As a student, I almost always prefer when instructors use the board, rather than slides. As a relatively inexperienced instructor, though, I keep reverting back to slides (unless I'm working out problems), because frankly, it's a useful crutch.

Specifically, I find it difficult to teach from the board because:

  • When preparing a lecture, I know exactly what to do if I'm preparing slides. I don't know how to prepare to teach from the board. I'm not going to read off of lecture notes (what would be the point of me being there if I did?). I'm not experienced enough to teach a class without preparing something to keep me from rambling for 3 hours + scrawling gibberish all over the board.
  • I am uncomfortable spending so much time facing away from my students.
  • It's hard be effective at writing and delivery at the same time.
  • I'm concerned about legibility. This is partly addressed in Techniques for good board handwriting, but I'm also concerned about diagrams and drawings (I'm not much of an artist).

Any suggestions on how to overcome these issues and make teaching on the board easier? ("Practice" is always a good approach, but I'm looking to reduce my learning curve so that my students won't suffer as much.)

Related: In teaching, what are the advantages of using slides over doing board work?.

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    Weird. This question asks about advantages of slides, and all the answers are about advantages of board work. Now I'm asking how to get better at board work, and I get answers telling me why I shouldn't ditch the slides :)
    – ff524
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 18:45
  • In case this is an issue: are you a native-level speaker of the language you are teaching in? I can imagine teaching from an outline, or talking while drawing a diagram, would be much harder if it took any effort to think about the right words to say. Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 19:53
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    @AlexanderWoo I am a native English speaker. I am teaching engineering, though, and I do need to make a deliberate effort while speaking to use consistent and precise terminology.
    – ff524
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 19:55
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    @ff524 Ditch the slides.
    – JeffE
    Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 17:06
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    Just an idea: how about instead of a board, using an overhead projector and marker pen on acetate? Then you're still live-drawing when it improves the lecture, but a) you're facing forwards, b) writing is more like normal writing, c) you can have key acetates on your table drawn up in advance which you can look at to remind yourself not to wander off topic, and d) you have the option to use those ready-drawn acetates if you're running out of time or don't feel confident re-creating a specific drawing. Commented Sep 2, 2015 at 11:42

9 Answers 9


Indeed, a big question is how to make a "lecture" have more value than the text alone. After all, why not just print things up and hand them out?

First, to reiterate the obvious, much practice, a.k.a. "rehearsal", is necessary before one can do all the little things that make a live performance go better than a pre-recorded or lip-synced one. I do think those comparisons are apt.

That is, it's only when you've gone through the material so many times that you can remember it nearly effortlessly that your delivery of it could be natural, fluid, and unhesitant.

About technique: as other answers noted, don't let there be too much absolute-quiet while you're writing. Until you can learn to talk about what you're writing while you're writing it, it is best to write a little, talk a little, write a little. This also lets note-takers catch up. With practice, it seems possible to say a different thing than one is writing, although sometimes one's hand chooses a different syntax than one's hand, resulting in minor grammatical hilarity...

Indeed, be sure to spend most of your time facing the audience, looking people in the eye, etc. So, indeed, this leaves not-so-much time for writing, which, in fact, has (I claim) the excellent outcome that one is forced to choose "highpoints" only, to write, and then "discuss".

Altogether, I'd say write very "telegraphically", meaning no complete sentences, indeed, very few English (e.g.) words. After all, formulas can be written, while sentences can be spoken. The two mediums can complement each other.

I've recently stopped giving long, complicated proofs in lecture (mathematics...), but only giving the highpoints, with complete details available in PDFs on the course web-site. Often, I get the PDFs done in time so that students can either look at them during lecture on a tablet and use some mark-up software, or print them out (!?!) and mark on them.

Handwriting takes practice... Use your whole arm, make big motions. It's not handwriting, but arm-writing.

Every time you get a few critical things written, you can move around (which will result in better breathing, better projection, better connection with audience) and (expressively, both in intonation and body language) elaborate... referring to the on-line or off-line supporting reading material for finer or uglier details.

So, yes, some lower-level technique needs to be practiced, and also some larger-scale viewpoint made very clear in one's mind, so that one knows the "highpoints" vividly, and can nearly-effortlessly summon up and convey them. So, yes, I think it is possible (if one wants it, and if one practices) to make a "live" lecture have much more psychological impact on the audience than a mere text. (Or than reading a text out loud... which is what any sort of slides very easily degenerates into...)

