History prof says storytelling is key to engaging students

Lectures. The mere mention of the word evokes images of blank stares and absent-minded doodling. But associate professor of history John Monroe has a remedy that will corral students' attention during lectures. He shared his ideas during an Oct. 22 award-winning faculty series presentation (yes, it was a lecture) called "Maximizing Student Attention: Low-tech Effectiveness in Large Lecture Formats."  The series is organized by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.  

Why lectures stand the test of time

Monroe said he believes lectures evolved through the centuries because of one common thread: Students are listening to an instructor at the same time they are writing notes.  He went on to say that lectures are effective supplements to reading.

"What a student gets in the text portion of the class is raw information, the basic stuff of knowledge; what the lecture provides is a model for thinking through that raw information, analyzing it, making sense of it, and generally using it as the basis for independent, intellectual inquiry," Monroe said.

Tell a story

As a new professor about a decade ago, Monroe was faced with teaching roughly 400 Iowa State students 500 years worth of European social, political, economic and cultural events in a western civilization class. At first, Monroe said he was a bit intimidated. But then he remembered some of the most memorable lectures his former professors gave and realized they shared a key trait -- storytelling.

Monroe contends the best lectures have a narrative structure with a defined beginning, middle and end. Here are his tips for constructing a lecture in this way:

  • Narratives don't have to be about individual people, or even people at all. They need an identifiable "protagonist" and a coherent movement from beginning to middle to end.
  • Before preparing individual lectures, devise a narrative arc for your entire course. What is the climax, the most important lecture of the entire term? Determine that, and then build to it. (It works best if the climax is two-thirds or three-quarters of the way into the term.)
  • Give each lecture its own story (beginning, middle and end) while remaining aware of its place in the course's overall narrative arc.
  • When delivering your lectures, give clear statements that indicate where you will go and where you've been. In narratives about ideas, processes and things, this signposting is even more important.

Distractions are OK

Monroe said that listening and taking notes during lectures is demanding for students.

"To maintain student focus overall, it's important to create moments when that focus doesn't need to be so intense," he said.

He advises faculty members to intersperse colorful bits of information with important key points, which gives students a chance to relax their attention.  Following are Monroe's tips for keeping students' attention:

  • Let students relax their concentration occasionally.
  • Experiment with "controlled tangents" -- moments when you stray from the text to add an interesting side note or bit of color.
  • Make PowerPoint presentations more about images than text, and keep the text component to a minimum. This will encourage students to take notes while still giving them cues about the subject when their attention strays.
  • Instead of a detailed PowerPoint printout, create a broader outline sheet with some points left intentionally mysterious to encourage students to clarify by taking notes.
  • If you can, give students a feeling of emotional connection. This is the theatrical element of lecturing. Generally, it involves introducing a personal touch. The basic way to do this is to figure out a way to discuss the day's subject in a manner you find interesting. It could be the topic you choose or it might involve humor, research stories or anecdotes from daily life. The nature of this element should vary with the instructor's personality. In all cases, the goal is to convey a sense of authentic enthusiasm for the subject.