Making Lectures Fun

When one thinks of attending a “lecture,” what often comes to mind is an old white man standing in front of a chalkboard droning on in a monotone voice about some obscure corner of existence with little real-world relevance to the lives of the audience. This does not sound fun. And, I expect, that that old white man would be pleased to know that it was not fun, for his corner of existence is serious, very serious indeed.

Exceedingly serious.

While this may be the image that still is conjured up in my mind from time to time when I think of lectures, in reality, I have had the great fortune to sit through some amazing lectures, given by engaging, enthusiastic professors, some of whom were old, white men! The enthusiasm of some of these lecturers was what encouraged a passion for entomology within me, and many of my classmates. And, as an aspiring educator-to-be, I am inspired by their example.

Unfortunately, the lecturers that have been truly engaging and exciting in my life are few and far between, their impact like shining stars engulfed by the unmemorable void of droning “educators.” I cannot speak to what would lead someone to pursue a life of education if they cannot themselves find a reason to crack a smile once in a lecture or raise their voice above a hoarse whisper.

I get it, lecturing can be hard. Sometimes it feels like you have given this lecture 1000 times and you just cannot muster the energy to be excited for this 1001st time. But believe me, if you are feeling bored, your audience will pick up on that and return it to you 100-fold. Something that has worked for me in my, admittedly brief, experience as a lecturer, is to use a common method for reengaging the audience that can also help re-engage you. Every 20 or so minutes stop the lecture. Take a break from talking and ask the students some questions, or show an interesting, short, video clip, or have an activity that can make what you are saying to the students more real and tangible.

As I said in my last post, experiential (active) learning is not a new concept for our species, and it works wonders for conveying what facts actually mean. As an example, I have been developing a class project for an intro to entomology course that revolves around the creation of a trading card game (think Magic the Gathering for insects). This game would reflect, as well as possible, how the natural world of insects works. In a basic sense, there would be predators, herbivores, and parasites and they would have to interact with each other in a sustainable way with regards to the limited resources available in whichever habitat the players have chosen for that session (jungle, desert, field, etc.). Players would gain points for such things as having their predator consume another player’s herbivore, or for the number of offspring their parasitoid fly can produce. The game would begin with a few simple interactions, and throughout the semester, students would work in teams to create cards and game mechanics that would reflect the concepts we discussed in class. The game would get continually more complex, with cards based on real-world insects and situations (such as global climate change and invasive species), serving not to frustrate the player, but to impress upon them the interconnectedness of our natural world. A couple times each lecture we would stop and discuss, by consulting the students, how this concept could be applied to our game, and what unforeseen consequences of any new interactions could arise. And, every so often, a day of class would be devoted to test-driving our game and discussing what does and does not work and why.

I have yet to implement this game-design aspect into a real-world class, but I have a pretty good feeling that it could work, in tandem, with conventional, but exciting, lectures. Games engage the human mind in a way that straight problem solving simply cannot by providing a fun, and interesting, method to reach a specific goal. Playing games can unite people from a diverse range of backgrounds that otherwise would not ever interact, and, if designed well enough, can continue to be fun for years to come. Added to that, games can be iterative, and, if the game is successful enough, I envision an online-playable version that alumni, as well as current students, could continue to add to and engage with as research in entomology develops, and new, incredible, stories of insect behavior are discovered.


18 Replies to “Making Lectures Fun”

  1. A professor of mine in undergrad had a great way of building up a concept and presenting actual research problems which had been faced in his field (surficial processes, or how rivers and such shape earth’s surface) and then leaving his lecture on a cliff-hanger so you’d be stuck trying to sort out the solution to the problem until he covered the most accepted solution(s) the next time class met.
    It was so great it almost convinced me to change my focus to his field, even when he’d spend a good chunk of class going through a proof. Then again, I’ve always loved a good lecture.

    1. That sounds pretty awesome, kind of like how Netflix shows always leave you hanging so you have to watch the next episode! I think a similar interesting idea would be to present a problem in the first day of class, such as “You have found a creature. You don’t know what the creature is, or if it is undescribed, or what its natural history is. This semester we will confront this problem and slowly discover what this creature is, using the scientific technics required to do so.” That way, the class would have a cohesive goal, and students would get an appreciation for how interconnected and complex multiple fields of science can be. Anyhoo, thanks for your comment!

