Enough is enough

the-matrixI recently gave three research presentations on a broadly similar topic, and to different audiences. As I reflected on each presentation I identified two main concerns that are intrinsically linked:

  1. How much to present
  2. Keeping to time

I wanted to use my experience and the literature to improve these aspects of my teaching.

Talbert (2012) says that although lectures are often thought to be good for delivering a lot of information, they are actually poor at information transfer. It is often said that the student attention span in lectures is about 10-15 minutes (Bligh 1972), which would suggest we should limit lectures to this length and minimse content. My experience, however, is that a good lecture can engage me for an hour, and in a conference setting I can learn continuously in lectures for several days running.

My first presentation was low pressure because it was just in our departmental seminar series. I wanted to demonstrate a variety of my research so that people would know what I am working on, however I think the wide ranging subject matter was hard to digest for the majority and it might have been better to focus on a smaller subject area. The following two presentations were based on the same core dataset and delivered to conference audiences with very different specific interests.

I ruthlessly cut out out material to give a more focused second talk. I was still worried about running over time because the general audience needed a lot of background introduction. The presentations before mine were brilliant so there was some pressure to not stand out as the worst talk of the morning. I was quite encouraged that the very skilled and engaging speaker before me made use of a kitchen timer to help him keep to time, and I noted to myself that I must do that next time. I was happy with this presentation and I received a lot of positive comments afterwards.

For the third talk, I further cut material down to a minimum in order to deliver a clear message. Again I had concerns of going over time, and unfortunately I forgot the timer. I was a few minutes under the allotted time which didn’t matter, but nervousness about timing probably caused me to unnecessarily speak a bit too fast. Feedback was positive but not as overwhelming as for talk 2, however I was one of the last speakers and I have continued to receive good feedback including collaboration interest after the conference.

My experiences suggest that minimising content enhanced attention and enjoyment in the audience, and I will bear this in mind when planning future lectures. I am aware however from Talbert (2012) that being inspired or enjoying a lecture is not an indicator of learning. To help ensure that learning takes place Matheson (2008) concludes that delivery should be “clear, well structured, expressive and interactive” – I agree with this and will use it as a guide. In practice, minimising content means making decisions about what to include in the curriculum, and what to exclude. Cousin (2006) presents techniques (based on several publications by Meyer and Land) for identifying “threshold concepts”  – concepts that are central to mastery of the subject, and I shall certainly refer to these as I strive to avoid the stuffed curriculum and take a “less is more” approach to curriculum design.


References

Bligh D (1972). What’s the Use of Lectures. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Cousin (2006). An introduction to Threshold Concepts. Planet 17: 4-5.

Matheson C (2008). The educational value and effectiveness of lectures. The Clinical Teacher 5: 218–221

Talbert R (2012)Four things lecture is good for. Chronicle of Higher Education. [online][accessed 22 April 2015]

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