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

Author: Marta Dados


Marta Dados, a second year French, Spanish and English student at the University of Glasgow, is a runner up in the Subject Centre's undergraduate student essay competition 2008.

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I can still remember my Polish friends' intrigued faces. 'Spanish and French? Scotland, of all places? Are you sure?' I was. Terrified but sure. Rather disappointed with my 'freshers’ year' back home, I was boarding the plane with quite a distinct vision of what I expected from the famed 'western-style' teaching and my new lecturers. What is it that makes a student desperate and brave enough to leave their home, and embark on a life completely unknown, though fascinating? For me it was a promise of academic excellence, of teaching methods based on private research instead of dutiful yet thoughtless memorizing of information, and above all – of enthusiastic, friendly teaching staff truly interested in helping me develop my skills. With several fantastic teachers, I did get a taste of it all in high school, and was simply yearning for more.

A sense of humor – never robust, never exaggerated, sometimes sarcastic, always apparent, but not allowing the students too much freedom either.


Friendly. As I think of the best lecturers I have ever had, what distinguishes them is a smile. A sense of humor – never robust, never exaggerated, sometimes sarcastic, always apparent, but not allowing the students too much freedom either. If we laugh in class, we all do, and it is best if the joke is being made in, or about, the language taught. I can remember an English teacher who, as soon as he thought we were advanced enough, would bring us articles from The Times full of rather biting sarcasm, from which we learned some, say, semi-formal vocabulary. The class was thrilled, but the teacher did not allow us to relax too much; instead, he would initiate an animated discussion about the text and make sure that everybody contributed. I remember him as a man whom I respected greatly, one who always had amusing anecdotes to tell (in English obviously!), who made me want to laugh and talk, but who also intimidated me in a way. Such combination of humor and discipline fostered my concentration, and even if the lecturer caught me daydreaming sometimes, I could be sure he would immediately ply me with questions in English, so that I would focus again.

Obviously, there is a vast difference between teaching a tutorial group and actual 'lecturing' in front of a large audience. My university English Language course is conducted mostly in the latter way, and I must say there is a lecture every now and then which I listen to with flushed cheeks, and afterwards discuss with my friends whatever we have learned, be it children's language acquisition or the classification of consonants. How does this happen? I suppose a lot depends on an interesting topic, but at the same time it lies greatly with the lecturer to present an issue as a sort of an intriguing riddle. For instance, I have always loved the English tenses, which most speakers of my language struggle with hopelessly for years; and I believe this is because my first teacher presented them systematically, smoothly progressing from one tense to another with the use of easy-to-follow examples and even graphic schemes, appealing to my imagination a lot. Nothing fancy. A simple 'Who can tell the difference between »John lost his key yesterday« and »John has lost his key«?' captured the class's attention initially, and before we knew it, the teacher was able to move to some more complex issues.

On the contrary, one of my French lecturers only used to explain linguistic nuances orally, as we progressed through what I thought was a far too difficult reading passage. I had to take notes hastily, never having the time to acquire information fully in class, and thus never making use of it later. You could even hear students sigh 'I wish this teacher thought I were stupid, if that would make her really explain things!' – and I often felt discouraged myself. Therefore, I believe a good lecturer is one who can assess the students' language competence accurately, and explain the arising issues in a straightforward, logical manner, with the use of simple if varied examples. A topic presented in such a way suddenly becomes intriguing, but at the same time – easier to comprehend. On the other hand, distributing lecture handouts or posting them on the internet (which, luckily, most lecturers do) is a detail making a world of difference to my learning; while taking notes often helps me focus, it is easier to learn from a lecture when I know that not managing to write down every single piece of information will not mean missing it. Also, the fact that a lecturer is prepared to put in some extra effort making the handouts somehow convinces me that he or she really cares about the students.

Yet another important criterion is the eagerness to lecture in the actual language taught (even if the topic is not strictly linguistic). At the end of the first year we had a series of lectures about the contemporary social issues in Spain. Most students still felt they could speak hardly any Spanish at that stage, so it was to our genuine horror when the lecturer announced she was going to speak in Spanish exclusively. The great horror soon gave way to an even greater surprise and satisfaction, as we discovered that somehow we were able to understand virtually everything! I am still not sure whether it was the lecturer's distinct, careful pronunciation or her faith in our skills, but within several hours she managed to work wonders for my confidence in the language. Similarly, my French language lecturer explained to us in the beginning of the second year that he intended to use French, not English, even to deal with the organizational issues concerning the course – 'because using English for the »important« problems would convince us we were not able to handle French' – and although frustrated at first, I have gradually grown to appreciate his efforts; needless to say, French is not as scary anymore, since I encounter it all the time.


As I think back to my first days in Scotland and realize how much I have learned since then, I am convinced that my expectations have been met, and it has all been worth it. The lecturers have proved friendly and dedicated, clearly finding pleasure in sharing their knowledge, but also allowing the students to form their own opinions (not just learn those in the books by heart and recite them!). And if they can make me listen to a lecture in a foreign tongue, my face flushed, my eyes bright, after several hours of tiring tutorials on a Monday – I often feel there is not much left to ask for.