I hold a PhD in computer science. I've been travelling to conferences presenting my papers and sometimes as part of my teaching assistance duty, I had to give some very simple lectures to students.

I found a position as professor and researcher in a university, and I've been asked to deliver a "test lecture" on a subject I don't know to students from a different background than mine. There will be a body of professors evaluating my teaching skills as well.

I am in the process of preparing the lecture, and realised I am preparing it as a presentation. I was wondering, what should I keep in mind when preparing the lecture? I am used to present in front of (a lot of) people, so that is not a problem. I am also used to prepare presentations for my work, so I was wondering if there is something I should keep in mind while preparing/delivering a lecture which is different from delivering a presentation.

Thank you!

  • Partly related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/24461/… Nov 18, 2018 at 8:43
  • Thank you very much, it indeed is partially related and was useful to some degree. Yet, I would like to know what should I keep in mind from a "preparing the slides" perspective that might differ from my experience in preparing a presentation. I for example would go for a storytelling as I usually do for my presentations, but I feel like this is not the best approach when teaching.
    – Masiar
    Nov 18, 2018 at 8:53
  • I think that answers to this should be the same as answers to What makes a didactically effective lecture. It's possible that there are differences, in which case I think answers here should focus on the differences. Nov 19, 2018 at 10:26
  • 2
    Is this really a duplicate? The first question focuses specifically on short "model" lessons given to the interview committee, in the absence of students, and the second is a very broad question about teaching effectiveness. This is a longer sample lesson for students as well as the faculty committee, where the goals are for the students and faculty to evaluate the OP's teaching rather than to learn the content, so it's not going to be subject to the same requirements as either of those situations.
    – 1006a
    Nov 19, 2018 at 16:17

7 Answers 7


Off the top of my head, things that are different about a lecture rather than a presentation:

  • You're not simply relating stuff you did to your peers : You're teaching people who know less about the topic than you do (even if you only know what you got from the textbook when preparing!). So think carefully about the intended audience, and how to explain the concepts at the right level. This will take time. Fortunately...
  • You have time. You have an hour or more rather than (say) 15 minutes. This means you need to convey less content per minute, and you can spend more time building understanding step by step. Try to think about helping your students to develop a mental model that they can fit the new concepts into, rather than just telling them facts.
  • Because the students are having to assimilate completely new concepts, don't overcomplicate - keep the necessary cognitive load to a minimum by omitting unnecessary details. Don't lie to them, but it's OK to say, for example, "this is a simplification, but it's a useful way to think about it at this level. We'll come back to it in more detail later.".
  • Because you have more time, you'll also need to think more about (and spend more time on) structure. Think about pacing - don't talk for an hour. Instead, especially if you have a relatively small class, try to get some discussion going, or set an exercise. This may not be applicable for a demo lecture during recruitment, though.

If you have a small group (<25 or so, as may happen for postgrad courses) then it's more like a lesson than a lecture and things can be far more interactive.

  • 1
    Thank you for your input. I am afraid that the students won't be interested or too tired to interact (it will be this Friday late afternoon). I am trying to develop my slides in order to support what I am saying, like what I do when presenting my papers, but also trying to make a point by the end of a section to let the students understand the key points (I don't like bullet points but I see them as the only way to state something after I explained it with pictures like I usually do).
    – Masiar
    Nov 20, 2018 at 9:41
  • @Masiar no harm in bullet points in moderation, at the right time. IMHO one of the right times is a summary of the main point at the end of a lecture.
    – Flyto
    Nov 20, 2018 at 10:03

The more you know about your audience the better your presentation/lecture/class will be (not just on this occasion).

Will this be a regular class in a regular course, or a simulated class with some students and some volunteers or (I hope not) a group of professors pretending to be students?

Can you politely ask your prospective employer for information about your audience and the context? Is this a regular lecture? For what course, at what level? What have the students covered recently?

