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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Designing a Guest Lecture

Posted by on Friday, November 2, 2012 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Dear Professor P,

Help! I’ve recently been asked to guest lecture in a course and I don’t know where to start. I know a good bit about the subject, but I only have 75 minutes and there’s so much to cover! I feel like I need to be one of those guys who spits out the fine print really fast at the end of a car commercial. How do I even get started?

Anxious and Overwrought


Dear A&O,

First of all, take a deep breath. You’re asking the right questions, and you’re going to figure it out. Plus, you’ve got Professor P to help. Second, ask yourself how much you remember about what the fast-talking car commercial guy says. 5%, maybe? Probably not the best approach.

So what is the best approach? I recommend that you use the “backwards design” approach popularized by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design and summarized in the CFT’s teaching guide on Course Design. Basically, you start by asking yourself what the learning goals are: what knowledge or abilities do you want the students to gain? It’s tempting to make this list huge—after all, you want a lot for the students—but Wiggins and McTighe suggest tiering the goals, such that you identify one or two big ideas or core tasks, which are supported by knowledge or skills that are important to know or do, all of which can be nested within less essential knowledge with which it’s still worth being familiar. This tiering approach allows you to identify the most important aspects of your class session (or unit, or course) so you can focus your efforts.

After identifying your goals, you next ask yourself how you’ll know if your students meet the learning goals you’ve set. The types of evidence may range from quiz and test questions, to open-ended questions or problems, to more complex performance tasks.   It’s a good idea to have formative assessments that allow you to monitor your students’ understanding during the learning process as well as summative assessments that evaluate the outcome at the end.

It’s only after setting your learning goals and determining what evidence would convince you that they were met that you design the activities—that is, what you will do with your class time. Based on your learning goals, you might determine that the most effective pedagogy would be small group discussion, case studies, or an interactive lecture (for example, see Deslauriers et al., Science 332: 862-864).

Good luck! Remember, teaching is an iterative process where you usually learn as much as the students. Stay mindful of your goals and attentive to what is working and not working, and this class and subsequent ones will go great.

Professor P.

Would you like to learn more about backwards design? Give us a call and we’ll be happy to set up a consultation with you to discuss a course, a lecture, or help you create a brand-new course.  Call 322-7290 to schedule an appointment.


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