Saturday, August 29

The Secret Recipe to Delivering World Class Lectures

"The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”
– Albert Einstein

Firstly, you might get annoyed with the term 'World Class' and I would perhaps, too. But at least it got you to this sentence, so it is working (until now!). Think of 'World Class' in this context as delivering exceptional or inspiring lectures, talks, presentations, etc.

Secondly, you might argue that we should get rid of lecturing all together to revive University learning to be relevant to the world beyond, as its' learning effectiveness is being questioned by many.

With that I totally disagree! If you argue that lectures do not facilitate effective learning, I can to a certain degree listen. But, that is if the criteria for lectures is only to disseminate knowledge. But if you ask me, I would argue that lectures is much more than simply vomiting out facts, concepts and ideas.

Besides that vomiting stuff, it is also about tickling the mind, nurturing curiosity, and inspiring students' to learn (how to learn). It is about discovering the joy for learning. It is about creating a connection and bond. It is about a learning exploration with the students, and sharing with them a story that means something. It is about presence and being a role model, letting them experience a way of how ideas and knowledge can be articulated, and so on.

In short, the lecture is the place where we should be inspired and triggered into a learning journey and adventure that is full of joy and obstacles. If we can inspire and nurture that learning passion into the students' mind, the rest is reasonably easy today, as they can basically access all the knowledge and tools (in many cases) they want with a few searches and clicks. Increasingly most of the amazing learning resources are becoming free (democratizing the access to knowledge), which you might discover even more so, after reading the rest of this article.

But the sad fact based on years of learning experience, and listening to all the noise around the world, education is increasingly becoming just a business, and students increasingly all over the world are experiencing crappy lecturers, lectures and education in general.

Let's just tackle the lecture for now. If we get the lecture right, students will be inspired to learn on their own...


So, how can we improve our lecturing ability fast?
Read articles about it (Search yourself!), visit and explore Harvard's Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, or any other freely available online resources from teaching and learning centres around the world, or perhaps attend training or tons of teaching and learning workshops.

These are all useful options, but not my cup of tea to real excellence. Especially, training and workshops often require heavy investments, if you want to get excellent educators to teach you a trick or two. Not all of us can access such opportunities, and if so, we have to wait for the workshop to happen, and that might be months down the pipeline.

Why wait? Why blame it on the University if our lecturing ability stinks. Why do we have to blame it on everything, except ourselves? The truth of the matter, whether the University is simply ignoring this issue, or being stingy, or perhaps don't give two hoops, is that we need to take action ourselves to make it happen.

So, why wait, let's master the art of lecturing with or without the University's help. Let's be lifelong self-independent learners. Isn't that what we expect from our students? No more excuses, let's be responsible for our own learning and lecturing. Welcome, to the...

NEW SCHOOLFive simple learning steps/phases, which can of course overlap anyway you like (image above):
  1. Explore
  2. Learn
  3. Innovate
  4. Feedback
  5. Reflect (back to Explore)
This learning cycle can happen within minutes using your mental reflection and visualization, or perhaps days, weeks, or months in the real world, depending upon how you apply this flexible learning approach. Actually, these steps are just indicators and do not need to be followed step-by-step. Just use them how you feel like it, or what works best for you. I am still learning, so these steps or phases might change even by the time I really finish this article. Alright, let's move on!

Besides all the other methods, content and junk mentioned, here is your new learning curriculum to master lecturing (No ABC, just have fun exploring and learning):
  • TED Talks
    Inspired talks by many of the world's greatest thinkers and doers.
  • Academic Earth
    Video lectures from many of the world's top scholars.
  • YouTube EDU
    YouTube has aggregated all of the videos from its college and university partners - including luminaries like Stanford, Harvard, and Dartmouth - in one place. Here you will find thousands of video lectures to explore and reflect.

  • delivers discourse, discussions and debates on many the world's most interesting political, social and cultural issues, and enables viewers to join the conversation.