At the lecture, be sure to involve the students. Check that they understand the prerequisites for what you are covering. Ask if your notation matches what they are familiar with. This will take time. Don't worry about "covering all the material" - pay more attention to keeping the students engaged.

I have often thought and said, only half jokingly, that you should think of each hour's class or presentation as live theater. Your responsibility is to assure that your audience leaves thinking it was an hour well spent.

  • 1
    Thank you for your input! It will be a regular class. I have been asked to teach one hour during one a 3-hour class. I don't know much about the students except their background studies and their current curriculum (management engineering, I'm totally not an expert on that). The subject I have been asked to introduce is something pretty new and dislocated from their background, but it may be related with their future career. I will try to give a simple but effective lecture explaining all the concepts, trying to involve them with in-class exercises.
    – Masiar
    Nov 20, 2018 at 9:34
  • You're welcome. I suggest you be honest with them about the fact that the material is new to you too, perhaps suggesting that you enjoyed learning it and now can learn more together. Do stress "this won't be on the exam but may help you in the future." Note that students taking a three hour class will be tired/stressed when your turn comes, if it's not the first hour. – Ethan Bolker 1 hour ago Nov 20, 2018 at 14:39

I would like to stress Flyto's answer's last point — especially as OP stated "[I] realised I am preparing it as a presentation".

A lecture is (at least to me) not a keynote; you are not here to deliver knowledge (you then could just have them read a good book instead), but to make students gain knowledge/skills. There is a slight difference. This implies using educational techniques (pop-up quizz, Q&A, "off-line" exercises), and a lot of interactions.
It is then better (in an ideal world where you are not constrained by the limited number of lectures you can give to teach a subject) to teach well "5 points" only and students get 80% of it, rather than teaching "10 points" and students getting only 30% of it.
You should thus design your lecture keeping in mind: "Is this making my student get more knowledge out of my lecture?"

However, a test-lecture is not quite like a lecture neither. Your objective is not to make students get the most of your lecture, but to make attending professors think you are a good teacher. (The former is just one — among others — objective coming from the latter.) I would thus keep following points in mind:

  • make sure you master the subject you're teaching. You don't want to be telling false things (unless if you explicitly state it's a simplification for the sake of the argument, as discussed by Flyto).
  • demonstrate a large range of education techniques… but avoid turning your lecture into a showcase neither.
  • show that you care about students: interact with them, make them feel safe when they're asking questions, etc.
  • don't care about what students get from this lecture: I think it is more important that you don't "lose" any student (by, for example, teaching only "four points"), than wanting to make geniuses in one hour.
  • HOWEVER, you also want to show attending professors that you are a smart person. So you might not want to only skim the surface, but get technical at some point.
  • depending how you "feel" attending professors, either ignore them or involve them. I would rather advise the former. A good idea to know how you should involve them is to check where they are seating: in the back of the room (lecture is for students only — they are here only to observe) or at the front row (lecture is for them — students are just here to "fill the room").

I hope this helps. Here are some more concrete advice:

  • During the first 3–5 minutes, create a connection with the students: tell them about who you are and what is going to happen during the lecture, that they can ask questions… but most importantly, make them speak: what's their background, what they've learned so far, etc.
  • Dedicate a good 10–15 minutes to "funnel" into the lecture's subject: start with a very broad view of your discipline and zoom step by step into the subject of the lecture, so that it is linked to something and doesn't appear out of nowhere.
  • Pop-quizz at 2/3rd of the lecture.
  • Make them learn a small but non-trivial technique (depending on the context), so that you can easily quantify your added value ("They didn't knew how to do this, now they know"). The idea is that it's non-trivial (thy couldn't have easily figured by themselves), but easy enough so that 85%+ of students get it within 10mins.
  • Give examples. Tons of real-live examples, real case application of what you're teaching.
  • Spare 5 minutes at the end to wrap up and answer potential questions.
  • Finish on time.
  • 1
    This was a very helpful answer with respect to the context of my lecture. I should both keep in mind the students' involvement and understanding, and my teaching skills for the attending professors. I was already preparing the lecture following the bullet points you pointed out at the end of your answer - you just confirmed I was doing things more or less right :). I am not probably going to go for a quiz, but rather involve them into a (I hope) simple exercise regarding what I taught with respect to their future profession and how that could be of help.
    – Masiar
    Nov 20, 2018 at 9:45

You sound like you have a good grasp on how to present information to a large group, so I expect that you've already begun to find a style that works for you. I won't address those elements, then, even though they're important.

