Presenting and explaining course material clearly and concisely can encourage students to more effectively process and retain course content. Since this item focuses on teachers’ explanations of material, the following hints are phrased in terms of lectures. However, these hints can apply to other instructional formats such as managing group work, the publication of study guides or notes on course web pages, and technology-based presentations, particularly in distance learning.
Don’t make assumptions about what students know. Gather information about the students in your class such as their year in school, major, related courses and prerequisites they have completed. Administer a short diagnostic pretest or background knowledge survey to identify what topics or skills students already have mastered (6, 7). After preparing class notes, review them carefully and ask yourself what might students find hard to follow and what examples might make a concept clearer. You might highlight the parts of your presentation that students are likely to find difficult and make a special effort to make those points very clear.
Define what you want students to learn. Let students know in advance what you expect them to do with the information presented. Some faculty preview learning goals by posting them online before class or on a PowerPoint slide at the start of class. This provides students with an outline or list of questions or problems that will be focused on during class.
Define new concepts and terms. You cannot assume that students will know or remember concepts and terms from prior courses. If you use a term for the first time, define it. If it is not defined or defined poorly in your paper or electronic textbook, look at three or four other sources to find the clearest definition and give it to students. Handouts or slides also should include new terms, complex formulas, and the like.
Use metaphors and analogies. Well-chosen metaphors and analogies can help relatively abstract course content become more concrete for students. They also help students connect new ideas to ideas they already understand. For instance, you might say that the atmosphere of the Earth is like a windshield—it lets in certain kinds of energy (like visible light) while blocking potential dangers (like meteoroids in the case of the atmosphere, bugs in the case of the windshield) (8).
Stress a few major points per class. A key to explaining clearly is to limit the amount of material covered in a single class meeting. Undergraduates, particularly lower-division students, do not need to be exposed to the subtleties and complexities of a discipline. This will only confuse them. Be selective. It is helpful to focus on three to five main points. Since repetition leads to learning, repeat major points several times in different words or with different examples.
Signal transitions. Include explicit transitional statements and signposts. For example, when introducing theories of how people learn, the instructor might state, “Now in the second point I will discuss the theory of deep learning.”
Select suitable examples. Choice of examples is important; students tend to remember examples that connect to their prior knowledge, and that are relevant to their interests and everyday life. Search for examples that clearly illustrate the concept at hand—from the popular press as well as professional journals.
Use multiple modalities. Since different modalities (verbal, visual, written, aural, and so on) activate different parts of the brain, when students encounter new material in several different ways, they’re in a better position to make sense of it (9). Consider how modalities not commonly used in your discipline might enhance your students’ understanding.
Ask students to test their understanding. Stop the class session every 10 or 15 minutes. Ask students to work with the concept or idea presented by solving a problem, analyzing a scenario, or generating questions or related examples.
Summarize key points. Summarize major points at the end of class or ask students to do so. Immediately after class, write comments on your class notes about what didn’t seem clear to students. Use the notes as guides for revision the next time you offer the course.