5 Low-Tech Ways to Increase Engagement in Lectures

By Karen Mahom
Author of “disrupt learning!

Today I attended a two-hour workshop put on by a local government agency that shall go unnamed, to protect the not-so-innocent.  It was a good workshop.  I was interested in the topic and I learned a few new things.  That learning part is not always a guarantee with any workshop, so I count myself lucky.  But the part that was disappointing was the format of the workshop.  It was your average PowerPoint and sage on the stage bit.  Heck, I brought my laptop to take notes and they didn’t even have a WiFi network that I could use.  (I’m big on Google Docs lately, so no WiFi presents a problem!)

My buddy Scott McLeod has been talking on his site and on twitter lately about the fact that technology can really enhance learning in the classroom, and I agree.  And I’m the first one to say that the way to make a lecture much better is by putting student response devices (“clickers”) in the hands of the whole audience to drive engagement.  But what about the situation that the teacher of this workshop was in today?  In a setting where the closest thing to modern technology he had was a tabletop projector (that’s right, not even a short-throw)?  Yes, we were 10 adults attending the workshop on a topic of interest, but what are some low tech things that this instructor could have done to keep us engaged?  I thought about it the whole way home and here’s my list:

1. My go-to method that I’ve talked about before on this blog is using squares of colored construction paper for formative assessment questions.  Simple?  Yes.  Cheap?  Yes.  Gets the job done?  Also yes.  And as I’ve said before as well, kids and grown-ups alike all love it.  Also, works nicely with PowerPoint presentations where it’s simple enough to color code your questions, polls, etc. to match the color of the paper you have.  Ask a question, have your participants hold up the color that they think represents the correct answer.  They’ve made an active response and you now have some good info about the effectiveness of your presentation.

2. Ask your workshop participants to break into pairs or small groups to discuss formative assessment items.  Eric Mazur does this all the time with his Peer Instruction method.  He asks a question, has students answer it, breaks them into groups to discuss the answer, and then has them come back together and answer the question again.  Sure, he uses clickers, but there’s no reason that you can’t do the same thing with that colored construction paper too!  And the extra benefit, if you check out Mazur’s work, is that there are plenty of data demonstrating that the Peer Instruction method improves student outcomes!

3. Develop some guided notes for your lecture.  Guided notes are handouts that have overviews or outlines of the lecture, but with blank spaces for key concepts, ideas, facts, definitions, etc.  As the lecture progresses, the learner’s job is to fill in those blanks.  I have heard some teachers scoff at this idea, saying that it is the job of the learners to take good notes on their own.  But that kind of misses the point of guided notes.  The purpose of guided notes is to get the learners more engaged; needing to pay attention in order to fill in the blanks increases the amount of active listening.  And there is no reason that the “blanks” are limited just to those in text.  The blanks can be in labels for figures, charts or graphs.  The blanks can require the learner to draw something.  Get creative…the blanks can really be anything!  And to go one step further, why not have learners pair up at the end of class to compare their completed guided notes?  I think guided notes are great because not only do they increase learner engagement, but you, as the instructor, know that the learners leave with the most important take-aways from your lecture.

4. Add some two-minute sprints with self-graphing.  Self-graphing can really be combined with any of the other methods, but it’s especially effective if you add two-minute sprints at regular intervals throughout the workshop.  Whatever you ask the participants to do, you want it to be a discrete task that they can do quickly because they only have two minutes!  Start the timer and turn them loose!  Then ask them to graph the number correct per minute that they score; as they complete multiple sprints and graph the results they see their progress over the course of the workshop.  They don’t have to turn in their graphs and you don’t even need to look at them if you don’t want to.  But you would be amazed at how much kids and adults like to see the line going up on the graph!  And one of the great things is that this is individualized.  The learners are only competing against themselves, trying to improve from the last sprint.  I used this method when I taught undergraduates remedial skills, including writing.  One of the problems that I had was that the students didn’t produce large enough writing samples to edit.  As anyone who teaches writing know, first there has to besome writing before it can be edited and shaped.  So I used the two-minute sprint method (though I used five-minute intervals) to get the students’ rates of writing words up.  And it worked.  Kids who were writing fewer than three sentences (and usually fragments, at that) at the beginning of the semester were writing three or four paragraphs by the end of the semester.  And we could work on real improvements with that much writing.

5.   Okay, this one’s up to you!  What are some low-tech techniques YOU have used to increase engagement in lectures?  Please let us all know!  For sure, high-tech solutions are great, but as we know, not everyone has those available on an ongoing basis.  So let’s hear it!!

To learn more about Dr. Scott McLeod, check out his blog, Dangerously Irrelevant or follow him on twitter @mcleod.

To learn more about Dr. Eric Mazur, visit the website for his group at Harvard or follow him on twitter @eric_mazur.

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