  • WGBH (Free Public Lectures) Free live and on-demand lectures given by some of the world's foremost scholars, authors, artists, scientists, policy makers and community leaders.
  • The Nobel Prize
    It brings you fascinating insights into the minds of current and past Nobel Laureates.
  • Extend List... (Please refer to the Digital Media and YouTube Channels sections)

Oh man! Where to start?
Alright, since I have been exploring such lectures for a few years now, I will share with you some of my favorites to get you started. Below is basically a cocktail of educators (variety!), inspiring all sorts of knowledge in their own way. Please click on their names below for more of their videos or resources. For your convenience (to access real juice!) I have selected one lecture (or short talk/presentation) from each of the amazing educators below, which is worth exploring and reflecting. Please, focus on how they present and engage the audience (besides the content itself). Hopefully, you can pick up a few tricks on the way that will over time transform you into...WOW! Here we go (Not ranking, just numbering):

  1. Sir Ken Robinson (Creativity Expert)
    Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we're educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.
    Lecture: Schools Kill Creativity
  2. Michael Wesch (Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Kansas State University)
    Is most famous for his amazing work in the emerging field of digital ethnography, where he studies the effect of new media on human interaction.
    Lecture: An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube
  3. Walter Lewin (Professor, MIT)
    Is currently a professor of Physics at MIT. He earned his Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics in 1965 at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands...more
    Lecture: Measurements of Space and Time
  4. Hans Rosling (Global Health Expert; Data)
    As a doctor and researcher, Hans Rosling identified a new paralytic disease induced by hunger in rural Africa. Now the global health professor is looking at the bigger picture, increasing our understanding of social and economic development with the remarkable trend-revealing software he created.
    Lecture: The Best Stats You've Ever Seen
  5. Randy Pausch (Doctor, Carnegie Mellon University)
    He learned that he had pancreatic cancer, a terminal illness, in September of 2006. He gave an upbeat lecture entitled "The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams" on September 18, 2007 at Carnegie Mellon, which became a popular YouTube video and led to other media appearances. He then co-authored a book called The Last Lecture on the same theme, which became a New York Times best-seller. Pausch died of complications from pancreatic cancer on July 25, 2008 ...more
    Lecture: The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams
  6. Jill Bolte Taylor (Neuroanatomist)
    Brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor studied her own stroke as it happened -- and has become a powerful voice for brain recovery.
    Lecture: Stroke of Insight

  7. Sugata Mitra (Education researcher)
    His "Hole in the Wall" experiments have shown that, in the absence of supervision or formal teaching, children can teach themselves and each other, if they're motivated by curiosity and peer interest.
    Lecture: How Kids Teach Themselves
  8. Murray Gell-Mann (Physicist)
    Brings visibility to a crucial aspect of our existence that we can't actually see: elemental particles. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics for introducing quarks, one of two fundamental ingredients for all matter in the universe.
    Lecture: Beauty and Truth in Physics
  9. Vilayanur Ramachandran (Brain Expert)
    Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran looks deep into the brain’s most basic mechanisms. By working with those who have very specific mental disabilities caused by brain injury or stroke, he can map functions of the mind to physical structures of the brain.
    Lecture: Your Mind
  10. Dan Pink (Career Analyst)
    Bidding adieu to his last "real job" as Al Gore's speechwriter, Dan Pink went freelance to spark a right-brain revolution in the career marketplace.
    Lecture: The Surprising Science of Motivation
  11. Tony Robbins (Life Coach; Expert in Leadership Psychology)
    Makes it his business to know why we do the things we do. The pioneering life coach has spoken to millions of people through his best-selling books and three-day seminars.
    Lecture: Why We Do What We Do
  12. Elaine Morgan (Aquatic Ape Theorist)
    Is an octogenarian scientist, armed with an arsenal of television writing credits and feminist instincts, on a mission to prove humans evolved in water.
    Lecture: We Evolved From Aquatic Apes
  13. Seth Godin (Marketer and Author)
    Is an entrepreneur and blogger who thinks about the marketing of ideas in the digital age. His newest interest: the tribes we lead.
    Lecture: The Tribes We Lead
  14. Jeff Han (Human-Computer Interface Designer)
    After years of research on touch-driven computer displays, Jeff Han has created a simple, multi-touch, multi-user screen interface that just might herald the end of the point-and-click era.
    Lecture: Breakthrough Touchscreen

