Helping students engage with lectures and other content

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This post originally appeared on 10/24/12.

In addition to teaching literature and writing courses, every fall I teach a course that develops skills for student success.  Recently we worked on note-taking. The exercise I used reminded me that when we give lectures, we need to make sure that our students connect with the material we’re presenting.

The exercise is this: Students watch a brief video lecture (I like Liz Coleman’s TED talk from a few years ago, “Call to Reinvent Liberal Arts Education”); they take notes and then compare and discuss their notes.  However, what I discovered recently is that when my students watched Coleman’s brief lecture (18 minutes!) they began to get tired and stopped paying attention, the longer the talk went on. This really defeated the purpose of watching Coleman’s lecture, especially because she presents her most essential points toward the end of her talk.

My students missed the big point.  They got information, but they couldn’t do with it what they needed to.

This experience lead me back to a workshop I went to this summer at the Foundation for Critical Thinking’s annual conference.  One of the points made by Linda Elder, a workshop facilitator, was that rather than asking students to engage with large portions of content over long periods of time, we should have them engage with it several times over a class period.  As a rule of thumb, she suggests that when lecturing, we should try to break every 5 to 10 minutes to give students a way to directly and individually connect with the material.

The result should be an engaged lecture and discussion—not a situation where we simply throw out a question for the class to answer (which is something many of us do by default).  That method can work, but only when students pay attention and are already willing to participate in class.

I think a good solution to getting students to connect with the content of a lecture is to have them write briefly about what they’ve heard (as in a 1-minute essay), or to make a list of the major points of the talk, or to simply summarize for a neighbor what they learned from the lecture.  To some degree these requirements may seem artificial, but I think they can be quite useful.

On the one hand, we need to teach students how to be better note-takers – and we should give them clues as to what it is that’s important in our lectures.  On the other hand, our students may not have the attention spans we want them to have (also, we might not have the attention spans we want them to have).

Most importantly, though, there are ways to get our students engaged with our lectures. By having them respond to short writing prompts, to compose a focused list of the main ideas of the talk, or to talk briefly with a neighbor, we can encourage every student in the class –not just the ones who are already interested– to engage with course content.

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.