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    I forgot to address "notes": I usually bring a pile of printed-out PDFs as "props", and occasionally to be sure some delicate details are right in formulas... but usually I will have mentally reviewed/rehearsed the lecture both a previous day and then again a couple hours prior to "showtime". That is, I try to visualize the pace and what will get onto the blackboard, etc. If I attempt to make outlines, I find that I often diverge from them, so they become distracting or useless soon into a lecture... Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 19:51
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    I've observed (as a student and as a TA) that many students think that taking notes means copying the contents of the board to your notebook. After the lecture, they can't understand their notes anymore because they failed to write down the essential details spoken out loud. Do you have efficient ideas to counter this? I sometimes remind that every formula I write on the board will be in the PDFs distributed to students, so you don't have to spend your time mindlessly copying these, but that may discourage making any notes (the students may think that I meant "please don't write anything").
    – JiK
    Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 9:29
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    @JiK, I do not have any good solution to the problem that many students are bad note-takers, and/or misunderstand what they should be doing. I do encourage my students to write both what I write and what I say, but many complain that they just can't... Thus, recognizing this "failure point", my written stuff has to be pretty complete, and, on the other hand, the spoken part will be heard, at least, and can have an impact that way (even if it is "lost" long-term by not making it into their notes). I'm reconciled to the fact that there is inefficiency and loss ... Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 12:51
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    @JiK a good lecture allows students to take good notes, meaning that it does not give more informations than it is humanly possible to write down, and it highlights what is important. But at some point students need to learn how to take good notes and the problem should globally be addressed by your institution, if students do not have this skill when starting to study there. It can not be solve solely by improving a lecture.
    – Kolaru
    Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 13:17
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    @Kolaru, in my experience, students simply do not believe that their note-taking outlook + skills could possibly be improved, so will not pay attention when "instructed" about it. Thus, it doesn't matter so much what is "possible", as what will actually transpire. Thus, my written materials and lecture. I suspect that the people whose meta-cognition is good enough so that they're good note-takers are also excellent at self-study, and hardly need me in the first place... Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 13:26

My answer addresses mainly your first bullet point.

I'm not going to read off of lecture notes

I take a variant of the "read off of lecture notes" approach when I want to use the board.

I create an "outline" for the lecture, which summarizes the key concepts I want to cover, along with some illustrative example problems that I want to work through, if needed. I divide up how much time I want to spend on each section of the outline and example problems.

(what would be the point of me being there if I did?).

If you use an outline as I've described above, the point of you/me being there is to bring the outline to life: the outline is not (intended to be) exhaustive. An outline helps keep me on track so that I'm not spending too much time on one particular topic, and to get a quick reminder of what I need to move on to from wherever I currently am.

But, the extra stuff that I add to the lecture that is not in the outline comes from my own experiences with the topic, such as: key pitfalls that previous students have encountered when learning the material for the first time, practical implications of the material we're discussing, and so on.

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    I'm a fan of teaching from the board with an outline and I like to have approximate time landmarks on the outline. Usually I work backwards through the outline to put times in. For example, if I want five minutes at the end of a 50-minute lecture for questions, then the last topic has :45 next to it, and so on backwards with my best guess at how much time a topic will need or how much I want to spend on it. Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 19:39

I don't know how to prepare to teach from the board.

I generally prepare an outline of the lecture, with the titles of the most significant points. When needed, I prepare also sketches of the most complex diagrams and of the longer proofs with the most significant equations. I do this mainly to keep the notation consistent. If I have to give precise definitions of a few terms I write them down too. For a 3-hour lecture, this material can take between two to six A4 pages, depending on the lecture.

I am uncomfortable spending so much time facing away from my students.

You should not. You don't say which subject you lecture, but if you have to write equations or diagrams, write or draw them in small pieces and in between turn your attention to the students and explain what you are doing.

This is actually the most difficult part, something that many people don't know how to manage. I noticed this when examining students at an oral examination: if, for instance, I ask them to describe how a dual-slope analog-to-digital converter works, most of the students firstly draw the whole block diagram and then, only then, they start to speak. This is something that you, as a lecturer, should avoid because it would mean losing the class.

It's hard be effective at writing and delivery at the same time.

The hardest part is to keep your boards neat: when starting to explain something think carefully at what you need later and try to write this stuff on a board apart.

I'm also concerned about diagrams and drawings (I'm not much of an artist).

Don't rush, draw slowly. In any case, if it can be of comfort, I discovered that students are good at obtaining very good, coloured diagrams from my messy black-and-white ones.


A technique that I've found useful is to write your outline on the board at the start, as a list of bullet points and leave it there for the whole lecture. Re-use the rest of the board area as you need to. It reminds both you and the students of the "big picture". You can "tick off" each point as you start or finish that section, to keep everybody "on the same page" and avoid any "are we nearly there yet?" feelings developing through getting lost in the details.