A presentation at work often involves people who are already attached to the project you're working on, and a presentation at a breakout session of a conference often involves some self-selection in the audience. You can already assume some level of professional engagement with your topic (or personal interest in it) from the people you're addressing. Academic lectures are different, though. One might think that students who have paid tuition to attend class are already motivated toward the topic, but that's not the case at all.

Accordingly, the most significant recommendation I can make is to address yourself to student motivation. How does your presentation matter to them or to their interests? To their patterns of thinking? To their work? Why do they need to hear what you'll be saying?

In other words, Why are you not wasting their time?

There are a lot of different reasons why people fail to address student motivation, but they invariably all end in the same place: disengagement. Even entertaining or clever presentations that feature the latest pedagogical practices fall flat outside of the few students who are intrinsically motivated or manage to grasp the material's importance without it being explained. It's not just making application. You need to connect it with something they already care about.

I often find that it's helpful to start with a set of questions or a brief exercise that exposes a common misunderstanding about the topic. Even better, this introduction will demonstrate that our usual approaches/analyses are contradictory or otherwise problematic. Once it's established that--"Yes, you too!"--the students have something to gain (or lose) from the presentation, then they're motivated to engage with me for the rest of the presentation. The exact nature of your demonstration-to-prove-relevance depends a lot on your specific subject, but I encourage you to construct it in such a way that the students discover its relevance rather than being told its relevance.

  • Thank you Philip, your suggestions were very helpful. I will try to motivate the students but also try to show the body of the faculty evaluating me how well I teach. I am hoping class involvement will be seen by them as a good index of my ability to teach. What I am afraid of is the class not answering questions or not interacting - it will be a Friday late afternoon and the students could be pretty tired.
    – Masiar
    Nov 20, 2018 at 9:38
  • Oof. Late Friday afternoon? That's a tough draw. I wish you good luck, @Masiar! Nov 20, 2018 at 20:49

Is it true that you have been asked to deliver a "test lecture" on a subject you don't know?

I find it highly unusual that you would be asked to lecture on something which you do not know well.

Lecture does a pretty poor job of conveying information. You want to think about crafting an educational experience for your students. A good term to google is "active learning".

  • I was surprised too. I was expecting a lecture about what I did during my PhD / my project rather than being given a paper and use it as a base to deliver a 45 minute lecture. Thank you for the suggestion about active learning. As somebody else pointed out, I need to both show that I know how to teach while keeping my audience awake.
    – Masiar
    Nov 19, 2018 at 18:47

IMHO, Professors tend to teach into one ear, and most of it comes out the other ear. You'll be lucky if the brain in the middle processes the information.

I would focus on giving your class the opportunity to learn something they would never know on their own.

That being said, if you want the position, perhaps it might be better to find out what criteria you're being evaluated on, and what would be a 10/10 score for each category? In academia, positions are more about whether or not you satisfy some or other criteria than actual learning. I personally love the Stamford computer science teachers because of their focus on real-world problems and understanding their audience.


As a student one format that I really enjoyed was:

  1. Overview and background on topic
  2. Explanation of problem
  3. Multiple examples
  4. Let students try one problem, usually this was different to the other problems, like with an edge case.
  5. Walk through problem with students.

For example:

  1. Overview of Automata in CS (what are they and why are they useful?)
  2. Explanation of Finite Automata
  3. Examples
  4. A slightly trickier one for students to try
  5. Walk-through

Change depending on time and some topics take multiple lectures to cover. Hope this is helpful ^.^

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