I am a PhD student. I've never taught a lecture-style course before. I just filled in for my advisor at the last minute, giving a lecture in an undergrad course.

I taught from the lecture slides that my advisor had prepared, drawing diagrams and examples on the whiteboard where I thought it was warranted. I stopped often and asked if anyone had questions, and if nobody did I posed questions to them, e.g., "What do you think is the benefit of this system over that?" "What did you learn about X?"

My impression was that approximately 30% of the class was pretty engaged, asking and answering questions, etc., 50% were taking notes and paying attention but not really speaking up, and the rest were zoned out. I think this is normal (from what I remember from being an undergrad), so I thought I was doing OK.

However, towards the end of the lecture, a few students said that I was going much faster than normal. And, I did get through more slides than my advisor said I should expect to, so they're probably right.

My question is:

What clues do you look for to "read a room" to tell that you're going too fast, even though people seem to still be "getting it"?

What can you do to slow down, beyond asking if anybody has questions and bringing up more examples (I can only think of so many examples)?

I am asking specifically about teaching undergrads, because I think they are more difficult to read than postgrads, or senior academics in the audience of a conference talk. But I would appreciate answers that apply to the latter scenario as well.

Also, I understand that things like clickers and discussion groups can make a difference, but I am asking specifically how to improve my lecturing, not how to restructure classes so I spend less time lecturing.

A related question is How to improve myself as a lecturer, where one answer says "Never assume that students follow you" and suggests you "see if they get the idea, sort of get the idea, or don't get it at all." I tried to do this, and it seemed like the students that were willing to engage were "getting it." Apparently they were getting it, but I was still going at a speed that made their heads hurt :)

  • Practice. Or, if you want to get really technical about it, you can read up on all the literature and tips for avoiding teaching/tutoring illusions and biases (illusions of common ground, illusions of goal alignment, etc.). Technically, if it's your own class, flipped classrooms are probably empirically better anyway (i.e., record lectures and assign them as homework, facilitate exercises in class). Lectures are inherently inefficient for maintaining the right Zone of Proximal development, so even if you optimize, it will be so-so.
    – Namey
    Feb 14, 2014 at 19:10
  • @Namey I do intend to practice and find out what works well with my teaching style. Starting with the specific strategies suggested by the more experienced lecturers here will hopefully make my learning curve less painful for my students. And, I wouldn't feel comfortable with "advanced" techniques like flipped classroom when I haven't even gotten the basic lecture down yet.
    – ff524
    Feb 16, 2014 at 20:58
  • Learn from actors' workshops: their voice training exercises, breath-control exercises, mirror acting techniques, hand gestures, etc. Read their notes, as they may help improve your style of lecturing. Their notes are invaluable to lecturers and public speakers. An actor friend once helped my sister who once lacked confidence in teaching in class. He taught her much. As result, she manages unruly students and class clowns and tactfully puts them in their places.
    – user92331
    May 25, 2020 at 7:00

5 Answers 5


In my experience it's easy to be misled by a few good students who are able to engage with you and answer your questions. This doesn't mean the majority of students feel the same way of course. I always try and bear in mind the weakest (and often the quietest) students in the class and try and not be lured into accelerating due to a few bright sparks at the front.

Asking if there are any questions or bring up examples is a good way to try and gauge the classes response. But if the class is shy or unresponsive (as is often the case initially) I find it very hard to know whether I'm boring the pants of them or they're completely lost.

A simple trick is to give a short relatively straightforward exercise and ask everyone to do it there and then. It should only take a minute or two. You can then briefly walk through the students and ask them how they are getting on. It should become obvious if many of them are struggling. Walking among the students and directly interacting with them isn't going to suit everyone though and if the class is large (or the seating is inaccessible) it will be more difficult. But it's crucial to get some feedback and if that means taking a more proactive approach then why not? I make sure to smile and encourage them since some students will be nervous if the lecturer asks how they're doing.

  • 6
    clickers or simply polling the class via asking a simple true or false question is another way of getting feedback from the whole class. Give me a 1 on your fingers if you think the following is true, 2 for false, 3 for unsure. There hands will be low so they won't be drawing attention to themselves if they get it wrong. Feb 14, 2014 at 17:12

There are probably many different solutions to your problem. I will focus on what you could consider with your presentation. I think it is very easy to be too fast: you know the material, you feel awkward if there is a silent moment, nervousness/adrenalin kick etc. So there is a basic property of lecturing that prompts one to go faster than we may think.

