The art of lecturing
Course offers aspiring professors firsthand insights from ‘master’ teachers
Princeton NJ — Speaking to an audience of aspiring professors, Daniel Kahneman recalled his own experience as a young faculty member at Hebrew University in the 1960s to illustrate the changing nature of teaching.
Distinguished faculty members — including Daniel Kahneman — are invited to share their expertise in the McGraw Center class. (photo by John Jameson)
Early in his career, Kahneman required that students cling to every word of his lectures. Some courses included no textbooks, leaving students to depend solely on their class notes.
“I was expecting them to know everything, and every word was on the exam,” he said. “That’s the way it was — absolutely not the way it is now.”
Kahneman, a Nobel laureate who has been a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton since 1993, is one of several faculty members contributing to the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning’s “Master Class on Lecturing” this semester. Offered each spring since 2002, the course provides an opportunity for graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and new faculty members to gain insights into the art of lecturing from distinguished Princeton professors from various disciplines.
The course, which consists of five two-hour sessions, also enables participants to hone their lecturing skills by delivering brief presentations that are videotaped and critiqued by the guest faculty members and the other students.
In his recent visit with the class, Kahneman discussed how teaching has changed over the 45 years of his academic career. While the now-common usage of PowerPoint slides, videos and other visual aids has made lectures faster and more efficient, he cautioned against ignoring the basics of effective teaching.
“The speed is acquired at the cost of redundancy — and redundancy is enormously valuable in teaching,” Kahneman said. “Some ideas get repeated four or five times, others don’t. The message is about the importance of those ideas.”
Prior to his appearance, class participants watched an online video of Kahneman’s 2004 Freshman Assembly lecture on “The Wonders and Flaws of Intuitive Thinking,” in which he used PowerPoint slides to augment his talk on human thought, intuition and reasoning.
“We can still do repetition in the age of PowerPoint, and the lecture that you were asked to look at, I thought, actually did that well,” he said. “There were a few points that came again and again and again, in quite different contexts. But this took a lot of effort.”
After Kahneman’s discussion, Mark Rowe, a graduate student in religion, said he shared the concern about overdependence on PowerPoint and other technologies in lectures.
“Much as we see with new Hollywood movies, people think that really good visuals trump really good storytelling,” he said. “I think it’s important to consider these not as substitutes for stories but as aids to them.
“I try to limit the number of images I use because it forces me to tell a better story. That’s really, for me, what our job is — to be good storytellers,” said Rowe, who will begin a faculty position at McMaster University in Canada after completing his Ph.D. at Princeton this year.
Gaining valuable experience
This spring’s class consists of 13 graduate students with different levels of lecturing experience and from departments with varying teaching requirements. Margarita Ramos, a second-year graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology, said she took the McGraw Center course because, while she often gives talks about her own research on biological diversity, she wants to be better prepared for her departmental teaching requirements.
“While many people are just expected to stand up and, if they know the material, be able to communicate it, there is a fine art to it,” she said. “I tend to get very nervous when I give lectures, and this course is teaching me how to be more efficient, present the material clearly and keep people’s attention — especially when you’re talking for a whole hour about something that people might not be interested in.”
Craig Caldwell, a fourth-year graduate student in history, said, “Other than the odd guest lecture or conference presentation, I have had no previous lecturing experience, so the McGraw Center course is a great opportunity for me to see various lecturers in action, to experiment with my own lecture and to discuss techniques.”
Following Kahneman’s talk with the class, Caldwell delivered a 10-minute lecture on Roman history, focusing on currency issues during the reign of emperor Severus Alexander (222-235 A.D.). He spoke confidently from a lectern with no PowerPoint slides but one visual aid: an antique Roman coin that he passed around the room.
“My sample lecture was well received, which was encouraging,” he said. “The other graduate students’ comments were quite helpful, especially concerning eye contact and how to script my notes.”
Range of perspectives
Linda Hodges, director of the McGraw Center, said she invites faculty members to the course who have been recognized for distinguished teaching or have participated in some of the center’s many other activities. The McGraw Center offers a variety of professional development programs and consultation services for faculty, postdocs and graduate students, as well as programs to help undergraduates enhance their academic skills.
“We use a very broad set of criteria, one of which is professors who have thought about what constitutes a good lecture and how to reach students,” Hodges said. “We try to make sure that we can get people from the different academic divisions. The participants are interdisciplinary, so it’s nice for them to see different disciplinary traditions.”
In addition to Kahneman, faculty involved with the course this spring are: Michael Celia, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Deborah Nord, professor of English; and Jeremy Adelman, chair of the Department of History.
In an interview after his visit with the class, Celia said he took students through his own process of preparing lectures for various courses to demonstrate that thorough knowledge of the material and a sense of how to progress logically within the time constraints of a class are integral to any good lecture, regardless of the level of the class.
In an introductory course on environmental science he used to teach, Celia posted PowerPoint versions of his lectures online before class so students could print slides and take notes on them. In graduate-level courses, he finds it more effective to “just pick up a piece of chalk and write equations on the board.”
“These are completely different approaches in terms of how the material is delivered, but to me the way that you structure a lecture — independent of how complicated the math is or how difficult the ideas are — is essentially unchanged,” Celia said.
Celia also discussed time management beyond the classroom, a key issue for those embarking on academic careers.
“There are many time pressures that have nothing to do with teaching, and you need to understand what they are before you show up in an academic job,” he said. “You will need to deal with the fact that being a good academician means doing many things simultaneously, one of which is teaching. Finding the right balance can be a very difficult time management problem.”
Hodges said that while the students benefit from faculty members’ insights and the feedback on their presentations, participating professors also find the process useful for their own teaching.
“It sometimes gives them the impetus to think about lecturing in a way that they haven’t — they step back suddenly and think about it as a process,” she said. “Many faculty talk about how very rewarding that is for them, and they’re very happy to see we’re providing this type of program for aspiring faculty members.”
Celia said preparing for the session “certainly gave me the opportunity to think about this in ways that I haven’t really thought about for a while.”
“The opportunity to have these discussions with students at this stage of their career was a valuable experience,” he said. “It made me sit down and reconsider all the different courses I have taught in an analytical way that I found quite helpful.”