The 5 Minute Lecture

By Scott Knecht

One night in graduate school I went to the opening session of a new class. It was a bit of a different schedule – 2 nights a week for 4 hours per night for 4 weeks – so I had to get mentally prepared to endure the length each night. Little did I know the adventure that awaited.
The teacher walked in at the appointed hour, called the roll, then said “Let’s begin”. He opened his very thick notebook and started to read….. and read for 4 straight hours, minus the mandatory 15 minute break in the middle. This was a lecture in it’s darkest, most numbing, most monotone form. If I said it was horrible, that would be a very kind upgrade. I don’t think I was the only student in the room hoping for an earthquake, a flood, a fire alarm, or the zombie apocalypse – anything that would stop the torture.
At the end of the evening I wrote the teacher a note which in essence said ‘thank you for your efforts but could we please be able to ask questions and have some interaction’. I handed it to him on the way out with my signature on it. The next meeting (I should have done some deep meditation, yoga, or tai chi in order to prepare mentally and physically for it) he began the session by saying “On Monday night one of you handed me a note asking for time to have questions, so, do you have any questions?” He looked around for about 5 seconds and when no one said anything he said “I didn’t think so” and he opened the notebook and started reading again. And for the next month, that’s what we did each night.
That is a true story and I think it captures the general perception we have about lectures. If a teacher says “We’re going to have a lecture tonight” most of us shrivel up and shut down. We have been trained to think that lecture is a bad form of teaching. But in the right doses and at the right times, it is very useful. Think of it as teacher presentation – a way for the teacher to get some information out, some facts and figures that will provide a necessary and useful baseline in the class period.
Not everything in a class should be or needs to be student discovery. Sometimes I just need to tell them something but I struggled for a long time to do it effectively and in a timely manner. Then I discovered the beauty of something I came to call The 5 Minute Lecture. I just stumbled onto it one day in lesson preparation. Here is how it works:
1. The lecture goes no more than 5 minutes. I appoint a student to be the time keeper and commission her to stop me at 5 minutes and not a second longer (I have never gone over).
2. I speak in a regular pace – it is not rushed to squeeze things into 5 minutes. And during the lecture I am the only one that can speak.
3. I will have outlined some part of the text to lecture on – a chapter or so that the class needs to be exposed to – and that is the basis of the lecture.
4. The students have to have the text open so that they can follow along and mark things. Obviously they need a pen and paper handy.
5. I tell them that during the lecture I will highlight the information they need to be aware of and pose some questions for them to chew on – they need to mark the text and take notes as necessary.
6. Their last assignment is to come up with one question related to the lecture and text so that after the lecture is over (no more than 5 minutes) they can start asking questions. Sometimes they will not have a question but just a comment or thought. That too is acceptable.
When I give the timekeeper the nod she and I start together. I will have practiced it once or twice beforehand so I know I will keep within the time and still say all I need to say. The lecture becomes the basis for that class period and perhaps one or two more. If done right it exposes the class to information and serves as a tease to get them to wonder more. And the students generally enjoy it because it is short and effective.

I only use the technique 3-4 times per semester because I don’t want it to become stale but when used well it is a wonderful tool to get things going.

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