Conveying large amounts of material efficiently and clarifying complex ideas

February 11, 2019

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Tyler VanderWeeleTyler VanderWeele, John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Epidemiology, uses lectures to integrate and illuminate core concepts, bringing new insights to students and sometimes for his own scholarship in the process. His courses—on religion and public health, on applied statistics, and on research design—often cross disciplinary boundaries and involve unexpected combinations of ideas.

The benefits: VanderWeele believes that lectures can be profound learning experiences for the audience and the lecturer alike when they can convey large amounts of material efficiently and clarify complex ideas. Often, no textbook exists for what VanderWeele aims to achieve in his courses; instead, he uses lectures to synthesize dozens of articles by leading thinkers for students. His students are also “really, really grateful” to have the accompanying lecture notes to review for their exams.

The challenges: Creating compelling lectures requires a significant investment; VanderWeele spends at least 10-15 hours on each, “making sure I’ve mastered as best as possible all the nuances, offering clarity of thought, and newness of ideas.” By the same token, “it’s very easy to give a bad lecture,” due to inadequate preparation.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Build a way of thinking. VanderWeele prioritizes by asking: “what concepts are essential?” With statistical methods, for example, he deemphasizes memorizing equations in favor of cultivating a deep understanding of the approach to data and being able to recreate understanding. He emphasizes boundaries, interpretation, and assumptions, to shape “critical evaluation,” which may only take shape over the course of a semester.
  • Know your audience, know your material. Consider what will be surprising to your learners, and what structure makes most sense for them. Sustain and re-ignite attention if it wanders: “sometimes I just pause and see if they engage more deeply, or I ask a question, or even make a joke—some kind of break to continually get them back.” Being responsive to questions requires deep internalized knowledge of the content. Before each lecture, VanderWeele reviews his slides, thinking through his explanations and revising as needed.
  • Generate feedback for improvement. To VanderWeele, “delivery matters a lot—it’s a bit of an art, but something one can practice.” He periodically observes his lectures by video to discover ways to improve: “although it can sometimes be painful, it is also joyful to see the things I am doing well.” Early in his career, he often rehearsed lectures in advance, which allowed him to “be more conscious of what was going on and reflect on what I could do differently.” He also has worked with a coach, who observed him and offered suggestions such as “communicating with more variation—with hand motions, pace, tone, or volume.”

Bottom line: Well-crafted lectures can build connection across disciplines, synthesize cutting-edge ideas for learners, and bring value to their creators: “presenting new ideas has opened my mind to new thoughts. It can be quite exhilarating for myself, and for students as well.”