers, we are probably working with students who have by nature
or training learned to flourish in a lecture environment. If we
are teaching future poets, mechanics, dental technician, . . . our
familiar mode of instruction is probably wildly inappropriate.
More positively -- in
spite of films, TV, video, laser disks, DVDs, etc. -- live theater
is alive and well. Many people voluntarily go to live lectures!
Evidently there is an emotional element in "interacting"
with a live presentation that is lacking in even the best canned
presentation. If we are to be effective in lecturing, then
we must take advantage of this emotional element and interaction,
not simply repeat what can be read in the book.
In many cases what is
really important about education is not the detailed knowledge (forgotten
immediately after the exam), but the attitudes about knowledge with
which the student leaves.
is directly related to equipment ruined."
There are many possible
ways to learn: hard knocks, from lectures, from personal experience,
from theory, from books, from working problems, from researching
while preparing a paper, from actually writing a paper, from preparing
a lecture, . . . There are also many ways to input data which
may lead to learning: listing, reading, doing, observing schematics,
cartoons, documentaries, commercial films, educational files, surfing
the Web, etc.
How do you decide which
style is appropriate for your audience? Richard Feynman, the
most revered lecturer on physics of the last century, said that
he tried to use all styles. He said he hoped each of his audience
would be hooked by at least one style of learning. While some students
might be bored by a historical approach and wait for the mathematics,
other students would respond in just the reverse way.
As we go through the
many aspects of lecturing, I will suggest methods to appeal to many
different styles of learning. Keep experimenting with each class,
and see what works for you.
What you want to teach
and what you CAN teach are very dependent on what students you have.
If your aspirations dont match your students aspirations,
then conflict, misunderstanding, frustration, and failure are almost
assured. Of course you are not doing anyone a service by watering
down a course so it doesnt serve the students needs.
If students cant for any reason handle the necessary material,
they should find this out as soon as possible and change their career
Even after the most careful preparation, you
should expect to make many modifications as the result of your experiences
with the class, department, and school.
are the students taking the course?
- What do they need to do with the knowledge
they gain? Live a fuller life, vote intelligently, run an auto
repair shop, pass a MSAT, go to graduate school in your discipline,
is the background of your students?
- Right out of high school, still in high school,
returning students, majors in your discipline, majors in auto
shop. . .
- Students who know something (i.e. have lived
a little) are MUCH easier to teach than students straight from
high school who carefully avoided actually learning anything!
are their native languages?
- Do they understand English? Spoken? Written?
How well can they write?
they have the background necessary for your course?
- Math? English skills? Maturity? Motivation?
. . .
Tradition has it that the best teaching device
is a log with a student on one end and the teacher on the other.
Perhaps the optimum method of instruction
is one where the instruction is guided by the students responses.
Obviously this will work best with one teacher per student or,
someday, one computer per student. However, if you are lecturing,
presumably you have more than one student.
As done by Socrates, the teacher simply
asks questions that guide the students thoughts and discovery.
Once the class gets into it, this method of presentation works
well. It is fun for the class to be involved, and they will learn
much better if they are thinking about the material. At first
many classes are very resistant to actually thinking and responding,
they have been trained to simply sit and regurgitate on tests.
Patience from the teacher, rewards for trying (toss a Frisbee),
and enthusiasm over efforts will eventually win over most classes.
If you can get responses from the entire class,
you can guide the discussion so it will be profitable to most
of the class. Simply asking the class to vote on a question by
raising their hands is easy, visual, and fast. (e.g. how many
feel this sentence is too long? How many feel it is too short?
How many feel the length is about right?) You can then work out
with the class which answer is correct or most reasonable. Often,
very few or no students vote for the correct answer. The class
generally finds this amusing, and they are comforted that they
are not the only ones with the wrong answer.
