Breaking The 15-Minute Barrier

This posting is by Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz from the April, 2003 issues of ASEE Prism, Volume 12, Number 8. http://www.asee.org/prism/. Copyright © 2003 ASEE, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Short lectures and lots of student participation will make your classes lively and keep your students engaged.

When you think about the time and effort it takes to prepare a lesson, it might be disheartening to learn that even with a particularly entertaining professor, most students only pay attention for about 15 minutes at a time. But don't lose heart; lectures are one of the best teaching tools we have. They can motivate, transfer information quickly, and provide overall structure for a topic. They also allow students to hear, see, and interact with you-the expert. So here are some suggestions for keeping your students wide-eyed and attentive during the entire class.

Focus on the audience. How much do they know? The lecture needs to be tailored to the group, whether it's first-year students, seniors, liberal arts majors, or practicing engineers. Develop the content accordingly and consider how you will interact with the class. Arriving five minutes early provides time to chat informally with students and may help to better assess the level of their knowledge.

Think about the 15-minute limit when structuring the lecture. Mini-lectures separated by short breaks can be an effective way to go. The mini-lectures can follow a simple format of opener, main body, and summary. The opener should connect with what occurred previously and the summary should connect with the break or with the next class period.

Make sure the breaks focus on learning. For example, give students a few minutes to catch up on their notes. By comparing notes with other students, the interaction will increase the energy level in the room and they will be refreshed. Have small groups brainstorm, solve problems, or develop good questions to ask you. Demonstrations also make effective, learning-based breaks.

Students prefer an energetic but relaxed presentation style that includes time for questions, so be spontaneous-although you can certainly check your notes for details. Rookie professors commonly over-prepare and spend countless hours on their lessons. This can give a lecture a "canned" feeling. Lecture preparation is best done in a series of small doses. And whatever you do, never read to your class from the book.

The best presentation medium-whether it's traditional chalk board, overhead projector, or Powerpoint-depends on your situation. Writing on boards and transparencies tends to be more spontaneous, but can be difficult to see in large lecture halls, especially if the professor has poor penmanship. Transparencies prepared in advance and Powerpoint slides will be neater, but they contribute to that dreaded "canned" feeling and usually make presentations go much too fast. A combination may be the best way to go: Prepare the main part of a lecture with high-tech tools, but use boards for information that can be referred to throughout the lecture. Also, if you provide students with partial lecture notes, they can learn by filling in solutions to examples and problems that you intentionally leave blank.

Students are motivated by grades. And while it won't make you the most popular teacher, students will attend lectures and pay attention if they know there will be a short quiz at the end of the period. Be very specific about the topic, give an example during your lesson, and be sure the quiz problem is straightforward. Since students are just learning the material, problems that seem very simple to you might be too challenging to them. A quiz every second or third class keeps students' attention without wearing them or you out.

You can learn to be an outstanding teacher by watching outstanding teachers in action and adapting some of their techniques to your style. Try these new techniques, and get some feedback so you can revise, refine, and try again.