Talking about Practice: A Teaching Homage to Allen Iverson circa 2002

June 21, 2013

A conversation with a colleague earlier this week got me thinking about how teachers not only prepare a lecture, but practice delivering a lecture. These are not necessarily the same, nor are they mutually exclusive. Practice is merely one thing a teacher should do when preparing a lecture—but is too often slighted or even ignored. Delivering a lecture is not a far cry from delivering a speech. In fact, in most ways, they are strikingly similar, if not the same. In what is considered the seminal textbook in the field of public speaking, and used here at Berkeley in our CW10A public speaking classes (a section of which I have the good fortune of teaching this fall), Lucas’ The Art of Public Speaking devotes time to this very issue:

“Prepare so thoroughly that you cannot help but be successful. … How much time should you devote to preparing [a lecture]? A standard rule of thumb is that each minute of speaking time requires one to two hours of preparation time—perhaps more, depending on the amount of research needed for the [lecture]. This may seem like a lot of time, but the rewards are well worth it. Like an actor who rehearses a role until it is just right, you will find that your confidence as a speaker increases when you work on a speech until it is just right. One professional speech consultant estimates that proper preparation can reduce stage fright by up to 75 percent.”

I thought the same thing you are currently thinking when I first read this. “If I spent one to two hours of preparation for every minute of speaking time, I would be sacrificing a lot of other important work that needs to get done.” Ok, maybe your thoughts included an expletive and sarcastic laughter. However, if we parse it out and think about it differently, it may not be so ominous. That preparation time includes research, gathering materials and knowledge, making decisions about what to include and leave out, how that information is best presented, in what organizational order, and then there is the consideration of actually practicing the delivery of the lecture. That practicing the delivery of the lecture is my main area of interest in this post.

I know from conversations with faculty across campus that the time spent preparing the content for lectures is enormous. I’ve heard ranges from 10 hours to prepare one lecture up to 20-30 hours of preparation. I have no concerns about the level of dedication to ensuring the content discussed with students is as of high a quality as is humanly possible. Our faculty members are at the top of their fields and they bring that experience and knowledge with them into the classroom. It’s a non-issue. What is a potential issue is how we, as teachers, practice for the live experience we face in the classroom, in front of students who are dedicated, suspicious, contentious, engaged, intelligent, critical and yearning for not just an understanding of the topic, but access to how faculty members think about the topic. How can we make sure we live up to the expectations if we shortchange that critical aspect of any speech or lecture—the delivery?

I’ve worked with faculty members who have struggled mightily with lecturing. Maybe it’s because they’re just nervous in public speaking situations, maybe they tend to digress and move off point-losing students along the way, maybe they forget to include or purposefully omit things like previews, summaries, transitions, or even topic sentences. The list could go on, but at the end of the day it really all can be traced back to a lack of actual practice delivering the lecture. Whether in a room by ourselves, in front of a mirror, with a family member or friend, practicing a lecture gives us a better opportunity to evaluate what will work and what will not when we do it live with our students. I love the unexpectedness and exhilaration that comes from delivering a lecture to a group of students, not knowing exactly what will happen, what questions will be asked, or where the discussion could go. But at the same time, I can only embrace that if I have the confidence to know that what I’ve prepared is valuable and how I am going to deliver the message/content is clear, organized, and will resonate with my students. I’m not embarrassed to admit that after 12 years of teaching in higher education, and after teaching some of the same courses many, many times, I can still be found in the days leading up to a class session, delivering my lecture, out loud, with movement and gestures, practicing responses to anticipated questions or practicing questions I have for the class, in a room, in front of a mirror. And, when I’m really trying out something new for the first time, my unfortunate family is subjected to my practicing and I do expect them to give me feedback. Although, feedback from my spouse is usually more helpful than what I get from my 3 year old or 4 month old (“Daddy, is it my turn to talk now?” while polite, is not exactly helping me refine my lecture; and the 4 month old is just rude, rarely even making eye contact with me, and instead staring at the stuffed owl hanging above his head on the floor play-mat). Regardless, the practice in front of a live audience and their feedback helps me think through how my students will respond at any given point in the lecture—a most helpful source of information to reflect and revise before the “real thing.”

It’s when we practice that we can begin to anticipate student questions and either embed explanations into the lecture, or at least prepare answers in our head should they be asked. Practice enables us not only to read a lecture, but to hear it, and in hearing it we can better assess if an explanation makes sense, if things logically follow, and shape how we will emphasize important points and what wording we will choose to have the most impact on student learning. Practice enables us to hear whether the move from point A to point B is obvious or if it needs a transition to situate why A is first and B is second, or how A leads to B – whatever the relationship may be. There are multiple ways to explain a concept, idea, process or equation. And, when we practice out loud, we can play with those multiple explanations to see what may work best, and have others in our back pocket in case a student asks us to explain it again, but in a different way. Finally, practicing a lecture as closely mirrored to the real in-class context immensely helps how fluid we are in our use of visual aids (think PowerPoint, chalkboard, etc.). We can “feel” if this move is awkward, if I should be closer to the board when making this point or that, and we can practice how we will actually explain the visual to the class.

You rarely want to do anything for the first time in front of an audience. Yes, there are lots of improvisational aspects to teaching, but a good lecture is not necessarily in the improv tradition. Lectures, like most types of speeches, are carefully planned and practiced to yield a desired result (student learning of XYZ). The more we practice, the more comfortable we are with our lecture delivery, the more capable we are to improv when those opportunities present themselves (i.e., student questions, class discussion, active learning activities).

How do you prepare for a lecture? How do you practice lecture delivery?

How can you tell if a teacher has practiced, or not? What impact does it have on learning?


Stephen Lucas, The Art of Public Speaking (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), p. 13.

Lilly Walters, Secrets of Successful Speakers (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), pp. 32-36.