Lesson Lifehacks for the Languishing Lecturer

All is not lost, even in moments like these where it seems like a coroner’s about to walk in and declare the time of death for everyone in the room. There’s plenty you can do – should do – to turn this situation around.

We’ve all been there: it’s 2 PM, the classroom is a little too warm, the subject you’re presenting is a little too dry, and after a few minutes of talking, you realize that nobody has heard a single word you’ve said… maybe not even you. Students’ eyes are glazed, the laptop use is looking a little too engrossed to be note-taking, and that one kid in back is just straight-up sleeping. You consider throwing an eraser or gently nudging their elbow off the desk, but no, you know that comedy at a student’s expense is worse than doing nothing. What do you do? Tell yourself that it’s their fault if they miss important concepts and plow on through? Give it up as a lost cause and end class early? Quit the field of teaching entirely and revive your grad-studies-crisis dream of becoming a woodworker?

            Put the lathe away, friends. All is not lost, even in moments like these where it seems like a coroner’s about to walk in and declare the time of death for everyone in the room. There’s plenty you can do – should do – to turn this situation around. I came to academia from an accidental career detour through the theater, and I find myself evaluating each class period as if it were a live, semi-improv performance. I may not be going for non-stop laughs like I might on the stage (let’s be honest, sometimes that’s exactly what I want), but there’s a lot of overlap between performance arts and successful teaching.

Here are some tips to take your lecture from dull to dynamic:

  • Take an acting class. I’m not even kidding. Holding people’s attention for an hour or more requires way more vocal modulation and physical movement than most of us are comfortable using. Practicing these skills in a space where you are encouraged to play with your vocal instrument and how you move is enormously freeing and a lot of fun once you get into it. What’s more, you’ll start to get an intuitive sense for how your audience (i.e., your students) are responding to you and learn to adapt styles on the fly. Did you know that full-time UVU faculty get free undergraduate tuition as a perk of their employment? Our theater teachers are amazing.
  • If a semester-long class is a bigger commitment than you can take on, try asking family or friends to listen to one of your prepared lectures and give pointers or speak up if they’re losing interest. Take a couple of aspirin first – it can be hard to take feedback from the ones you care about most, especially when it comes to your professional expertise. Even doing this by yourself in front of the mirror will give you some ideas about how to be more visually and vocally engaging for the people listening.
  • Break up that lecture! There are dozens of mini activities you can insert into a learning period that can reinforce the learning you’re trying to pass on, and many of them don’t involve you talking in front of a PowerPoint. Insert a quiz question or two for the class to discuss, pair them off to share opinions or teach each other a concept, set up a Jeopardy-style game session, or even send them out of the classroom to find a person or phenomenon of interest. Occasional shifts in activity reset the boredom clock and give the sense that anything could happen.
  • Tell stories. We humans have an endless hunger for narrative. Telling about things that have happened to you, to the people you know, or even to celebrities provides your students an easy framework for understanding and listening. Pick the stories carefully – you don’t want to just waste class time spinning yarns – and you’ll find elements that you can act as examples of the topics you’re teaching in class. As a bonus, telling your students about yourself (pick things you’re comfortable sharing!) humanizes you and makes you more approachable when they have questions or concerns.
  • Ask for participation. Nothing will jolt a student out of their fog like hearing their own name called and seeing all eyes turn on them. Take the effort to learn students’ names and call on each occasionally. Make sure the questions lean toward the easy-to-moderate side of the difficulty scale and students will gradually learn not to fear being called on. What’s more, just the possibility that they might get called on will encourage greater attention throughout the lecture.
  • Ask for feedback early and often. I like to check in with my students two or three times during the semester, giving them an anonymous survey during class time where they can tell me what’s working well and what they wish was different. Pick one or two of the best ideas and incorporate them, making sure to call out that it’s an idea that came from them as you do so. This increases the sense of personal ownership and thus participation as students see they have a real impact on how the class goes.

There are plenty more tools beyond these simple few that can help you turn around a class that’s struggling. Some of them require planning ahead and even re-vamping slides and material that you’re already comfortable with. I’d encourage you to lean into that discomfort rather than resisting it – we rarely do our very best work when we think we know exactly what’s coming next. That’s true on the stage, and it’s true in the classroom. Should you be interested in more ideas for taking your lecture game to the next level, I encourage you to track down a copy of Dynamic Lecturing by Harrington and Zakrajsek. It’s chock-full of fantastic ideas for a whole host of different situations. Happy teaching!

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