There are machines that let each student answer
electronically. This would seem to have both the advantage and
disadvantage of anonymity. Students would not be intimated by
having their choice revealed to the class, but they would not
be engaged in the group activity of raising their hands. Giving
micro quizzes should keep the students in attendance and awake.
(story telling, personal experience, anecdotes, humor):
People respond much better to experiences
(stories) than to bare facts (e.g." I bankrupted my company
because I signed a contract for a billion British dollars (a million
million) when I thought it was a US billion (a thousand million)."
Students appreciate that you are also a person with good and bad
experiences, not just a perfect lecture machine. Much of
what we still regard as wisdom from the past (Plato, Galileo,
The Bible) is written in narrative or in the form of discussions
Even what seems determined (as you plan it)
to be a dry technical lecture can usually be enlightened by excursions
into the lives of the people involved or the strange paths taken
by those trying to find the correct answers. Real discovery is
never straightforward but generally involves eliminating many
blind alleys to eventually (one hopes) find the correct methods.
A light discussion of some tries that didnt work can help
in appreciating the present understanding or lack of understanding.
However, it is discouraging and time wasting to actually have
to memorize all those obsolete theories. It is hard enough to
learn the current best theories!
Often history provides a convenient framework
to tie ideas together. Keep in mind that (generally) the
ideas are important, not the history itself!
Another caution is that our historical approach
to science, may burden the students with many obsolete theories
and incorrect observations. Analyzing past errors may be useful
if they are used as cautions and bad examples (or to demonstrate
that even fine analysis can go wrong). It is often said that no
experiment is a complete waste; it can always be used as a bad
example. But, generally it is best to devote precious
time and attention to current "best practices".
Mathematical texts in particular tend to be
an endless series of "Theorem-Proof, Theorem-Proof, Theorem-Proof,
. . " with little or no "human" text in between.
This structure is certainly the fastest way to cover material,
but it leaves the reader wondering why the material is being covered
It is more humane and effective to first motivate
the subject (i.e. what we would like to be able to do, and why
we care) and only then go into the nuts and bolts of actually
The best teacher I ever had (Dr. White of
USC teaching a senior course on the fundamentals of calculus)
revolutionized my view of mathematics with this approach. He would
explain what we would like to do (e.g. prove all functions could
be integrated!). He would then raise objections one at a time
and show how we had to put limits on our ambition and achieve
a more limited (but achievable) end. When done, the student not
only knew what could be done but why one wanted to do it and why
there were limits on what could be done. Beautiful!
>> Theory versus Theory >> Observations
"Believing is seeing"
Some teachers prefer to start from experimental
observations and deduce a theory that can predict these observations.
Other teachers prefer to start with theory
("LAWS") and make predictions from these LAWS.
Both methods work at times and fail at times! Students and professionals
differ considerably as to which method makes them comfortable,
is quickest, and is most memorable.
It seems more natural to start with observations
(preferable some observations familiar to the students) and
develop a theory. If you are doing "science,"
you will then make predictions with your new theory and do experiments
to see if nature agrees with your new predictions. This
procedure sounds like natural sciences, but is used in math
Once LAWS have been deduced, it is generally
more economical to use these laws to predict reality instead
of memorizing all special cases. Not all students, or people,
prefer this procedure. Many students simply want to know all
the answers, presumably so they wont be wrong or have
There can be considerable tension between
the students expectations and the teachers expectations
if the teacher insists that procedures be deduced from a few
general principles rather than simply memorized. This process
teaches students not just facts, it teaches then how to learn
and how to think.
Structure: Procedures and activities for good lectures:
"The power of instruction is seldom of
much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost
The advice of the U.S. Army to teachers is
"Tell them what you are going to tell them -- Tell them
-- Tell them what you told them."
