The Trending Prof

Anita Woods Ph.D., University Educator

How to Prepare the Perfect Lecture

Okay, well I don’t think I’ve ever prepared AND given a perfect lecture but I have certainly had lectures go well and I have also had lectures go horribly.  There are the lectures that feel great when I’m done and then I find out the students were confused, lectures were I felt the panic rising within me and apparently no one noticed…. lectures are just plain exhausting.

Most of the times it is the content that I am least comfortable with that goes the best as a lecture.  It seems like the adrenaline, feeling of nausea and the brain whirling that keeps me on my toes.  When I have become too comfortable with a topic is most likely when I fail a lecture.

A bad lecture is when….

1. The students are confused because I skipped something/talked too fast/assumed some background knowledge that wasn’t background

2. I feel that I am not in control….the slides are coming up and I can’t remember what I had planned next….making the transitions awkward

3. When I lose words.  They just leave my head.  Ummm….ahhhh….what’s the word I am looking for? Or tripping over words, making new ones up …. Gooder?? What?

4. When the classroom is silent.  There is no reaction, there is no questions, there aren’t even faces that are responding in anyway bad or good to what I am saying.

5. When the classroom is not silent.  There is muttering, grumbling, giggling, distractions, facebook, videos, ….everything but the task at hand.


When I am prepping for a lecture, I have a few rituals I go through to try and ensure that none of the above will occur.  

1. Print out my slides (usually 4 per page) and write out my transitioning words/thoughts between each slide. I do bring this to class but I rarely if ever refer to it.  It is a security blanket in case something goes horribly wrong.

2. Make sure my slides aren’t too text heavy but also not too empty (I ensure that the unfamiliar words are written out).  If there is a diagram that students have to fill in, I work through the order of how I will draw this out or animate the order in.

3. I write in my notebook everything I would like to say in my lecture.  I do this as a complete script, writing out the order of my thoughts, including the introduction to the lecture.  I do this once the night before a lecture, regardless of whether I’ve given that particular lecture before.  Skipping this step = disaster

4. I do not memorize anything I plan to say, but make sure that I’ve reminded myself of the key elements to cover in each slide in an order that makes the most sense (usually listing these in my last set of notes as a point form).  Too much rehearsal results in a lecture that is too stiff and not ready for the inevitable –> the necessity to react.

5. Click through the presentation to make sure there no spelling errors and that all pertinent animations are present.

6. Read any last minute papers relating to the topic.  I have these all on hand from my summer of preparation, but I like to refresh the details.

7. Plan commercials.  Student attention varies but it is not a long time, 2-10 minutes.  Because of this I try to change position at the front of the classroom, give a practical example, ask a question, use a demonstration, show a media clip, draw out a process, change the inflections in my voice to highlight key points versus review points….Whatever it takes to not be doing the exact same thing for the entire lecture.  If I am bored, I have certainly lost them a long time ago.

8. I plan for a break that occurs 30 minutes into my lecture which I call brain breaks.  I don’t require “work” during this time but some type of student to student conversation.  I try to figure out the most natural place in my lecture to do this.

9. Remind myself of the students knowledge base.  I have to remember what things they have never heard of before and what topics I need to spend more time on.  If I am not sure of common knowledge, I just define again and build from there in lecture.  If there is language that I can use to reiterate a point that is not part of the science verbiage, I will certainly use it to ensure that I haven’t just jumped 3 steps ahead of the class.

10. In my earlier teaching days, I would actually talk through the whole presentation a number of times in practice. I would rehearse again while getting ready in the morning, or talk out the key messages while I drove into work. Now I find that writing it out is more than sufficient and has replaced the need to say the lecture out loud.

In total, I spend approximately 10 hours for every lecture that I give every year (not counting any prep that I have to do in the summer).  When I mentor students who have to give presentations, I point this out because I think it is important to note how much effort goes into giving a well organized, and hopefully effective lecture.

No matter what, I still always have stage fright when I start every lecture.  Whether I have prepared forever or not enough, given 20 lectures in the year so far or the very first day back to class.  I have decided it is good to be nervous.  And despite all the anxiety that I am openly admitting to, I love giving lectures.  Mostly I love seeing my students faces and the time we spend working through content.  It is still the most rewarding part of my job and therefore I will always strive to get to actually giving a perfect lecture.





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