Ten Ways to Teach without Lecture Notes

Prefatory note: I’m writing this as a university professor of literature, but most of my observations should apply to other subjects at other levels.

In a hypothetical alternate universe, imagine that you have to teach a class in ten minutes and just finished reading the book. You favour “just-in-time” teaching methods – out of habit, if not principle – so you tend to lecture from a list of ideas, quotations, questions, and classroom exercises, accompanied by a good slideshow. But today, as I said, you just finished the reading and teach in ten (now seven) minutes. What do you do?

First, let’s drop the alternate-universe fiction. Over the years my lecture notes have thinned considerably. I used to go in with every word scripted, in mortal fear that I would run out of material. But I’ve come to realize two things: students retain far more from interative knowledge-creation than from knowledge-delivery; and each class gives you an opportunity to make knowledge together, in ways you can only do together. In your limited time, in this room, with these minds, what knowledge will you produce?

Okay, enough with the airy principles. Here are ten of my own methods for teaching without lecture notes.

Each one presupposes that you’ve read the material you’re covering that day, and that you’ve made some notes as you read. If you’re not writing in your margins and underlining passages, you’re doing it wrong. Change your habits.

Even if you’re not reading the material before you teach it, there’s hope for you. Look to Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read for inspiration, and see the points 5, 6, 8, 9, and 10 below about close reading and open-ended questions.

  1. The first method is predictable: Initiate group work. Pose an open-ended question about the material, and get students into groups of (say) 3–4 to come up with an answer. Bonus: invite each group to talk about their process of developing that answer. Which passages did they find that address it, or complicate it? Get groups responding to each other.
  2. Ask questions with easy answers. “Did you like the book? Why or why not?” or “Tell us about your experience of reading this book. Did it resemble anything else you’ve read?” Easy questions launch the conversation, and afford you opportunities to layer in more detailed questions: “Was there any particular passage/character/moment that provoked your reaction?” As in #1, get students to respond to each other. “Who agrees with that position? Why or why not?”
  3. Ask questions with hard answers. Not intimidating questions that require preparation — like “What word choices does Humbert Humbert make to describe Lolita’s attributes?” — but a thorny controversy that gets ideas flowing — like “Do you have a moral problem with aestheticizing Humbert’s pedophilia?” (I’m talking about Nabokov’s Lolita here). You’ll get students responding to the material and how it conflicts with their belief-systems. What better place than a university classroom to provoke and investigate those conflicts?
  4. Work through an upcoming assignment. Students will be aware of upcoming deadlines, and will have questions about how to do well on them. Or they ought to. Get talking about the reading and research habits that will help them complete it. What might they do next? If it’s an essay, you can take students through every stage of literary criticism: from question to evidence-gathering to thesis to outline to revisions. Make notes as you go, preferably in a document you can share with students afterward – or better yet, in a Google Document that students can edit themselves.
  5. Play Google Roulette. This is an exercise in research skills to teach deliberate and mindful media consumption. Display your browser; then take any mention of a proper name (any person, place, or thing in the book) and search for it. Do you get similar results from Google Image or Google Books searches? Review a few results and evaluate their trustworthiness. This is an opportunity to pitch the merits of a well-annotated edition whose editor has curated pertinent information – which you can further investigate online. It’s also an opportunity to point students to databases that your university subscribes to, like the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. If they’re not using them, they should — as I’ve written about the Oxford English Dictionary.
  6. Do a close reading. If you annotated your text with asterisks and other signs of stylistically interesting passages, you’re ahead of the game. Choose one and read it aloud, then ask what students think about the author’s deliberations that created this passage. If you have a document camera, show the students how you marked up your text. If you haven’t highlighted any passages, remember this for next time – and just choose a paragraph at random to see what it will yield. (Trust your own close-reading skills; there’s always something.) If you can’t find anything to say about it, you’re not trying. Or you’re teaching the wrong books.
  7. Think-pair-share. Ask a question – any question, so long as it’s clear and precise and takes some reading to answer. Ask students to think it over, and clarify its meaning, before they look through their books to find something that might address it. This should induce students to bring their books to class, and to read with a pen in hand. After a few minutes, ask them to pair with someone to share what they found. Then invite (or require, depending on the mood) one member of each group to address the question.
  8. Read aloud. This isn’t kindergarten, but reading books aloud shows students a number of things. It emphasises different words in a sentence, shifting their interpretations. It encourages the habit of rereading, a cornerstone habit of good criticism. It emphasizes the book’s tonal and aural qualities (like alliteration) that our eyes might miss. Ask students to read aloud other passages – or ask them to read a whole page sentence by sentence, student by student, until everyone in the room has read aloud. This encourages students to come to class ready to participate, with their books in hand.
  9. Go big. Why are you here? Why are we spending our time reading books like this? What’s the value of literature, in our attention economy? Why are courses like this a requirement of your programs? What insights have you taken from these books that will transfer into your life?
  10. Talk about the how, not the what. Get students to identify the cognitive habits, skills, and processes they bring to the material and do in-class activities to analyze them. Invite students to describe their study methods, and how they developed them. Are their study aids a help or a crutch? Did their viewing of The Great Gatsby film help them gather evidence for the writing assignment? What about their listening to a radioplay of The Tempest? What about their reading of a modernization of The Canterbury Tales?

The long and the short of these methods? Stop relying so heavily on your notes. Trust your instincts and your training. Use your time in that room for things that you can only do as a group, face to face, gathered together. Presume that students have read the material, and are prepared to discuss their responses to it – but don’t use the book as a crutch.

The most valuable learning in any course is how to learn. Focus on the methods and insights that transfer beyond the domain of your material, and don’t let that material constrain you.

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