Good advice. And, do not forget to
review what you told them last time too.
of presenting the material and involving the class
Here are many items you can keep in mind while
developing your lectures. Some will keep your audience oriented;
some will keep your audience awake!
what you are going to "teach" today.
help greatly in keeping the audience oriented. Listeners
often have trouble separating the point of the lecture
from the surroundings (i.e. they cant tell the steak
from the sizzle unless you help them).
why the audience should care!
pays more attention if they know the knowledge they are
about to acquire will help their health or happiness (i.e.
"Your chances of having cancer will be reduced by
30% if you follow these food guidelines").
applications can you include?
real world (or philosophical) applications you can reference,
the more likely it is that the audience will identify
with your point.
are amusing parts?
"Piano for sale by lady with mahogany legs"
there some interesting history to the ideas?
questions can you ask the class to force them to actually
use the concept?
the classic plot of Romeo and Juliet, you can ask: "How
many movies or plays do you know that are takeoffs on
Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet." Or, after
defining "amplifiers" ask what political, social,
mechanical, and religious mechanisms fit the definition
you ask questions leading the class to discover the concept
for themselves (Socratic method)?
great for the students who participate. I suspect it doesnt
do much for the students who are waiting to be told "THE
you demonstrate the concept?
||With a demonstration,
with the aid of the class, with slides, with movies, with
videos, over the web...
students do part of the presentation?
student presentations are technically awful (but not always,
some put professional teachers to shame), but they may
more than make up with empathy what they lack in gloss.
you connect the concept to an overall theme of the lecture?
learns items best that are connected in their mind. If
the lecture has a theme to connect the parts, students
may easily remember otherwise disconnected and arbitrary
items. The theme doesnt even have to be "correct",
just mnemonic (e.g. taken alone, "Animal Farm"
appears to be just a series of amusing and horrifying
incidents. Taken as an analogy to the effect of Communism
on a country, the outrages follow history and necessity
you connect the lecture to the overall theme of the course?
activities and methods during class:
encourage class participation:
- Bring Frisbees to class and toss them to
students who ask or answer questions. After class the students
trade the Frisbees for points.
- Do use soft Frisbees or nurf balls if possible!
This plan not only rewards participation, but also keeps students
awake dodging stray Frisbees.
- Give the class an idea and immediately
ask a question of the class that requires the use of the new
idea. Tell about feedback and ask for examples in our body.
Strangely a high percentage of most classes dont even
think about trying to answer the question. They just wait
for you to tell them the answer. You may have to be quite patient
waiting for some brave soul to give a guess. If you can find
some element of the answer to be enthusiastic about, the next
try may come faster.
- Give extra credit to the first student
who reminds the class where you ended the previous lecture.
Some classes fight to answer this, others look puzzled.
- Ask the students what comes next during
a lecture. This is quite natural during a derivation in math
or physics. In any discipline this procedure should bring out
the logical continuity of the subject.
|Speak clearly and simply:
As Faraday, one of the great scientific
lecturers of the nineteenth century, wrote in a note to
- "Never to repeat a phrase."
- "Never to go back to amend."
- "If at a loss for a word,
not to 'ch-ch-ch' or 'eh-eh-eh' but to stop and wait
for it. It soon comes, and the bad habits are broken,
and fluency soon acquired."
The clues professionals (teachers,
scientists, poets, . . .) use to recognize enthusiasm
among themselves dont mean much to students brought
up on TV. These students expect much more noise and theatrical
behavior than we consider professional. Loosen up!
- History teachers can come in costume,
use props, have backdrops, . . ..
- Teachers can have impromptu dialogs
with students acting out possible psychological scenarios
. . .
Humor: Once you try this, it is like
shooting fish in a barrel. There is a considerable shock
in hearing or seeing a dignified teacher joking. Dont
just say that an expression is not correct but write it
on the board with a weepy (opposite of smiley) over it
or an European road sign for NO (circle with a slashed
Using humorous mnemonics is always
appreciated and useful. Fortunately, or unfortunately,
the less politically correct the mnemonic is, the more
likely it is to be remembered, but be very careful, particularly
at the beginning of the course. A classic mnemonic
is the one for remembering the resistor color code of
BBROYGBVYW (the first letters of colors representing numbers
e.g. Black, Brown, Red, Orange, . . .): "Bad Boys
Rape Our Young Girls But Violet Yields Willingly."