This can work over more than one "lecture" session. For example I give training courses that last a full nine-to-five day, split into several sections. It's useful to start off with something like "OK, to carry out this process, we need to do the following things: A, B, C, D, and E" and write them up as a list in a corner of the board. "We'll cover A and B this morning, and C D and E after lunch..." And if some of the details of A are only necessary because of E, you have a "road map" of the whole process on the board to refer to at any time you need it.

Of course the students will almost certainly have the "road map" already as part of the course contents and handouts, but during the course I want them to be looking at me and at the board, not shuffling through their paperwork.


I personally use slides and the board together when I teach (granted you need to have ample space to do so)

I use the slides as a point of reference for myself and for the main topics students need to know.

I then use the board to go into more detail of the topics and write/draw visuals and to elaborate on any student questions.

For example:

If I'm teaching about social media marketing on one slide the title may state "Most commonly used social media platforms" with the the information on the slide saying "Facebook" and "Twitter".

On the board I would outlines using Facebook and Twitter as a social media platform and may mention points that will later be seen on the slides.

I engage with my students a lot and stress all questions being asked (even stupid ones). If a student were to ask me "What about Linkedin?" I would then use the board to as a visual to what I'm saying.

I'm not experienced enough to teach a class without preparing something to keep me from rambling for 3 hours + scrawling gibberish all over the board.

Using slides with the board is my prefer method as I can have the slides as a reference while elaborating on a free-form way by using visuals. If your classroom has a lectern you may want to keep your own outline there as an additional point of reference.

I am uncomfortable spending so much time facing away from my students.

Completely understandable and I think this comes with practice. When I was taking courses I had instructors that would always face the board when writing but I also had instructors (I hope I can put myself in this category) that would write on the board, look back at students, write again. You can keep track of the students body languages with occasional head checks so you know you're not getting ahead of yourself. I think this is a matter of trial and error.

It's hard be effective at writing and delivery at the same time.

This is also something that takes practice. If you have the time, try to take a public speaking course that relies on speakers using visuals. This can give you a setting for constructive feedback where you may be showing visual images and writing words or phrases on a board. I did this while I was still a student and It's help me a lot throughout my career.

I'm concerned about legibility. This is partly addressed in Techniques for good board handwriting, but I'm also concerned about diagrams and drawings (I'm not much of an artist).

I, personally, have terrible handwriting (maybe because I'm left handed??) and when something is illegible it's rare for not a single student to mention it as there's almost always an avid note taker within the class. Drawings can be tricky if they're more complicated diagrams but try to simplify things. If you need to draw a car for an example just make a rectangle and put a label inside the rectangle if you really need to. Unless you're an art teacher, I think students will understand your drawing ability.


So, as with anything in teaching sometimes we have to adjust our styles to play to our strengths. I don't like to be turned away for a long time so I rely a bit more heavily on things like PowerPoint. Not as a teaching/presentation crutch but to display materials quickly without my having to write them out first. If that's not possible consider handouts or using some web-based learning system so you don't have to stop class to write out a list. And if you do need to turn to write something out, be sure and stop after each item to explain it and talk about why you put it up there. (Repeating the item name also takes care of your legibility problem.)

Yeah, you're gonna need some practice, but give yourself time. I think it takes three semesters to become a good teacher: the first to make a bunch of stupid mistakes, the second to over-correct for those mistakes, and the third to finally hit your stride. So don't be too hard on yourself just starting out.


I once took a class in Farm Machinery and Implements. The school was brand new and there were almost no books in the library. Students were not asked to buy textbooks. The instructor prepared his diagrams ahead of time (for example, showing how the tractor engine works) and would unroll them and tape them to the board. Then he would talk about his drawings. It seemed a little bit dinky but it worked well.

I visited a physics lecture recently where the professor used two overhead projectors and powerpoint slides. There were three screens. He would just walk back and forth to change the transparencies.

What I like about board lectures is that I can glance at the motivation and theorem statement in the first panel, glance at the proof in the second panel, and glance at the application problem in the third panel, and go back and forth at my own pace. With the scrolling slides or smart board presentation, I lose control over the scrolling, and I can't look back at what appeared two screens ago.

Unless you're in a 200-seat auditorium, I doubt you're going to be able to work with three screens. But you may be able to come up with a hybrid approach, with the sketches prepared ahead of time, on large paper and/or projected on a screen (either powerpoint or transparencies) -- since it sounds like the drawing is the part you're having the most trouble with.