  15. Marian Diamond (Professor, University of California Berkeley)
    Expertise: General Human Anatomy.
    Lecture: The Human Brain and Muscular System
  16. Clayborne Carson (Doctor, Stanford)
    Expertise: African American History
    Lecture: Barack Obama's American Dream
  17. Paul Bloom (Professor, Yale)
    Expertise: Psychology
    Lecture: Introduction to Psychology
  18. Guy Kawasaki (Managing Director, Garage Technology Ventures)
    The Power of ‘No Bull Shiitake’
  19. Mehran Sahami (Associate Professor, Stanford)
    Expertise: Computer Science and Programming Methodology
    Lecture: The History of Computing
  20. Courtenay Raia (Lecturer, UCLA)
    Expertise: Science, Magic, and Religion
    Lecture: Newton and the Enlightenment
  21. Benjamin Polak (Professor of Economics and Management, Yale)
    Expertise: Game Theory
    Lecture: Introduction to Game Theory
  22. Eric Lander (Professor of Biology, MIT)
    Expertise: Biology
    Lecture: Genetics 1
  23. Benjamin Karney (Associate Professor of Social Psychology, UCLA)
    Expertise: Communication and Conflict in Couples and Families
    Lecture: Methods of Studying Families and Couples
  24. William Durham (Bing Professor of Anthropological Studies, Stanford University)
    Expertise: Anthropology and Darwinism
    Lecture: Darwin's Legacy
  25. Katharine Ku (Director of the Office of Technology Licensing, Stanford University)
    Expertise: Chemical Engineering and Intellectual Property
    Lecture: How Much is the Technology Worth?

Besides all these amazing educators, you should not hesitate to explore the likes of Stephen Downes, Obama, Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton, Garr Reynolds, or whoever (perhaps in your preferred language) that you find to be amazing. It is amazing what we can find freely available somewhere in the online learning galaxy.

Talking about online learning galaxy, here is bunch of other great collections of amazing lectures that you might want to explore:

Now, you might be asking for video examples of poor lecturing or presentations, but that I will advise you instead to visit some of your colleagues' lectures and talks (or perhaps your own! Record it!) and I wouldn't be surprised if you discover some great infamous examples there. If you do, please advise and guide them gently, but please don't keep quiet. It is going to hurt, but their poor performances also puts our profession to shame. Please, keep that in mind.

Last year, I wrote a 5-part series (using conversational language and humor), whereby I reflected specific teaching habits that inspire students out of learning. This 5-part series, basically reflects back the 5-6 worst lecturers that I ever had during my student days. Here we go:
Let's together solve this growing lecturing menace :)

Interestingly, after reading tons of articles about becoming great educators, I have noticed again and again that all the great ones, have in their own student days experienced great teaching themselves. In short, for us to become great educators (or to know what that really means!), we need to experience great educators and lectures ourselves.

However, now that we have free online access to hundreds if not thousands of amazing lectures (a few shared above), I believe we all have the opportunity to experience them at least virtually. It is not exactly the same, but we have access to more. I can live with that! And by doing so, we can try (let's ignore our struggling ego here!) to benchmark ourselves with these giants using whatever criteria we might set.

The trick here, is not to look first for their weaknesses, but to be open and immerse ourselves with all the positive little things that they do to inspire us. After digesting all the juice and picking up a few tricks here and there, we should also explore possible weaknesses in their presentations, which we should perhaps try to avoid in ours. But, please remember not to get too preoccupied initially with looking for weaknesses in their lectures (so that we can make our ego feel good!), and then miss out on all those little things that really matter. It is difficult, but let's try!

No one has ever become a great footballer by simply watching and reflecting videos of great footballers. The same goes for lecturing, so besides watching and reflecting, you need to explore, experiment, and continuously practice new things with your students to find the right algorithm(s) that makes them tick into action and learning joy.