Electric charge leaks away with time
in an exponential fashion:
Miss Farad was pretty and sensual
And charged to a reckless potential;
But a rascal named Ohm
Conducted her home -
Her decline was, alas, exponential
Condensed Story of
Ms Farad by A. P. French
Theoretical physicist has
proved that protons will decay, but the protons dont!
by David Halliday
A proton once said,
My long-term belief in free will.
Though theorists (may) say
That I ought to decay
I'm damned if I think that I will."
In the unlikely event that
you want more physics limericks here is the URL: http://www.aps.org/apsnews/11855.html
|Explain (in English!)
||Exotic words are easier
to remember if the etymology is explained. For example,
a positron (a positively charged anti matter electron) is
"posi because it is positively charged, tron to sound
||Students love to have guest
speakers. Possibilities include: leaning on a friend to
give a guest lecture, trading guest lectures on your specialties
with another teacher, assigning a lecture on campus to replace
your class . . .
|Use what the students
||Build on the students
knowledge: We often learn best when we appreciate that some
new knowledge can be understood as an new way of looking at
something we already know. Some people feel that this is the
only way to "learn".
Explain that electrical current is like
the current in a river, electrical voltage is like the speed
or the river, a battery is like a water pump, . . . Do be
sure that the students have actually heard of the item you
are using for an analogy. I find that Southern Californian
students have only a very dim idea of a river.
|Get Close to the Students,
and vice versa
||Walk around and get as close
to the class as possible, much more friendly.
Have the students hiding in the rafters
move down near you. The students will pay much more attention,
they will talk less, and the class will feel much more like
a group rather than isolated individuals.
|Show that your subject
is alive and not just in old books designed to make students
||Bounce into class often with
news of todays developments or discoveries in your field.
This may be a stretch if you are teaching Elizabethan Literature,
but I am sure something will occur to you!
Even better, give extra credit to students
who can orally report to the class about things that have
developed in your field within the last week.
Require or give extra credit for bringing
in news articles on current activities in your field. TV
and Internet are also good sources.
Require or give extra credit for doing
research reports on current activities in your field using
only magazines published in the last six months. Requiring
recent magazines seems to almost completely eliminate old
papers or papers from pay sources. I was very suspicious
when I recently got several papers using many of the same
articles. I found that the students were simply using the
same search engine at our library!
Give extra credit for showing you web
sites (new to you) devoted to your discipline.
- Give extra credit or require students to
present a topic to the class. Showing how an experiment works
or how physics applies to electric guitars (for example) works
well. Classes really appreciate such presentations.
- Have students do a short reenactment of
history, psychology, . . .
Many believe that almost all learning is
done through physical experience. Generally the more the students
can experience the subject, the more likely they are to remember
and incorporate the lesson into their worldview.
For about a century, labs have been a standard
part of the physical sciences. The design and procedures of
teaching in formal labs is a subject of another Dig Deeeper
section ("Labs"), but short hands-on activities can
be incorporated into lectures too. Political Science classes
can take straw votes (even trying out various methods to resolve
"non-majority" elections), psychology classes can
try analyzing the teacher, . . .
To keep the audience awake and interested,
the more color, motion, and sound the better.
Lectures are much more pleasant if they do
not just consist of a "talking body". Teaching aids
can help the class follow what you are doing, keep the class awake,
and demonstrate things the students have never imagined.
Read Faradays "The Natural
History of a Candle" for the example of a masterful
use of lecture demonstrations.
Demonstrations are remembered and
beloved by students. To demonstrate before students very
eyes that their ideas are mistaken would seem to be the
height of effective teaching. To show students a phenomena
that they could never have conceived would arouse the
wonder of even the most blasť student.
