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How do you lecture for two hours straight? (you don't)

haksayngAug 8, 2018, 5:36:59 AM

It's hard to pay attention to long lectures. Yet lengthy lectures remain a common way to structure classes at institution such as universities. What's to be done?

There are numerous approaches instructors can take when assigned a rather long period to give "instruction". For the sake of this essay, I'll consider "long" for a lecture to be 50 minutes or longer (the shortest classes I've seen offered at universities). 

Three general strategies I will consider are—in addition to lecturing—using class time to (1) incorporate in-class activities, (2) initiate and moderate discussions, and (3) not have class (but stay around to answer questions, discuss material, etc.). Below, I'll discuss some pros and cons of each of these strategies. 

But first, allow me to present some thoughts from a student's perspective. I believe that the instructor must never cease to be a student [1].

A Student's Perspective

Throughout my formal schooling, as a relatively motivated student, I wanted to attend class for a number of reasons. The first reason was that I wanted to be served what I paid for—as a paying student (whether through tuition or tax dollars), I felt like I would be swallowing a sunk cost for nothing by not attending class. A leader in an extracurricular group I was part of during my university years did a rough calculation and reinforced this point to me: missing class literally amounted to hundreds of dollars of forfeited opportunity at the institution I was attending (assuming tuition basically bought class).

As rather agreeable and conscientious person [2], going to class rather than not was the default strategy. Not only did I not want to forfeit opportunities by being lazy (class had to be expensive for a reason, I thought), I have a natural inclination to please others rather than not, all other things being equal.

Boredom coping strategies

Yet, I could not kid myself. Class wasn't always fun or interesting. Oftentimes, the assigned readings or textbooks were a preferred companion to the struggle of trying to pay attention to class. This was the first step I took towards being committed to doing well in class but not paying complete attention was stuff wasn't engaging. In elementary school, this meant completing the day's math homework in class if watching example problems being done in class wasn't so interesting. By high school, this meant trying to illustrate class content in increasingly elaborate notebook doodles. In college, as I got interested in foreign languages, I would try to translate what was being said into the language I was studying. I tried to re-digest class content in any way I could to make it more interesting.

At a certain point, however, I came to realize that even that level of attention didn't really get me all that much. Rather than listen to a review of some content I already understood well, or alternatively, attempt to understand a lecturer blazing at super high speed through content I was unable to follow, I gradually found myself settling for trying to make a good use of my time in lecture whether actively attending to the present lecture or not

Reclaiming students' attention

One reason I was able to effectively disengage from lecture and carry on doing something I found interesting and fulfilling was because many classes I attended didn't engage me as an individual.

Those classes where the instructors did facilitate discussions and allow my participation were thoroughly enjoyable. Those contexts where I was able to actually engage in dialogue—not just raising by hand once, broadcasting a thought and then having my input handwaved over—encouraged me to not only speak up, but also take responsibility for the words I said. If my instructors (who were being paid to educate) couldn't even hold me accountable for spewing incoherent bullshit if I did so, who would?

Thankfully, I did have teachers and mentors that were willing to give me honest feedback rather than just handwavy positive vibes. I appreciate these people's willingness to stand their ground, rather than allow me to coast unchallenged.

These teachers' willingness to actually care about what I said, and respond with skepticism when what I said was eyebrow raising (or just unclear or not well articulated), prompted me to become more engaged with their instruction. Likewise it encouraged me to sharpen my own skills.

This leads to the "moral" of this autobiographical aside: challenges are interesting. Instructors that wish to engage students must either be engaging and challenging (think: providing a sort of 'game' for students) OR they must give students the option to seek out and participate in their own challenges (e.g. trying to finish a day's math homework before the bell rings). 

Classrooms that are neither challenging to students nor permit them to "make their own adventure" are boredom incubators.

Three strategies

Having provided my perspective on what makes class interesting, I will now consider three strategies for dealing with long lecture periods. 

In-class activities

In class activities can be a fantastic opportunity to get students to try things for that they otherwise wouldn't do. For example, foreign language classes make students speak out loud to practice. Practicing speaking is hard to do by yourself or outside of class for all but the most motivated students, who will seek out tools like microphones and audio recording software to improve themselves. Doing activities like practicing dialogues in class gives students a place to get near instant feedback and connect with their peers (classmates).

