Lecturing tips: the walk, chalk and talk approach



I gave my first university lectures about 25 years ago. I was rather young at the time. The lecture hall was off Free School Lane in Cambridge and it was one of the places where there had been famous scientific discoveries.

The demonstration bench was still there, enormous and solidly ominous. When I entered the room, the students, in their third year of tripos (or what other universities call “finalists”), carried on talking to each other. I put my stuff down on the bench and turned to see a vast blackboard stretching almost the entire way along the wall. I could still faintly see some other lecturer’s formula. It wasn’t E=mc2 so I couldn’t make it out.

I picked up a piece of chalk and turned back to the students, about 60 in number. I shuffled with my papers and tried a little cough. This was all to no avail, so with a clap of the hands I announced “Right! Let’s make a start…”

With dawning surprise, or horror maybe, they realised that I was the lecturer.

From that inauspicious start I began upon a lecturing style that has served me well down the years, despite changing fashions in the academy. This is “walk, chalk and talk”. It is just as it sounds. I walk up and down, occasionally write things on the blackboard (or whiteboard, if there is one of those instead) and talk. Simple.

I have never shown overheads or PowerPoint slides. I have always got high student evaluations. Yet things have changed around me.

I once had a student write: “Tell that woman to stand still, where I can see her.” That was creepy, let alone the very idea of someone “telling”  “that woman” how to lecture.

Gladly, this happened only once. By and large my students have been fans of how I do things. Over the years, some have even brought their friends from other subjects along. The method works in the sense that in addition to the students saying they enjoy it, they do well, they thrive on the course and, yes, most get good grades at the end.

So, how do I do it? I don’t dance or sing. I am not an entertainer. But the students enjoy it nonetheless. I get the notion that this is a performance so I try to put on a good show.

First, I spend time rewriting each lecture every year. I never give the same lecture twice, so they are always fresh. Obviously that is time-consuming but I take my teaching seriously and I think that my students deserve the best, so I do it anyway.

I try to be interesting in my lectures. Many of them are in ethics or political philosophy with subject matter that lends itself to being engaging. This is not so for everything I have taught, however. I am enthusiastic whatever the topic. Philosophy is the love of wisdom after all. Yes, this takes effort and especially in the depths of winter or when you’ve had a poorly kid up in the night.

I also work the students in my lecture. I do what I can to get them, while in the lecture, to think for themselves. One can find a thoughtless contrast of “walk, chalk and talk” with “student-centered learning” these days.

Evidently all learning is student-centered, so the thing comes down to a claim that “walk, chalk and talk” sets up passive listeners who don’t really learn. This does not happen in my lectures. They include questions. I don’t give out answers. Students have to come up with their own. They take these further in supervisions and essays.

The University of Cambridge has continued to invest in a supervision system in which staff devote longer teaching hours to small group teaching (one to four students) than colleagues at comparable universities. In mine, we usually have a cuppa and break our heads over some problems.

Anyway, back to the lectures.

My students learn to listen. They don’t take down verbatim notes. They listen and think about what I am saying and write stuff down from time to time. I tell them that they won’t understand everything, not at the first hearing.

Some bits are harder than others too. I only say things worth their time. I don’t expend valuable lecture time on things such as biographical information. I get straight into doing some philosophy, presenting arguments and suggesting ways of responding to them. I don’t stick in naff references to things that I think will resonate with the students either. I do smile and laugh, and sometimes I crack a joke if one comes to mind. I link one lecture to the next and the overall lecture course has a movement to it, becoming intellectually more challenging as it goes on.

We hear from Kant “I sit daily at the anvil of my lectern”. I don’t, I walk up and down.

In the days when I wore heels, this involved some clickety-clack. I ditched the heels. Lecterns remind me of pulpits and I am not there to preach. Walking up and down, the students are invited to focus on what I am saying, rather than on looking at me. I want them to enter a space of rigorous and deep thought in which they think for themselves. Nobody has fallen asleep yet!

Most importantly, the lectures are not about me.

I don’t teach my own stuff. There’s nothing worse than a lecturer who puts their stuff on the reading list and then lectures about it. Worse still are those who develop their own philosophy by inflicting it on students.

There are stories like this of Wittgenstein’s idiosyncratic style. He sat in a deckchair, his students on the floor. He sat with his head in his hands, or shaking his head and mumbling, from time to time looking at the students and saying something like “thinking about thinking”. He would break off in the middle of sentences and glower.

This was a seminar rather than a lecture but I can’t see his having lectured any differently. I have known academics whose lectures involve similarly pretentious and frustrating antics. I also strive to offer a fair version of what any particular philosopher has written, unlike Bertrand Russell who, in his first course of lectures at Cambridge, occupied himself with telling the students what he thought Leibniz should have said.

I have loved giving my lectures over the years and remember each cohort of students with fondness. Some stay in touch. They work in all sorts of jobs. I am glad to have offered them the model of a woman walking, chalking and talking with confidence and passion. No props or gadgets have been needed.

Author Bio: Claire Grant is a philosopher and lecturer at the University of Cambridge.