I am not going to tell you what to try, instead just enjoy exploring great lectures, note down mentally or physically all the little positive things they do. And most importantly always have the guts to try out new methods in your learning sessions. Some methods might go horribly wrong, and some might be successful, or some might even have no impact at all, but that is a risk you have to take if you really want to improve.

Though, if you really try, trust me, students will eventually appreciate all your efforts. Especially, the Y and Z generation I believe will love it. In Y and Z shell, they love people that have guts, try the unexpected, and engage them to learn.

Innovating your lectures is not enough! You also need to continuously try to seek feedback from every single corner you can imagine, whether it is fellow-educators, students or strangers on the web (that have perhaps watched one of your lectures shared on YouTube or any other video channel available).

There is no harm in telling the students that we stink (perhaps in a gentler manner), and asking them for some verbal or written feedback, which could for example be posted in a online course forum (if you have one). Or perhaps ask them at the end of the class to write on a piece of paper the things they learned, or liked about the lecture, or things they didn't understand, or areas that could be further improved. If you make them feel safe about being honest, it is amazing how much constructive feedback you can receive by simply asking the people that really matter in the learning process.

Let's not take ourselves too seriously, and instead let's have some fun being criticized, including receiving those little negative feedback nuggets that really hurt our crumbling little ego. These negative feedback nuggets are actually the seeds to improve faster.

Finally, seeking feedback is not enough to improve the way we lecture. We also need to reflect upon the feedback acquired, and then again explore better ways of doing it, and then learn (practice) and innovate continuously until we practically die, or leave lecturing all together.

How can I:
  • Engage students more?
  • Nurture curiosity in the learning minds?
  • Facilitate more AHA-moments?
  • Create more interest in the subject?
  • Be clearer and more concise (writing this article!)?
  • Prepare better illustrations and PowerPoint slides?
  • Make the lecture more relevant to the student?
  • Etc.
One way we can bring our reflections to the world, is to blog about our learning and teaching experiences. Here are a few samples from ZaidLearn:

I suppose now I should be focusing on getting my PhD, but there is simply too much to learn at the moment to even consider this (Postponed to 2012 at least, unless I can find a way so that it gels with my love for discovering and learning about learning and using all sorts of educational technology).

After all my crappy learning experiences as a student, I have set a 99.9999% impossible mission (but possible in my imagination) for 2010, which is:

To rid the world from crappy lecturing by December 31, 2010!

I suppose you might argue, why not start right now. I suppose this post is a fire starter, but seriously I have to deal with myself first. And after exploring some of the educators and lectures I have shared above, I believe I need to spend the rest of 2009 to first improve myself. In a lecturing shell:


Let's together make the University (Colleges and Schools included) a better place to learn. It is amazing what we can do together if we collectively set our minds to it. Let's start with improving our ability to engage and inspire our students to learn :)

This article is still in a Beta version mode, so please come back again soon as it will probably evolve further over the next couple of weeks :)


AK said...

Thank you very much for this great article. You can also add

Thanks again

houshuang said...

Many good ideas, and I like the spirit of your presentation. I've always thought it strange that academics think it's the most natural thing in the world to have their papers peer-reviewed, but (most) would never dream of inviting a colleage to sit in on their class, and give them helpful feedback in the end.

We also need to rethink the course evaluation system - to have students give feedback is a sound idea, but the way it's currently done at most universities doesn't necessarily generate a lot of useful data.

Lot's to think about - and always strive to improve. If anyone have feedback on any of my presentations, feel free, and I will try to take it in stride! :) (

Unknown said...

Great post. Technology is enabling us to move effectively to a learner-centered world, but learning would seem dull to me without inspirational, thought-provoking lectures as part of the mix.

Neil LaChapelle said...

I am very much in the pro-lecture camp with you, with the same caveats, for the same reasons. Students who, despite their best intentions, literally fall asleep in some lecture halls will actually pay good discretionary money to attend other lectures in those same halls off-hours, when great public lectures are being delivered.