One challenge of conducting in-class activities, however, is that students' abilities may be drastically different. More advanced students, when asked to work with less advanced students may become frustrated or bored. Less advanced students may feel overwhelmed or demotivated realizing their own current limitations. What is said here is especially pertinent to group in-class activities

Using class time for individual in-class activities seems sub-optimal to me. Why not just give an additional assignment and make yourself available for help/feedback rather than holding everyone in the classroom?

Overall, in-class activities appeal to me as a good strategy when students are relatively homogeneous in skill level or if students are already naturally able to form groups with complementing skills. For example, a group activity to get software engineers to work together with biologist may work out well because labor is divided: the biologist can take care of the biology part, including clearly specifying what they need a computational solution for. The software engineers, in turn, can implement the solutions described at a higher level by the biologists.

However, in classes where students differ considerably in skill level or come from backgrounds that do not easily complement each other, in-class activities seem to me a recipe for indifference, frustration, and disengagement.


Discussion requires either especially willing to participate students or an especially willing to sand rough edges and facilitate things instructor.

A class full of students that aren't especially inclined to share their thoughts and an instructor that is unable or unwilling to help less articulate students speak will more likely than not not have engaging discussions.

I believe discussions can work, even between people of very different skill levels in some particular domain, coming from different backgrounds. However, I think that initiating and moderating discussions is an especially demanding task. 

Likewise, discussions become increasingly difficult to held as classes get bigger. Students that may feel comfortable speaking in from of a couple dozen of their peers may hesitate to speak to hundreds of peers. Attempting to hold discussions in larger groups may lead to a small discussion among, say 3-4 people, with a largely un-engaged "audience".

I therefore think that discussions should be approached acknowledging the difficulty of holding productive discussions. Issues of scale (e.g. how dynamics change as classes get smaller/bigger) likewise should not be ignored.

Ending class early

Pretty much everyone likes this option. Students that have other things to do will be happy. And shyer students that want to chat with the instructor out of a class context are granted an extra "office hours" without the hassle of arranging an appointment. Students may be encouraged to ask their own questions listening to their classmates ask questions to their instructor(s). Those students that want more class can get it; all they have to do is approach their instructor(s) with question(s).

It takes some humility to end class early. As an instructor, ending class early is admitting "that's all that's useful/relevant I have to offer for today", at least to a more "general" audience (the whole class, versus students that are especially interested/engaged).

That being said, I think in the long run students appreciate their instructor's efforts to respect their time. Advanced students that have other things to do will be happy to be liberated from potential boredom. Students that are struggling will be grateful for additional individual attention, also free from the feeling that they are being a nuisance to other students (everyone stays after class voluntarily). 

Ending class early thus seems to me the best "default" strategy for an instructor that wants to provide value to students.

Adjusting expectations

Teaching is hard, especially when classes are composed of students that don't share much in common, e.g. different values, goals, prior knowledge. Additionally, in the age of streaming video on the Internet, instructors know that relative to the top personalities in teaching (e.g. top educational videos on YouTube) they are as lecturers, relatively uninteresting.

As an instructor, I must admit: measured by the capacity to deliver information in an effective way, backed by sources and relevant experience, I am very outclassed.

Recognizing my limitations as an instructor, I can concentrate on how to best provide value to students in other ways. For example, I can be an excellent resource for directing students to excellent lectures on the content I'm supposed to cover. I can try to make more use of my position to act as a moderator, rather than a lecturer. I can make myself available for smaller group "tutoring" type instruction, rather than feeling obligated to try to keep the attention of a large(ish) group of students.

Perhaps most importantly, I recognize my value as a human being rather than as a "dispenser of facts". Insofar as I am a worthwhile human being to interact with, I have proven my worth as an instructor.


[1] Easter Egg: my Minds username, haksayng 학생 means 'student'.
[2] See my blog post "Why I changed my mind about personality tests" for more thoughts on this

More thoughts on education:

- "Class participation nap time and power"
- "The School to More School Pipeline"