Preparing and Presenting Lectures


Traditionally, lectures have been a mainstay of academic courses. In recent years, emphasis has shifted to the importance of utilizing more active learning that engages students and provides them opportunities to participate in learning activities during class sessions. It has been argued, however, that there are still some instances when lectures are the best medium. These include (a) transmitting the most current information to supplements or enhance readings, (b) providing explanations of very important or particularly difficult concepts, (c) creating interest in and enthusiasm for new areas, and (d) summarizing  or synthesizing a range of material. Thus, a well-paced lecture that has visual impact and in which ideas are clearly communicated can provide an important learning experience for students. Below is a list of common mistakes made in preparing and presenting lectures along with suggestions on ways to prevent and/or mitigate them.

Common Mistakes and What to Do about Them:

  1. Not preparing the lecture in advance
    ◆ What to do: Prepare the lecture by organizing the material and deciding on a structure for presenting it. The following is an effective structure:
    (a) The introduction, which lays out the major points to be addressed as an outline or agenda.  It provides students a clear sense of the lecture’s topics and their relation to each other; the course as a whole; course learning objectives; and past lectures, discussions, or assignments. Some ways to start are by posing questions, presenting an anecdote or brief case study, or using a visual aid to capture attention.
    (b) The body, which presents the information in a meaningful order and includes statements that alert students to important or challenging material.  It uses explicit transitions  when topics change and presents examples that help students connect to the material. It also includes periodic summaries, which help students absorb and integrate the new material.

    (c) The conclusion, which  synthesizes and summarizes all the material and ties together the points made. Students will not necessarily be able to identify the main points of the lecture, so it is important to point them out  explicitly in the conclusion. Another way  to end is by asking students to write a one-minute paper. The conclusion also be used to create a bridge to the next lecture or to ask thought-provoking questions. ​​​​​​​
  2. Not tying the new material  to material the students already know
    ​​​​​​​◆ What to do: Students learn information more easily when it is linked to what they already know. Thus, a lecture is most effective when it builds a bridge between students’ knowledge base and the new material that is the subject matter of the lecture. When introducing new topics, start with a review of the material that came before and show how the new content is connected to or builds on it. Use a variety of examples that are relevant to students’ experiences and point out the applied significance of the material covered.
  3. Trying to cover too much material in one class session
    ◆ What to do: When preparing a new lecture, it is easy to overestimate what can be covered in a given period of time; however, it is better to cover part of the material well than to rush through all of it. Students have limited attention spans and ability to recall information. Presenting too much material overloads students, which may lead them to become frustrated and disengage. Limit a one-hour lecture to three or four key points and a 90 minute lecture to no more than 5 or 6 key points.
  4. Not asking questions
    ◆ What to do: Create breaks in the lecture and ask a mix of questions (i.e., questions that test comprehension and questions that require more complex levels of thinking or that have more than one correct answer) throughout the lecture. Do not answer your own questions. Give students time to think and do not be afraid of silence. Ask only one question at a time, so as not to confuse or distract students.  Use the questions to re-engage students and help them process the information presented.
  5. Waiting until the last two minutes of class to ask for and answer questions
    ◆ What to do: Don’t just say “any questions?” as the lecture is ending. Rather, during the lecture, build in pauses that allow students time to ask questions and then give thorough and meaningful answers. Demonstrate respect for, and interest in, student ideas and questions by responding thoughtfully and carefully. Admit when you do not know the answer and say that you will get back with a reply by the next lecture. Clearly indicate that you welcome questions and encourage all students to ask question, including  those who seem hesitant and uncertain. 
  6. Not including opportunities for active learning
    ◆ What to do: Break up a lecture into segments  (about 15-20 minutes each) and use active learning techniques to ensure that students engage with the material.  These might include  small group discussions, debates, problem solving exercises, or brief writing assignments. There are many suggestions for activities to use to increase student engagement.
     Promoting Active Learning
  7. Not preparing and using visual aids appropriately
    ◆ What to do: Visual aids such as slides should supplement, not replace, a lecture. They should be used to outline the presentation or highlight important points. It is tempting to fill the slides with too much information; however, the visual aids should be an agenda, with key talking points, not a verbatim script. Become comfortable using the equipment by practicing and learning how to trouble shoot potential problems. A great deal has been written about best practices for creating and using PowerPoint presentations.
     Best Practices for Using PowerPoint
  8. Not paying attention to presentation style
    ◆ What to do: During class, focus on communicating with your audience: speak loudly and clearly. Vary the pitch and speed of your voice for emphasis and effect; do not speak in a monotone. Use appropriate pauses for emphasis. Additionally, move around the room; and use facial expressions and gestures to engage student attention and convey your enthusiasm for the topic. Also, be attentive to students’ reactions, watch their faces and body language for signs that they are disengaged or confused. Periodically check in with students to make sure they are following and understanding your points.
  9. Not looking at the students when lecturing; looking only at notes, the board,  or the PowerPoint slides
    ◆ What to do: Face the class, not the board or the screen, and make eye contact with the students. Prepare notes that will serve as a road map rather than a script to be read verbatim. Slides should include only major points and should highlight or supplement your lecture. Practice in advance, so you can speak without relying on them. Use a pointer if needed.
  10. Not planning the timing of the lecture
    ◆ ​​​​​​​What to do: To avoid running out of time, practice the lecture (including time for questions or active learning activities) and pace yourself, so you do not have to rush at the end or cut the lecture short without finishing. If you cannot cover everything you had planned, do not try to cram it in or go past the class’s scheduled ending time. Similarly, if you run out of things to say and finish before the end of the period, do not try to fill up the time with unrelated material. Keep track of time as you go; it is better to come to a good stopping place a few minutes early than to end up rushing through something important right at the end of the session.