Now, what sort of notes to have in your hand while lecturing at the board? To answer that, let's think about what makes a good powerpoint slide: stay away from full prose, and go for skeleton writing and bullet points. Well, you can do that too in the board lecture prep notes.

Do make sure there is something (outline or prose, it doesn't matter) available on your website that students can download after the lecture, so that they don't pay more attention to their notebooks than to you.

For a 50-minute lecture, you'll probably have three pages of notes to carry around with you as you move from panel to panel. You can staple them together at one corner, or use a binder clip.

Schedule yourself in a classroom that is unoccupied right before your class. Get there 15 minutes early and write some key material on the board before anyone gets there.

It's hard be effective at writing and delivery at the same time. It's okay to simply pronounce the words as you write them if there's something you have to write down with clarity and precision, such as a theorem statement. It's also okay to be silent. You don't need to be scintillating every minute of the class. There is a certain soothing effect to be had from allowing people's minds to occasionally have a little rest.

Make sure there are opportunities for give and take with the students. The more they are participating meaningfully, the less you'll feel like a fish in a fishbowl.

Be quite explicit about what material you want the students to have read before they arrive for that day's lecture. If you see that a significant number of your students aren't managing to do that, you may need to do some little quizzes or clicker questions to train them into doing the reading before class. (The minimal material you want them to read before class should be rather short -- to make this reliably doable.) This will help prevent you from feeling that you have to reproduce a textbook chapter on your blackboard.

If it's a class of 20 or less, let some students put some problems on the board sometimes. Everybody benefits from some blurring of the line of demarcation between instructor and students.

Ask a friend to come in and observe, to give you feedback. It doesn't need to be someone in the exact same field.


If you have any ability to influence the structure of classes or pick a class to offer, I cannot more highly recommend the instructional value of teaching the same course in two sections - even if it's just a 'lab' or 'discussion' session that you get to split into two.

My very first experience with teaching was like this, and there is a huge benefit in being able to "do it again" very soon after the first time you did something. I think it's better than having a year of experience, but all compressed into a single semester.

The first time you are teaching something, you really don't know what all is going to come up. What will student's find difficult or confusing? What joke will students think is kind of funny? What sort of questions will be asked? How much space do you need to cover a certain explanation, and can you skip some steps - or will those steps be what students want explained?

When you have never done it before, your instructional quality is based on improvisational skill as much as preparation. Sure, being prepared is important, but I found that beyond a not too hard to reach point I wasn't really preparing for a given class anymore, so much as just increasing the amount of material I wasn't going to be able to cover in the time allotted anyway. I was just too far from the point when the material was new and mysterious, as it was to be for most of my students, to know what questions to prepare explanations for.

However, when you get two sections you get a wonderful chance at a do-over - and you don't have to wait until next semester! You can test your preparation on the first section, and make improvements and some little extra preparation for the next section and see how that goes.

More often than not, I found that the questions in the first section would, over 90% of the time, be questions that people had in the second section. Sometimes I pre-empted the questions by revising how I explained the material, and sometimes I just waited for the question to be asked, exclaimed what an excellent question that was, and then was able to launch into a highly compacted and effective explanation of what had before left me sweating to explain in an understandable way. Equally enjoyably I got to improve the delivery of some of my jokes, which sometime resulted in a nice laugh - and others in a reminder that my sense of humor is not a human universal.

In the end I realized how the great teachers in my past had been able to answer some tricky questions so deftly and with such ease - I wasn't the first to have asked them! Teaching looked easy when they did it, because each time they did it they sought to get a little better at it.

If this multi-section option isn't available to you, I've known a few instructors that would actually ghost-teach the class to an empty room, writing out everything on the board they planned so they would now how to physically organize their thoughts, give themselves proper room and spacing, and so on. They would even take time to step back at a point and attempt to imagine what sort of question might come up at a given stage and write it down, even explaining it to the imaginary person on the board.

It beats going in cold, and they seemed to do a remarkably good job on material they'd never taught before (or taught only once).

TLDR; practice, practice, practice.


I keep reverting back to slides

If you already have the slides, you can use them as notes, without actually showing them to the audience.

When I started teaching, I prepared slides carefully, and it was very good as it helped me to thing everything over in detail, realize possible corner cases etc. But then I realized I didn't like presenting using slides that much and that using a board would be better. So in the next years, I just kept the slides as a private reference for me, explaining everything on the board.

Also: You can't completely avoid making mistakes - every teacher makes mistakes, a good teacher learns from them. It will happen that you'll say something wrong, or that you'll stay in front of your audience and won't be able to remember something. Just take with humor, learn from it and go on.

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