When using slides you present ready written material for the students to copy. This means they write things while you speak, and what they write may not be what you are talking about. As a result they may split their focus and get confused. In the old days, the lecturer usually wrote on the board while talking. Hence students saw, heard and wrote the same material in the pace it took the lecturer to write it. I do not think the lecturer managed to talk about one thing while writing another, so the whole lecture hall was in sync and at a pace most could follow. This automatic adaption mechanism is partly lacking today, and it is possible to overload slides. It is of course possible to provide slide sheets of the slides to the students, but that will not promote a slow-down per se, and I do not think it helps understanding either, because students tend to not take notes as a result (I have no proof of this, but it is my experience when using such sheets).

So if possible, I think breaking up your presentation to lecture more interactively on a white board may help, apart from breaking the monotony of a slide show. To do breaks with questions is a very good way to keep students focussed to continue with that. You also need to think about what students need to take notes, so that they actually have a chance. Finally, I would recommend you to take a course in university pedagogics. In many countries in Europe, such courses are mandatory for teaching and also a requirement when applying for positions. I do not know how this applies in your neighbourhood, but having a course in pedagogics is never wrong; hopefully you can find one.

Finally, reflecting on these matters is good, and you gain experience as you teach. There are also scientific sources such as the Journal of Higher Education and Higher Education Quarterly. There are many other sources, and a search on Google scholar on relevant keywords should give additional useful hits. Hopefully your university allows access to some of these journals.

  • 1
    Re. "pedagogic": I've taken classes on teaching adult learners. One instructor made a point of using the term "androgogic" -- as opposed to "pedagogic" -- to emphasize that we were teaching adults, not children.
    – Martin F
    Feb 14, 2014 at 22:16
  • Agree that teaching from slides definitely makes things worse, but it does help keep the lecture organized - I've taken classes with instructors who totally lost the flow of things when they went off their slides However, I could probably get the organization of slides and also the benefits of whiteboard teaching by preparing a thorough lecture outline that covers both the content in the slides and "interactive" portions on the whiteboard.
    – ff524
    Feb 16, 2014 at 21:19
  • 1
    @martin, off-topic but as etymological choices go, this is far worse: paid(eia) can mean training and can mean child, but andro- primarily meant and means male.
    – user12019
    Feb 17, 2014 at 12:53

It sounds like you've done many of the things that one should do in lecture to feel the "needs of the room". Well done ! It is indeed true that undergrads are harder to read for the reasons you mention.

How long is the lecture ? When I teach 80 minute lectures, one piece of advice I was given that I continue to use is to force a 5 minute break in the middle regardless of how I think the room is doing (I have an alarm on my phone set for that time so that I don't forget). The five minute breaks allows students to get some water or take a bathroom break (things that can impair concentration), and it also gives people time to reflect on what they've been hearing and ask questions more "privately". You can also recap the first half of the lecture when you restart.

In a 50 minute lecture, you might find this less useful. However the typical attention span of a person is around 15 minutes (based on numerous studies that I don't currently have citations for - sorry JeffE), and so even in this shorter setting, forcing a break at around 25 minutes might provide the same kind of reset mechanism.

While this doesn't solve your problem entirely, it's a low-cost solution that can be used without extra work/prep.

  • It was an 80-minute lecture. I didn't give a "real" break. I am used to grad classes that run for 3 hours with a break at 80 minutes, so it seemed weird to me to break in middle. I did stop lecturing for 5 minutes in a natural break between topics to talk about other things (e.g., schedule of upcoming lab assignments), to give them a chance to rest from note-taking. But this wouldn't give the very important benefits you point out. I'll definitely plan a 5-minute break in middle next time, thanks for the advice.
    – ff524
    Feb 16, 2014 at 21:27

One of my favorite teachers during my undergrad program was my honors mathematics professor. I originally started taking honors classes in high school precisely because I hated slow-paced classes, and was sick of the boredom. Overall, this move didn't spare me entirely, of course...but in that particular math class, the pacing was wonderful. It might not have been if it wasn't an honors course, but that wouldn't have been my professor's fault: it would've been a matter of the rest of the class preferring a different pace than me.

