Student award 2008: What makes a good lecturer?

Author: Siobhan Tebbs Wesley


The winner of the Subject Centre's undergraduate student essay competition 2008 was Siobhan Tebbs Wesley, a final year student studying a Combined Honours in Arts (Arabic, French, Russian and Sociology) at Durham University.

This article was added to our website on 22/04/08 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents


Having been brought up to appreciate the infinite power of information technology, before university I was bemused as to the purpose of live lectures. If all you did was sit there and watch and listen, then surely you could do the module on a computer, in the comfort of your own home? What’s more you could repeat the lesson several times at your leisure, without having the distraction of people far more interested in whispering about last night’s extravagances with their friends than listening to a lecturer. I expected old grey bearded male professors, quietly mumbling about the details of their life’s work in an incomprehensible vocabulary to an audience which might as well not even be there.

Someone fascinated with their field, who can infect an entire lecture theatre with a love of their subject, is priceless for securing and maintaining the interest of their students.


Since that time I have seen enough splendid examples of captivating lecturing techniques to quash my negative expectations. I have also had various completely soporific lecturers, some of whom were indeed old bearded men and some not at all. Strangely enough, one’s age or amount of facial hair is apparently not a critical factor in the person’s ability to motivate me. So what exactly is it that brings a lecture alive and makes leaving your computer screen worthwhile? For me, the value of going to lectures manifests itself in exactly the qualities that set them apart from those cleverly interactive computer modules. This potential value has several building blocks, more often than not partly recognised and attempted, and rarely (but occasionally) all harnessed by the same person.

The first of these essential features is enthusiasm. Someone fascinated with their field, who can infect an entire lecture theatre with a love of their subject, is priceless for securing and maintaining the interest of their students. The people whose faces lighten up at the prospect of sharing their passion, who can bounce into a room full of students with hangovers and infuse them with excitement: these are the most likely contenders for the perfect lecturer. We need lecturers to have us waiting in anticipation for the next line in the story, the next turn of the wheel. The more natural an attitude adopted by the lecturer, the more instinctively the students will lend her or him their undivided attention. It is a question of creating a unique and energetic atmosphere so that the students will listen harder for fear of missing out.

The next feature is almost always neglected in lectures: facilitating interaction between lecturer and audience and amongst the audience themselves. Having appealed to students’ imagination, you must allow them an outlet for it! Many teachers no doubt think this unnecessary in large lectures, leaving it to seminar tutors to listen to the students’ ideas. But let me ask you: having lit a firework, would you shut it in a room? Or would you release it into the open air? Use what you have created; exploit the tension by demanding a display of quick thinking; show your respect for students’ opinions by asking them to contribute, even if only briefly. The students will feel honoured and the respect will be reciprocated, encouraging them to take precious note of your every word.

I recently went to a lecture on a French poet. Doctor X. cleverly used interaction to help us understand the fusion of sensory perceptions in his writing: calling out a smell or a sound, he asked us what colour we would associate it with. The 250 students were excited to find that many people shouted out the same colour for a particular smell or sound. In this way, interaction provoked by the lecturer rebounded throughout the entire lecture theatre, and after the game was over, brought everyone’s attention back to the professor himself. We were desperate to hear what his next words would be, how he would explain this phenomenon we had just experienced first-hand, and how it presented itself in the poems we were reading. The charisma of Doctor X. was certainly essential to this experience, but having been able to contribute to our own enlightenment we felt rather pleased with ourselves as well.

Finally, I wish to mention a vital component of a live lecture that is to be found in computer courses: in fact, technology contains perhaps even the most exemplary instances of it. It is of course a logical and coherent structure. The need for a proper structure in a lecture is most notable when it is absent, as I discovered in a module on cinema history. The comedy laugh of Professor Z. and her fascinating film reels certainly kept us awake for an hour every week, but what had I ever learnt by the end of it? Evidently not at all lacking in experience and knowledge, she would nevertheless flit from subject to subject, filling us temporarily with ideas but giving us no concept of their progression or relation to the context. She was a mother bird feeding her chicks with plenty of worms but never teaching them to fly. It was good fun, but what about the future? How could I use this in an exam? If Professor Z. had only employed some form of direction to her teachings she would have been well on her way to being the most effective lecturer I have ever had.

Create electricity; encourage us to ask questions; love your subject and tell it like a tale



My time here has taught me that while technology may be graced with infinite possibilities, the need for compelling, passionately-delivered live lectures is as still as great as ever. Be enthusiastic, interact with your audience, and structure your presentation well. Give us a unique experience; make us into part of an indispensable atmosphere which could not be found anywhere else. Create electricity; encourage us to ask questions; love your subject and tell it like a tale: with a beginning, a middle and an end. This will contribute crucially not only to our studies in university but also our development as human beings. Thanks folks, and keep lighting the fireworks!