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Teaching Tips: Lecturing Effectively

Spicing up Lectures with Cool Content

During a lecture, provide students with cool, useful or interesting content that they don’t necessarily need to know for an exam (think “News of the Weird”). If you are using a PowerPoint Presentation, color the slide background or border for the cool content in bright orange—just like at UT, you don’t have to know the orange in order to appreciate the orange! Adding cool content can help students learn interesting, applicable knowledge or fun facts without them asking you, “is this going to be on the final?”

This teaching tip is from Dr. Mee-Ja Sula, Assistant Professor- UTK College of Veterinary Medicine

(originally posted on Sept. 15, 2015)

Engaging Students with the Element of Surprise

An effective way to get students thinking in a disciplinary vein, or to regain their attention when it might be lagging late in class, is the element of surprise. Our fields of study, our course content, are full of surprises: the odd, the curious, the contradictory, the unexpected, and the downright amazing. Immersed as we are in our disciplines, finding surprising information to share with our students may take some practice. As content experts, what we find surprising or interesting may not resonate with the disciplinary novice; and, what no longer surprises us, imbedded as we are, may be utterly surprising and attention grabbing for our students.

So, how can you find surprising information to bring up in class? Calling on your repertoire of common student misconceptions and misunderstandings is a good place to begin. Look for ways to present your surprise that will have students asking themselves, and one another, “what did she just say?” Follow up your surprise with a pause, to let it sink in. Then, follow with discussion, questions, and extended explication. In only a short time you will have gotten your students thinking in the discipline using the course content, and may have made a significant inroad into clearing up persistent misconceptions.


Johnson, D. R. 1973. The element of surprise: An effective classroom technique. The Mathematics Teacher, 66(1):13-16.
Murray, D. M. 1984. Writing and teaching for surprise. College English 46(1):1-7.
Rinkevich, J. L. 2011. Creative teaching: Why it matters and where to begin.The Clearing House, 84: 219–223.

(originally posted on Oct. 23, 2014)

Leave the Story Hanging Over Fall Break

Fall Break is a welcome, if brief, break for us and for our students, a time to catch our breath, get caught up on other work, and maybe even squeeze in a little needed rest and relaxation. However, reconnecting with our students and returning to the narrative and flow of our courses after the interruption can be a challenge.

To provide continuity, consider ending class before Fall Break with an intriguing issue, problem, or story on the cusp of resolution, but ultimately unresolved—don’t deliver the punch line! Or, end the last class with a provocative question, crafted to leave your students wanting and answer, and perhaps a little frustrated that they don’t get one. Make it an assignment (albeit one with low expectations): ask your students to think about the problem or question over the break. They may, or may not, think a great deal about the unresolved problem or unanswered question while they are away. But, you will have a useful way to reconnect with them when you return and help them get back into thinking in the discipline for the second half of the semester.

(originally posted on Oct. 10, 2014)

When Should We Lecture?

In her The Teaching Professor blog, Maryellen Weimer asks, “when should we lecture?”

Because research has demonstrated that lectures usually hold many impediments to learning, conversations about lecturing in higher education too often take the form of either/or—you should or you shouldn’t. Weimer suggests that something is missing from these discussions: a consideration of when and how lecturing can facilitate student learning, and when other approaches work better. As disciplinary experts and expert learners, faculty have an enormous amount to offer students: disciplinary content, perspectives, understanding, and excitement about research. When is hard-won professional expertise best put to use in the form of a lecture?

Weimer doesn’t offer any exact answers in her blog, but she does offer some useful insights. She suggests that lecturing should be purposeful and targeted, used to meet specific needs and set aside when learning needs are best met with other approaches. To determine whether lecturing might be an appropriate solution, she suggests we consider our own goals and our informed understanding of our students’ needs:

  • What do my students need, and what do I wish to accomplish?
  • When is lecturing an effective way of meeting those needs and goals?
  • What content can my students master on their own, and what do they need my help with?
  • How can I use lectures to lay the foundations of disciplinary thinking?
  • How can I use lectures to inspire or motivate the uninspired student? How can I use lectures to support other learning approaches?

These questions and others can be useful in developing, and reflecting on, our own teaching practices and can be starting points for continuing conversations with colleagues.

(originally posted on Oct. 3, 2014)

Using Questions in the Classroom

As with all aspects of teaching, using questions in the classroom is an art and a skill. Good questions can stimulate thinking, provide valuable formative feedback for learners and instructors, and keep students engaged; bad questions, not so much.

To utilize question and questioning best practices:

  • Purge gratuitous questions from your bag of questions (eg. “does anyone have any questions?”).
  • Use open-ended rather than closed questions.
  • Develop questions in advance, informed by your session learning objectives and your experience with student misconceptions and stumbling blocks.
  • Have your students write questions for you to use in class.
  • Be flexible, ready to improvise and adapt to students’ responses.
  • Wait a full 30 seconds for a response if necessary, before rephrasing and trying again. The 30 seconds are more uncomfortable to your students than to you.
  • When ‘cold-calling’ allow the student to consult with classmates before offering an answer.
  • Engage and challenge students, and make every effort not to appear intimidating or critical.
  • Use a mix of questions, from the factual to the analytical and speculative.
  • Make something out of everything by rephrasing and gleaning value from even the poorest response.
  • Have students build on initial responses to complex questions (eg. “how can we build on that?”).
  • Allow students to pass the question to a classmate for clarification or extension.
  • Reflect on your experience after each class. What worked, what didn’t, and why?

(originally posted on Sept. 12, 2014)

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