Runner up in the student award 2008: What makes a good lecturer?

Author: Caroline Smith


Caroline Smith, a final year Linguistics student at the University of Cambridge, was a runner up in the Subject Centre's undergraduate student essay competition 2008.

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


A good lecturer is like a supermarket: well-organised and offering a range of goods for every budget.

In a good supermarket, every shopper should come away with the list of items they had hoped to find there, no matter how much they are able to spend – no shopper should come away empty-handed. In a good lecture, every student should leave with more knowledge or inspiration than they arrived with. No lecture should be so opaque that those who are unable to invest as much time in the field are unable to understand even the main points.

he should help them appreciate his perspective by noting the difficulties he himself encountered when first attempting to get to grips with a particular topic.


A lecture, like a supermarket, should be well-stocked: it should supply cans, tins and boxes – pre-packaged core concepts and ideas which are easily accessible, readily understandable, and long-life in the sense of being valuable to students in any era, and at any stage of their studies. It should have fresh produce – milk, bread and vegetables – colourful new ideas, possible avenues for students to explore, tit-bits and additional pieces of knowledge to get their brains whirring away. It should also have a deep-freezer section, where more complex or advanced ideas are outlined in order to give an overview of the scope of the subject – yet students should not be expected to wrestle with these from the outset, simply know that they exist, and are available to be defrosted and examined at an appropriate later stage.

There should always be an ‘everyday value’ aisle: - “If you read only one article, this is the one you should read”. The lecturer must acknowledge that those in front of him have varying interests, intelligence and time availability – he should supply enough information so that even those with limited resources can profit. Then there should also be an own-brand label – a personal touch such as a reference to their own favourite topic – “This is the line of argument I personally find most convincing” or “This is a book which really got me thinking”. The lecturer should demonstrate enthusiasm for the subject without overwhelming his audience with a personal hobbyhorse or similar: where possible he should help them appreciate his perspective by noting the difficulties he himself encountered when first attempting to get to grips with a particular topic. Finally, in every lecture there should be and an ‘extra special’ section – an example of a theory in practice, or a rich descriptive passage which illustrates the phenomena which have just been discussed – or a detailed bibliography or reading recommendations for those able to indulge in the topic.

A good lecturer is like a priest to whom the flock may turn for guidance.

He is a figurehead within the community, greatly respected for his contributions to his subject, and yet not so lofty as to be inaccessible – indeed, the students may approach him between lectures for questions and clarifications. He is insightful enough to know that he cannot force them into the fold, but must rather lead by example, enlighten and inform them, and trust that this will lead his charges to their own understanding of, and individual relationship with the subject. He is wise enough to preach in the common tongue, speaking in a way that his students can understand rather than distancing both himself and his message from them with stylised, formal, or technical language: yet at the same time he is well-versed in the scriptures of his discipline, can refer a student to a particular passage or article for guidance. He does not purport to be the only authority on the subject, but acknowledges other schools of thought which approach it in different ways. He is in every respect and ambassador of his discipline – a missionary, a bringer of glad tidings.

A good lecturer is like a tailor-made suit.

The material he uses is, without exception, high quality, and well made. The finest resources are employed, regardless of the effort involved: graphs, quotations, slide-shows, videos, handouts may all feature, provided they are in keeping with the overall effect, and not extravagant or flashy without serving a purpose. The lecturer is fashion-conscious like a classy suit: he is up-to-date with the arguments and ideas he presents, knows about recent developments in the field, and does not use outdated or incorrect examples. Equally, he is not swayed by one idea over another, merely because it is more recent, or more adventurous – but presents a balanced picture, especially where there are several equally valid alternatives. The lecture is always made-to-measure: although the lecturer may provide a detailed handout, he does not read from it exclusively, nor does he produce the script for the same lecture he has been giving for the past ten years. His lecture is carefully tailored to the requirements of the course, and adjusted where possible to meet the needs of the group he is lecturing to. The lecturer is not thrown off course by interruptions, but should instead be willing and able to answer pertinent questions as and when they arise and, in conjunction with this, assess the extent to which the students have been able to follow the lecture. He should be able to change his anticipated time-allocation at a moment’s notice, and spend a little longer explaining one area, or press on in another, depending on the class’s needs.


A good lecturer is like a supermarket, a priest and a tailor-made suit. But, most importantly, a good lecturer is a good student. He is able to examine the pupils in front of him, and address his lecture to their needs. He may have progressed in years and understanding far beyond the youthful faces in front of him, but he must always remember the difficulties he himself faced at their stage, the things which aided his comprehension, and most importantly the gems which inspired him to go on to academia: he must pass these on, not only for the sake of the students, but also for his own sake, for those listening intently to him today may be the ones who will go on to carry the torch for his field in the next generation.