How to Make Your Lectures More Engaging.

My big news this week is that have been awarded the Biochemical Society’s Teaching Excellence Award (Early Career) 2024. Eeeeek!!! You can see the full announcement here.

I put so much time, effort and energy into my teaching and I am absolutely chuffed to be recognised in this way. So, I wanted to use this blog post to reflect on why I love being an academic who is focused on teaching and scholarship rather than research.

In the beginning…
When I started my teaching and scholarship lectureship in 2019, I was surprised at how many people thought it was a bad career move. I received comments such as “you’re no longer a proper scientist” and “you’ve sold out to teaching”. Well, you know what, moving to a teaching and scholarship lectureship rather than a role that is entirely dependent on research and bringing in grant funding was the best career decision that I ever made.

Creating lectures
When I started to think about creating new lectures, I thought that I had a real opportunity, to use my expertise in science communication and public engagement and apply this to teaching. Why shouldn’t I bring along props, run some demonstrations or use other engagement techniques during my lectures. So I did. And, to my surprise, they went down well, really well, with students.

When I create my lectures I consider what I want the students to take away from the lecture, as I do with any audience. I see my students as an audience, I want to impart knowledge and understanding, but I also want to make the session engaging and interesting for them. After all, we’ve all sat through talks and events which were less than engaging, our eyelids might have gotten a little heavy and ultimately we probably won’t have benefited much from attending and that is a real shame for everyone.

I think we learn better when we are interested and engaged. Frankly, in the world that we’re living in at the moment, if we can make topics interesting and fun, then why shouldn’t we.

So here are my top tips to make teaching and especially lectures more engaging for students.

My five top tips

1. Understand your audience.
If you’ve ever come to one of my training sessions, you’ll know that I always come back to audience, time and time again. Understanding your audience is absolutely key in lots of communication settings, but especially in teaching. Have a think about what your audience already know. What might their existing level of knowledge be like? This will help you to pitch your lecture at the correct level. It means your students won’t be bored if the content is too basic, and they also won’t be confused if the content is too complex. Understanding your audience is also about talking to them. Sometimes I know I am the 4th lecture where students have already been sat down for 3hours, so I can change things up and adapt and maybe even invite everyone to stretch before we begin.

2. Keep to time.
How annoying is it when you’ve dedicated an amount of time to something and it overruns?  The same is true of lectures. Keep to time because everyone has places to be and they plan their day based on it, everyone’s time is valuable and important, it should be respected.
Consider how long you have and plan your lecture based on that. It also means your pacing will probably be better and you’ll know how much detail and depth to go into.
And if you do realise you’re going to run over, then stop. You can always explain to your students and pick it up next time.

3. Think creatively.
Creative thinking is something that isn’t necessarily encouraged in science and that’s so sad! Thinking creatively about how to communicate a message is key to good teaching. I have been known to fill a balloon with water to replicate the sphincter muscles and use this as a prop on the projector. I’ve run up the stairs of a lecture theatre to demonstrate movement. I’ve even asked everyone to stand up if willing and able and place their hands over their cerebellum (just behind the ears if you’re interested) while standing on one leg to highlight how we balance. Introducing variation and creativity really helps with content understanding.

Here I am giving a lecture with the help of Nellie the Neuron, a light up prop that I’m known for among the students.

4. It’s ok if your innovations don’t go to plan.
If you’re being creative and introducing props or innovative content, sometimes there’s a risk that it might go wrong and that’s ok. You can trial and test things, but there’s sometimes unknown variables and you can never account for everything.
It might not be ideal, but I’ve genuinely learnt more from when things have gone wrong in teaching rather than when they go right. If it doesn’t go to plan, be honest with your students. The most important thing is that you tried, be kind to yourself and you’ll know even more for next time.

5. Start small.
Many of us are overworked and a considerable barrier to developing more innovative teaching is lack of time. I get it and I understand. But innovative teaching doesn’t have to take huge amounts of time, honestly. Introduce small changes, you don’t have to redesign an entire lecture. You could add a single prop or a small change. You could ask your students to think about a problem or add a question. Just to test an idea and see how it goes. Give it a go, and try something small, just to see.

I hope these top tips are helpful in helping you to create more engaging teaching sessions and lectures. Go on, give it a go and do let me know how you get on.

P.S. if you want to know more about the Biochemical Society Awards, you can find out more including all of the winners here.

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