This professor always kept in tune with the class' preferences across a variety of differently challenging topics in a very straightforward manner: he polled the classroom at the end of (nearly) each lecture. It only took a fraction of a minute. It might've gotten just a little bit irksome, but I'm sure it paid off. There were times when the majority was less than happy, and the method often revealed some difference of opinion. After a few weeks, we got quite used to his polling system, but it could've been introduced quite plainly in one day with a PowerPoint or scale of voting options drawn on the blackboard. Simply, his options were: too fast, just right, too slow, and if he felt it necessary, he would sometimes add way too fast or much too slow as a fourth option or follow-up question. The class would vote by show of raised hands. For the most part, people weren't too shy to vote, even if it was to express uncertainty.

This might not be the case outside of an honors course, where I would expect academic self-confidence and participation in general to be weaker...but I tried this a bit myself when teaching an upper-division (non-honors) psychology course at a separate university halfway across the country (USA). I varied the structure of the questions a bit too much, and was occasionally confusing as a result, but would usually make an effort to introduce the options I had in mind before taking votes. I got a lot of good feedback about a variety of concerns this way without even realizing that the classroom was clicker-equipped, much less with any effort to set them up or read their results.

Other functions of in-class polling:
In one particular class, I asked late in the quarter, "How many of you aren't getting the grades you want, but feel you are keeping up with the lectures and reading material and don't know what else to do?" Then, "How many simply can't keep up with the lectures and reading material?" More people answered affirmatively to each than I was comfortable to see. This was probably the most useful feedback I received in the entire course, including course evaluations afterward (the only institutionally mandated form of feedback, sadly) and my own open-ended, short written response question administered halfway through about each student's primary concern with the class. For the people who didn't know what else they could do, I reviewed the variety of resources I'd made available to them, and suggested a few ways in which they could help each other study by using the normally available systems the university provides online, including a Q&A forum and wikispaces for student-coauthored study guides. For those who simply couldn't keep up, I slowed the pace overall, held a review session outside the normal class hours, and made the final test somewhat more forgiving. I wish I could say it was enough for those students, but at least I can say I tried everything I could think of, and as a result, it could've been worse.

  • Glad I was helpful! I agree my last point was less about adjusting on the fly, and more about adjusting your pace halfway through, and alternate functions of the polling strategy in general. Glad you found it useful too. I'll edit a little subheader in to clarify my reason for mentioning it. Feb 17, 2014 at 5:06
  • I'm late, but what is an honors lecture?
    – And
    Nov 17, 2022 at 11:54

One thing I've done in the past but no longer have need of – because I have restructured my courses to do less lecturing and more in-class activities (which you said you did not want to do) – is to simply help the students communicate non-verbally.

At the start of class, I used to tell them: "OK, I know that I know the material well, and I know you are unfamiliar with it, but I don't know how unfamiliar, so there will be an issue of how fast I am going. I can't stop all the time and ask, so here is how you can tell me to speed up or slow down: If I see everyone nodding their heads up and down I assuming that you are saying, 'Yes, I understand that.' This will make me speed up. If I see you stop nodding, then I will assume you are saying, 'I think I might understand that, but I'm not sure,' and I will start to slow down and start repeating myself in various ways to make sure you get it."

After this introduction, I would start. I started with the simplest material, and everyone was nodding. I started going faster. 75% still nodding; the others were asking questions of those 75%. No worries. I started going faster. Well, eventually, I was covering material so fast, everyone stopped nodding and stared at me with their eyes glazed over. We took a 5-minute break and continued.

All-in-all, actually, it worked quite well, other than the fact that I ended up going as fast as I did. As Peter wrote, we naturally speak about our subjects far faster than students can absorb the information, so having some signs from the students is exactly what we need. My suggestion is that you don't guess the signs, but rather you help them to understand how they can control the speed of the session.

  • Explicitly telling the students how to communicate is a good idea. I don't think the nodding thing would work with my class, though - too many students are not willing to engage in the first place. Nick Stauner's answer, which is the same general idea, might be more suited to my audience of jaded NYC undergrads.
    – ff524
    Feb 16, 2014 at 21:38
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    Haha, indeed. Class composition matters a lot. And the hour of the class. It's much easier to be a rock-star lecturer around 3 PM than it is around 8 AM. I still know of no good solution for teaching early morning classes to hungover/studied-all-night undergrads.
    – Namey
    Feb 16, 2014 at 23:21

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