  2. I love that you bring up the point that lectures are not all bad. I too have sat through some incredible lectures with many telling a story, however I agree that they are few and far between. If we are going to continue to have lectures they need to be like the ones you described, because the impact can be profound on the student. Thank you for sharing some of your tricks and ideas to break up lectures. Your gaming idea takes a concept that is probably given in a lecture format and makes it hands on and relatable. I would have enjoyed this approach in many of my undergraduate classes like physics or anatomy.

    1. Thanks for your vote of confidence Carlisle! I’m nervous to try it out the first time, but I think it could be a really fun and engaging way to get students excited about entomology, and to kind of impress upon them the ridiculous interconnected complexity of the natural world. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Can I please take part of the trading card game that you are working on? Bringing me back to some Pokemon/Yu-Gi-Oh days. I think that idea is very tactile and engages students to be more interactive with one another. Although it isn’t simulated like a video game, I think it has an immersion factor that is involved.

  4. Jackson- first and foremost, let me just say that if you are the future of teaching we are in luck, I love the idea and while I know little about entomology, I want to play! In all seriousness, I think we can all agree that those droning and monotone lectures seem to stick out like a sore thumb, however every now and again we get lucky and have an exciting and more importantly, engaging lecturer- hopefully that can be you for your students one day (if it isn’t already!).

    1. Thanks Blayne! So far students seem to enjoy my lectures, but I can’t wait to be doing it full time once I graduate. I just have to make sure I don’t devolve over time into one of those boring, monotone lumps of a professor.

  5. Stopping a lecture at regular intervals to engage the audience or change the activity to a brief video sound like easy ways to keep the everyone awake and paying attention to the material. I am also very interested in this entomology game!

    1. Instead of pop quizzes breaking up the lecture we can have pop card design challenges! How do you translate phoresy (harmlessly riding on the back of another creature to travel long distances) into a card game mechanic? This game will take nerding out about bugs to a whole new level!

  6. I would say even lectures are actually two way communication. I experienced several times that even the instructor didn’t make any special form of teaching, I get the sense of erhusiasm when I totally understand what he/she was trying to convey. From those experiences, my understanding of how interesting and lecture could be, is actually depends on how effective the information can be transported to the majority of students. That’s why different people could find either boring or interesting in same class.

  7. What a wonderful blog! I think the issue goes back to the university on how they choose their faculty? what are their criteria? What would they consider besides being productive in research? I feel the top 100 universities have very good researchers but not teachers! This conclusion is based on my experience at VT and what I’ve heard from my friends at other top universities. This makes me think do we need to have universes that target solely research but not teaching and vice versa?

  8. Jackson, this is a truly engaging way to learn entomology. It seems that you really put a substantial amount of thought into it, and gathered a good amount of feedback too. I look forward to knowing how students react to it. I am sure they’ll enjoy it.

  9. Hi Jackson,
    Thanks for your post! You experience reminded me of a book that I read before: “The Stone Soup Experiment: Why Cultural Boundaries Persist”.
    The author, Wilson and her collaborators did a study in the context of a university course. They divided forty randomly selected students who registered for the course into two profoundly different groups—the communitarian “Stone Soup Tribe” and the individualist “Fair Trade Cartel.” While the first group was constructed as a benevolent matriarchy focused on storytelling, spirituality, and sharing, the second was defined by a strong entrepreneurial work ethic valorizing individual success. The whole course is like a role-playing game. Both groups of students are very active in the classroom and outside of the classroom, even “the students and even faculty (including Wilson herself) remaining strongly attached to their respective group ideologies even when the experiment had concluded.” This class not only educated students and teachers but also contributed to the development of cultural anthropology. This is a good demonstration of the potential of the games in education!

  10. This idea is dope. I think the self-propelling nature of experiential learning through games/game design is what makes activities like that so successful. To borrow language from one of the readings this week, the framework you’ve already outlined creates the environment from which an active and participatory learning culture can grow. One caution I would suggest is to be careful not to overdo it on your end (leave your initial design open enough for students to develop creative and unexpected solutions), but the MTG-style intro to entomology game sounds awesome!

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