My students regularly ask for demonstrations,
write enthusiastically about these experiments, and complain
when there are no experiments. However, strangely, when
tested on the point of the demonstrations, students seldom
remember what the point was! (Of course this may simply
reflect on the quality of my demonstrations.) Still, if
the goal of lecturing is to generate enthusiasm for the
subject, these "failed" demonstrations were
really successes. A
- Make it spectacular!
- Make it BIG!
- Make it simple.
- Tell, Show, Tell.
Tell the audience what they are going
to see (unless you want to mislead them for a more surprising
effect). Show them the demonstration. Tell them what they
just saw. (Or ask them what they just saw and whether
it matched what you promised and/or what they expected.)
Don't forget to Practice, Practice,
Practice: A demonstration is a show and must
be done with some showmanship. You cant be slick
and confident if you have to worry about the demonstration
working or about remembering your patter.
Use a wireless mike whenever possible.
There is a tradition that a "real teacher" doesnt
need a mike. NOT TRUE.
It is much more relaxing for students
to be able to easily understand the teacher rather than
to have to strain to interpret every word. It is much
easier to take notes if every word is clear. From
the teachers standpoint, it is hard to sound friendly
when almost shouting! If the teacher is describing
what they are writing on the board (a great help for note
taking) the explanation will be much more effective with
the aid of a mike and speakers.
Note: If you have a health problem
such as asthma that makes a microphone a necessity, be
sure to inform your department chair, dean or other campus
official responsible for equipment that you will need
a microphone on a regular basis.
boards, and / or white boards:
These are venerable, but still the
tool of choice for some purposes. The good points are
that the class actually sees the development as you write
it and your results remain in view until you need to erase
the board. Some thoughts:
Black or white boards are much preferable
to colored boards; your writing or drawing will show up
- Write darkly; soft, fat chalk helps.
- Dont block the students
view of what you are writing. This takes practice.
- Write BIG.
- If not done to excess it helps
students take notes if you describe out loud what you
are writing as you write. Do remember to turn around
when you are not writing!
- Clear writing is even better than
- Practice so the finished boards
will be in a logical order, not the usual students
shotgun blast of words and formulas.
- If there is a lot of detail, tables
say, it is best to confine the chalkboard to the big
picture and have a printed handout of the details.
- Beware: Students religiously copy
what you put on the board and ignore your explanation
of what it is all about.
- Watch the class. Do they have time
to take notes? It is helpful to stop and let the class
catch up. This is something movies cant judge!
- Erasers: If you must erase much,
get some big, soft cloth erasers, not those standard
skimpy black erasers.
- Keep it simple and slow.
It takes much longer to understand plots, tables, etc.
than it does to flash them on the screen. Take your
time and walk the audience through the picture.
- Color will help wake up the
a great combination of color, detail, and personal input
into the lecture (if you took or are associated with the
slides). The downside is the time involved in taking, organizing,
and presenting the slides.
from computers with a digital projector
and projection equipment are available on your campus, they
can replace overhead projectors and slides. Be sure
you are VERY comfortable with the computer and can manage
basic technical problems before using it in class.
It is great to click a few times and show anything from
the Taj Mahal to one of Jupiters moons.
Videos, taken in moderation, generally
provide lots of action. Educational video and movies have
a surprising problem of "information overload."
The facts come so fast that the student drowns in information.
It helps a lot to go over the vital
points before the video, show the video, and then discuss
the video. Really outstanding presentations (e.g. "Powers
of Ten") deserve a rerun with pauses to discuss the
outstanding or puzzling points. I generally promise a
short quiz the meeting after any "sound and light
show." Just a question such as "What was the
most surprising thing you learned about astronomy from
the video?" will work well. This is easy to grade
and encourages attendance and alertness.
software for computers:
Logically, since computer presentation
software (e.g. Power Point) is designed to convince and
educate, Id expect it to be taking over lecturing.