Lecturing is a performance art, and a vibrantly captivating one, when it is done well. The villification of that art is getting to be as boring as a bad lecture! It's so predictable.

Not every university professor can be a rock star lecturer like Hans Rosling (the undisputed statsmeister!), but they should all be held to at least the standard of a competent local cover band at a bar or party. It's unfortunate that z-list lecturers are thought to define the art.

Learner said...

Your post is really good. You have presented important information in a very systematic manner.
But, somehow I think that all these lecture delivering techniques / methodologies etc...
stand up at the level 2 in the list of recipes for delivering World Class lectures. The first and the foremost
quality needed is "Passion for lecturing", (Quality of being Passionate can be made mandatory for performing / excelling
in any role). If a lecturer, truly enlightens his Passion for delivering
each lecture, he or she can be proved to be a World Class lecturer, even if he / she has inadequate techniques, infrastructure, equipments etc...
(Note : I am saying "for delivering lecture i.e. for performing role of lecturer"
and not just being Passionate during delivering lecture - there is a difference - feeling of being Passionate can go after delivery is over)
Lecturer just needs to connect himself or herself to each and every individual student present in the classroom and needs to satisfy the students hunger / want for learning.
If the student gets exactly "what knowledge he / she wants" from that particular session, that student will surely attend each and every session of that lecturer.
Hence, please do let me know, whether you agree or disagree to my opinion ?

ZaidLearn said...


first, thanks for all the reflections and feedback.

Stian - as for course evaluation, yes I agree that the current course evaluation approach in many Universities is too obsessed with getting numbers (Wow, we averaged 4.2 on course delivery this semester. So, what does that really mean?), and most of the qualitative feedback, which can really make a difference is often ignored. Yes, there is a lot to be improved here :(

ssorden - Yes!

Neil LaChapelle - We have lot in common :)

Learner - I think I answer your question regarding the importance of passion in teaching here:

(with audio)

As for whether the lecture is world class or not, is rather subjective so no need to dwell too much open that issue (waste of time!).

As for whether passion for lecturing is needed, well maybe not initially.

For example, I might be passionate about teaching and learning, but I am terrified or hate giving lectures. However, my passion for teaching drives me to improve my ability to lecture and then as I improve my passion becomes stronger and stronger for lecturing itself.

Also, just passion for lecturing, might not lead to giving excellent lectures, just like people that are passionate about a sport like for example football (example), might never help them become a great footballer.

But then you have a lazy dude that hardly trains, but is a natural talent, who is really successful in playing the game.

In other words, some people are so gifted in lecturing that the passion to lecture might not be the deciding factor for them being excellent.

But in general, having passion surely helps and is a good initiator to improve, but it is not sufficient to be really excellent.

Finally, not many can fake passion or a great lecture (some can though!), so I agree that passion plays a critical role (to get you started), but then you need to learn from the masters to really become great.

So, do I agree with you? Partially :)

Cheers! :)

Shantanu said...

Well, I must say, an innovative approach, and definitely a good one. When people will get to see and read such articles over the net then it would really help many of them realize what quality education is! And it would also help people who wants to enter the field of education but are afraid of losing their nerve in their first class.

Thanks a ton & regards

ZaidLearn said...

Thanks Shantanu for your constructive and positive feedback.

Just wondering, are you Shantanu Narayen the current CEO of Adobe Systems?

Anyway, whoever you are, any feedback is useful feedback. Positive, negative, etc. it all helps us to reflect and learn :)

Warm Regards,


fireomen said...

Wow, very much researched.. Thanks for sharing this to all of us.


Anonymous said...

An insightfull post. Will definitely help.

Karim - Creating Power

Charmante_Leo_Farah said...

Thanks, this was very helpful & learning. Also makes you think of the place of not only learning but also who & how it is taught!

Moncy Varghese Kottayam said...

Its really great to follow you.
Hearty thanks for your valuable articles...

Moncy Varghese Kottayam said...

Its really great!!!