Advice for new faculty suggests that, when lecturing on material that is familiar to you, you should spend two to three hours to prepare a one hour lecture. If you’ve given the lecture before, it should take you a half hour or less.
That time frame might seem undoable/possibly insane. The goal of this post is convince you otherwise.
In fact, I’m going to suggest that spending less time preparing can lead to better lectures. This is because excessive preparation can mire you in details that are not essential for students to learn. Research consistently shows that student retention is higher when less material is presented. Excessive preparation also encourages you to fill the entire lecture period with lecturing, which is not optimal for student learning.
So how can you prevent yourself from over preparing for a lecture? Here are some suggestions:
(1) Specify learning goals first
Identifying at the outset how you want your students to be different at the end of the lecture will help you focus your preparation. It will also prevent you from wasting time gathering supporting materials that you won’t end up using. A good guideline is to limit yourself to 2-3 learning goals for an hour-long lecture.
(2) Cover less content
The less content you intend to cover, the less time you will need to spend preparing it. It might be tempting to try to impress the audience with the breadth and depth of your knowledge about the topic, but there is only so much new information that students can process in a given lecture. So focus on conveying a few ideas well, rather than a lot of ideas poorly. Doing so will allow you to reiterate main points, provide examples, and connect the content to your students’ own experiences—all of which will aid student retention.
If you’re finding it hard to limit the scope of your lecture, consider assigning readings that will provide students will basic facts and background information about the topic, leaving you to focus on the problems, puzzles, and debates that make the subject interesting to you.
(3) Let students do some of the work
Don’t plan to lecture for the full period. Instead, plan mini discussion sections, group work, short debates, or other activities that allow students to engage with the material actively (more ideas here). Since students retain much more information in interactively taught lectures than in traditional ones, it will also improve student retention. (For example, one study found that after two weeks, we remember only 20% of what we hear out loud, but 70% of what we say ourselves.)
(4) Don’t reinvent the wheel
Even if you are preparing a lecture that you have never prepared before, chances are someone has prepared one on the same topic. If you are giving a guest lecture in an existing course, ask the primary instructor for his or her lecture notes and materials from previous years. If you are preparing lectures for a course that has been taught in your department before, ask your colleagues for their materials.
(5) Prepare an outline, rather than a script
Prepare an outline that includes your main points, evidence to support them, questions you want to ask, and activities that you will include, but don’t write out a full script—it’s simply too time consuming. Reading from a script also prevents you from maintaining eye contact with students and can make your delivery sound rehearsed. If you are nervous, consider writing a script for the introduction to your lecture to ensure you start off fluidly, then working from an outline for the rest of the talk.
(6) Embrace imperfection
This suggestion is for those of you who (like me) have perfectionist tendencies. You know who you are! In giving a lecture, it’s okay if you are less succinct than you would be if you wrote the whole thing out. It’s okay if you don’t have the answer to every question that a student asks. (In fact, admitting what you don’t know can improve your credibility as an instructor). In short, it’s okay if your lecture isn’t “perfect.” If you approach each lecture as learning experience and welcome feedback, you’ll take some of the pressure off yourself and be able to continuously develop your skills as a lecturer.
I hope that this post has given you some ideas about how to prepare lectures efficiently, and convinced you that when it comes to lecture preparation, more time will not necessarily lead to better learning outcomes for your students.
Are there any other time saving tips that you have used when preparing a lecture? Please leave them in the comments below!