However few teachers as yet seem to use this software.
Perhaps related to the low usage is the low instructional
value of most presentations that I have seen. Still, there
seems an enormous opportunity there when we learn to exploit
When developing presentations (e.g.
Power Point), Id advise avoiding animated and colored
lists, which can easily be replaced by printed handouts.
And I would advise exploiting what these programs can
do that is hard to do by hand: pictures demonstrating
the point, movie clips, sound associated with the point
These presentations can be easily
(at least in theory) exported to the web. If you do have
useful and/or fun presentations, you might want to put
them on your web site so your students can run them whenever
It is a real help to
have several classes on the same subject at the same time.
Each class has a different character. Some will just sit there
waiting for permission to leave. Others will ask so many interesting
questions that it is hard to get through your material.
When you have a class
of the second type, it is obvious what a great teacher you are.
If you have a mix of classes you can blame any problems on the
students in the dull class. However, if you only have one
class, and it is a non-responding type, it is all too easy to
feel that the problems are all your fault. Of course you must
keep in mind that the problems indeed may be all your fault, and
that it would be a good idea to change your ways.
However, before changing
your career path, consider that it may just be a dull class. Taking
these problems as an opportunity, you can try more and more outlandish
things to see if the class will respond to anything at all.
- To encourage class
cohesion: Surprisingly, seating can make a considerable
difference in how lectures go. The closer the students get to
you, the better the tone of the class will be. Students close
to you and each other tend to feel part of a group, students seated
far to the rear dont generally get involved emotionally
or physically in the class. Usually you can simply ask that no
one sit in the last four rows, and after a meeting or two most
of the class will get the idea.
- For test taking: discussed
- For taking roll: discussed
with "taking roll"
Taking roll is often
necessary for bookkeeping purposes or to encourage attendance.
Often roll taking is time consuming and disruptive. Some possibilities
- Pass around a roll
sheet for students to sign or initial. This is not too disruptive
and will satisfy accounting requirements. Students will liberally
sign friends names so this is only so-so for encouraging
- Post a sign up sheet,
much the same pros and cons.
- Have students swipe
their student ID cards if these cards have magnetic stripes.
This sounds appealing!
- Have a seating chart
and mark the empty seats. This can get hard if you have
a small, scattered class in a large room.
- Have a seating chart
and arrange for the students to be densely packed, revise this
during the semester to eliminate empty seats. This seems like
it would work, but the students may well feel over managed!
from the top:
Then Jesus took his
disciples up the mountain and gathered them around him; he taught
are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,
are the meek,
are the merciful,
are they that thirst for justice,
are you when persecuted,
are you when you suffer,
glad and rejoice for your reward is great in Heaven.
Then Simon Peter
said, "Are we supposed to know this?"
And Andrew said,
"Do we have to write this down?"
And James said,
"Will we have a test on this?"
And Philip said,
"I dont have any paper."
said, "Do we have to turn this in?"
And John said,
"The other disciples didnt have to learn this."
Matthew said, "May I go to the bathroom?"
Judas said, "What does this have to do with real life?"
Then one of the
Pharisees who was present asked to see Jesus lesson
plan and inquired of Jesus, "Where are your anticipatory
set and your objectives in the cognitive domain?"
students, and early leavers:
In many cases, students
arriving late disrupt the flow of a class and may make it impossible
for the class to hear what the teacher is saying. My experience
is that some people are simply programmed to be late; they wont
change so it is up to the teacher to deal with the problem.
Some attacks on the problem are presented below, arranged in
order of increasing severity.
The happiest solution
would be to give such striking lectures that no one would voluntarily
miss a second of the show. If you can do that you dont
need my advice.
You can gently discuss
with the class that you realize that everyone occasionally must
be late (broken leg climbing the stairs to class) and explain
how they can enter the room causing the least disturbance: enter
at the rear if there is a rear entrance, walk quietly, sit in
the rear, dont ask friends what is going on, have necessary
papers out of their pack BEFORE entering the room, etc.
