4 Ways to Lecture Beyond the Bullet Points

By Mark Paternostro

Lecture déjà vu. I walked into a classroom in late September and realized I’ve given the same lecture, almost on the same date, in the same room for the past 10 years. I review my lectures every year and update content, but every so often we need to rethink lectures beyond the bullet points. Here are some ideas to help you think about lecture activities that engage students and promote learning inside and outside the classroom.

1. Grab your students’ attention.

It seems like an obvious idea, but we’re all guilty of starting off a lecture with “Today we are going to talk about…” and then jumping into the content. Showing short video clips or telling a quick story are good ways to get students focused on you and the day’s activities. For example, when I teach lung mechanics, I might start off with a video of Morgan Freeman talking on helium (yes, that video does exist!) or show a video of an elephant swimming and using his trunk as a snorkel. Students are engaged from the beginning, and this gives me an interesting way to introduce the main concepts.

Tip: Keep these activities to less than a minute.

2. Stop and take a breath.

Think about presenting material in small chunks. A 50-minute lecture can be thought of as three, 15-minute mini-lectures. Each mini-section should have its own beginning, middle, and end. You can then use the time between each session to engage students with some type of core learning activity. One simple exercise is a key word review. Present lists of key words and then give the students a minute to think about how the concepts are connected. Sometimes I will present a flowchart or short paragraph with blanks and have the students work in small groups to come up with the missing pieces. As they are working through the material, I interact with the small groups and then review the activity with the entire class. 

Tip: It’s important to keep these in-class reviews simple. Students have just sat through 15 minutes of lecture and haven’t had time yet to synthesize or integrate the concepts into more complex ideas. Your goal is to make sure they understand the core concepts.

3. Create patterns.

In a nutshell, our brains are designed to recognize patterns. Pattern recognition helps us make connections, see things more clearly, and learn new things. In other words, things we would like our students to be able to do. We can take advantage of this by creating patterns in our lectures. If you use presentation software, look at the layout of your slides (titles, fonts, font size, image layout, etc.) and try to be consistent and regular. For example, when I teach physiology to first-year medical students, important concepts are bolded and words/phrases are color coded. All drugs are red, treatments are blue, and symptoms are green. Most students access the class material on laptops, but students who print black and white copies or who are color-blind can still see the patterns in the slide layout, bolded words, etc.

Tip: Your spoken words can create auditory patterns that reinforce the visual cues. Don’t read off the slides, but use the key words to drive the context of your discussion. As the students see and hear the words, pattern recognition learning kicks in.

4. Guide student learning.

I’m sure we have all thought it: My students don’t know how to study. I have often said this to myself, especially when thinking about my undergraduate courses. For many students, this class is the first time that they’ve had to go beyond the simple concepts of memorize and repeat. Students start my class thinking that making flashcards is the best way to study. I try to get them to understand that flashcards isolate content, and they might then miss the important relationships that are the basis of physiology. Instead, I try to get them to think about how clusters of slides are connected to one another and encourage them to integrate and condense information across related topics. To many, this is a vague concept. So, I provide examples of how I would study the material if I were a student in my class. I might condense content into tables or draw out neural pathways using boxes and color-coded arrows (pattern learning), adding details from the slides to connect the topics. Once they get the hang of it, they realize it is an efficient way to study complex material. Many have told me that they now use this application in other courses.

Tip: Encourage your students to handwrite notes/study materials. There are numerous studies that show the learning advantage of handwriting instead of typing notes. I tell students it’s fine to take notes in class electronically, but when they are studying outside of class, handwritten activities are more beneficial.

Even if you are comfortable in what you’re teaching, it’s a good exercise to think about how you are teaching. This is what makes teaching fun!


Mark Paternostro is a professor in the West Virginia University (WVU) School of Medicine and teaches human physiology for undergraduate, doctoral, dental, and medical students. He is featured in ACUE’s module Providing Clear Directions and Explanations.

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