- Put a sign outside
(blocking perhaps) the entrance reminding students of the
rules for latecomers.
- Give snap quizzes
occasionally at the start of class. This has the additional
benefit of encouraging students to study for every meeting.
Unfortunately many students have been programmed to never
study unless a test has been announced!
- Take roll at the
start of class and penalize late students. (How to do this
efficiently in a large class leads to several ingenious plans.)
- A downside to
early tests or roll is that the message to some students is
that the important part of class is over after the roll or
quiz and that they should leave. In some cases I have worried
about students being crushed in the rush to the door.
- You can escalate
this warfare by taking roll or giving quizzes at the end of
- Im inclined
to feel that class should be an open, friendly experience,
one that proveds a collegial experience, not a prison-like
experience. It may be more profitable not to worry much about
the escapees and realize that their absence increases the
average enthusiasm of the class. In any case, students who
miss much of class will eventually eliminate themselves on
- Lock the door(s)
for the first fifteen minutes of class, do the locking "on
the dot" of the time class is scheduled to start. After
fifteen minutes open the doors and let the stragglers in.
This works surprisingly well: there is one interruption instead
of many, it is obvious to students who arrive late that there
is a problem, and everyone is reminded daily that coming late
is not a good idea. Of course this can be easily combined
with early roll or snap quizzes. Students seem to take this
procedure quite for granted.
about the great new ideas you have just presented can be taken
as a sign of success; but most talking is about who to date
over the weekend. Ignoring talking is not a good plan. A background
murmur makes it hard for other students to hear and participate.
Furthermore, background talking sends the message that the lecture
or discussion isnt really important.
Your problem is to
eliminate the talking without interfering with the flow of the
presentation and without permanently offending or scaring anyone.
Some possibilities are:
- Ask politely
and enthusiastically if you can help with their problem.
- Explain why
talking during class is not polite.
- Ask the talkers
to answer your last question to the class or a question
you make up for their benefit.
- Take points
off for talking.
If you are confident
about your presentation, disagreement from the audience is to
be welcomed. On the one hand you can point out the misconception
that led to the students error. Or, even better, you can
acknowledge that there are other possibilities than the ones
you were discussing and explain why you chose the one you did.
the student will not take any reasonable answer and will keep
insisting, perhaps with floods of "facts" that you
are wrong. This is annoying and time consuming, and, of course
you could be wrong. Some things you can do:
- Say that this
point is interesting, that there isnt time to go into
it now, but you would like to talk to the student after class.
- Say the point
is interesting and perhaps the student would like to write
an extra credit report on the subject.
- If the point
is interesting and one on which other students may have opinions,
you can ask the class for their comments.
- Say that this
is interesting and you would like to look into it and report
back to the class next meeting.
- Give a counter
example (e.g. all odd numbers are not prime. Despite the promising
examples of 1, 3, 5, 7. Nine is divisible by three!).
a really dedicated heckler will not be detoured by mere facts.
However the rest of the class may be impressed.
This is heard most
often after you grade the test the way you said you would
(e.g. Your test says at the top that only complete sentences
will be counted, you announced this when you announced the
test, you announced this when you handed out the test, your
syllabus states this in capitals and bold face, you spent
half a class period explaining the vital impact good grammar
would have on the students career prospects). However
"Its not fair!!"
What to do?
- You can (and
will be strongly tempted to) explain that life is not "fair"
but to survive one must simply do things the way your boss,
teacher, computer, or nature wants.
- You can patently
go over the rules. This generally doesnt impress a
really annoyed student.
- You can ask
the class what the rules are, and why. This works pretty
well. Almost always someone will remember the rules and
why the rules are the way they are. It is difficult for
the irritated student to argue with the whole class.
- Ask for an
improvement to the rules for next time. Occasionally you
will get a real improvement, and your teaching will improve!
you feel you should be able to answer but cant
This situation is
often a nightmare for new teachers; it certainly was for me.
Fortunately there are several fine solutions. All honest solutions
start with a loud, clear "I dont know!" This
will often get you a sympathetic laugh and get the class on
your side. You can then say:
look it up or figure it out and report next time." This
gives you time to do thorough research, consultation, experiment,
calculate, etc. You can then give a exceptional explanation
the next time.
- "That will
make an interesting extra credit problem for next time."
Now both you and the students can research etc.
always wondered about that, but never could figure it out.
Ill think some more about it." This may be hard
to carry off in a math class, but is all too common in Quantum
Mechanics and Relativity. I often then go to my favorite "tell
it like it is" source (The Feynman Lectures on Physics)
and sometimes get an explanation and sometimes get the comforting
advice that "There doesnt seem to be any reason,
but it works."
about sticky points in your subject
Honesty works great
here, too. Some possibilities of turning confusion or dispute
to your favor:
- " Darwin
said ..., but I never could believe that." Of course
substitute whatever authority is appropriate in your discipline.
This gives a great entry into how opinions are developed in
your field. The fact that human knowledge was not found on
stone tablets (well, most of human knowledge) but has gradually
evolved over the eons is a vital observation that cannot be
- "Here are
some current opinions and my estimate of how much to trust
them." Another chance to demonstrate that your field
is still developing.
- "Now that
is a real problem!!" Astrophysicists cant find
ninety to ninety-nine percent of the mass in the universe
(circa 2001). Embarrassing situations like this should be
taken as an opportunity, not as a problem. There is not much
chance for earning fame and fortune in a field where everything
forget a vital step in your analysis or derivation or your results
come out backward
step back, take a few deep breaths, and stare at the problem
(if it is written). The object is to give yourself some time
to consider what went wrong. Before it was politically incorrect,
professors would take out a pipe and go through the lengthy
procedure of filling and trying to light it. A great deal
of professorial dignity has left with pipes. If inspiration
doesnt come fairly quickly (it will seem like hours
in any case) you can consult your notes, if you think it is
in your notes, or perhaps the book. In the nature of things
though, you will not have the correct notes and the book will
finesse around the point.
Honesty is a
great help now. Tell the class your problem. If possible,
explain why you know the present result is impossible.
in my experience) the class will be quite interested.
You can ask the class for help. Now you and the class are
working together, great! You will usually get several wildly
wrong suggestions. This is distracting, but you want to play
for time. Thank the students and point out gently the problems
with the suggestions, commenting on any good points, or complementing
the student on their bravery if there are no other good points.
If you are lucky, some clever student will point out the correct
step, and you can proceed.
If neither you
nor the class can figure it out, dont waste too much
time on it. Promise to explain correctly next time and, if
possible, proceed with the analysis. My classes always seem
friendlier after such an episode than if things go perfectly.
never could understand this argument
When I was a student
I, of course, felt it was my fault that I didnt understand
many parts of physics. When I began teaching and had more time
and textbooks to consult, I often found that the books all copied
the same lame explanations from each other. Evidently none of
the authors understood the point. Now, what can you do when
it is your turn to explain this tricky point?
A classic method
of finessing the problem is to arrange for the subject to come
at the very end of the semester. You then "find" there
is not enough time to cover that point, but promise that it
will be covered the next semester. If you are teaching "the
next semester" you simply start the class announcing "as
you learned last semester . . .".
If your morals wont
let you adopt this plan, the best procedure is probably to tell
the class that this is a tricky point, give the best analysis
you can, and explain that you dont much trust this analysis
either. You can offer extra credit (lots) for any student that
can produce a convincing analysis, by any means.
It is also wise to
consult your friends in the discipline. They may have a brilliant
suggestion, or reassure you that they too are challenged.
Best wishes for a terrific