Instructor Insights

Preparing and Updating Lectures

In this section, Prof. Hazel Sive describes how she prepares and updates her lectures.

"Preparing a new lecture usually takes me 20-24 hours, and I always feel that the first time I give a lecture it’s really shaky, even if I’ve prepared it well."
— Prof. Sive

Lectures take a long time to prepare and update. Each lecture is 50 minutes long. Preparing a new lecture usually takes me 20-24 hours, and I always feel that the first time I give a lecture it’s really shaky, even if I’ve prepared it well. That’s a lot of time, but I would say that 10 hours of preparation for a 50-minute lecture is probably the minimum anyone should put in for a really decent lecture. The second time I deliver a lecture, I work on it for another 10 hours or so, and then it’s better, but I find—and I was surprised by this—a lecture is never done. There’s always something to improve or something new to add.

Conveying Essential Material

I begin planning each lecture by defining the general topic: What’s the point of the lecture? Then I figure out the sub-topics and the points within each sub-topic. For each topic, I ask myself, “What is the essence of this topic? What’s in the textbook, and what do the students really need to know?” They’re often not the same thing. In introductory biology, there’s no way we can teach everything, and we don’t try to teach a survey course. Instead, we aim to deliver the essence of each particular topic, the set of things that are really important to convey in the 50 minutes we have for each lecture. I try to go for the very basic, core concepts. They need to know the terminology or else they can’t truly speak the language, but it’s the concepts that they have to really get. Every year, as I prepare to give a lecture again, I revisit these questions.

As I define the content for a lecture, I also plan the progression of the lecture, transitions, and the medium I want to use for presenting each part of the lecture. Through this process, I aim to create a lecture that conveys all the essential material and engages the students, all within the allotted 50-minute block of time.

Board Notes

"It’s extremely helpful to know exactly what I’m going to write on every single chalkboard."
— Prof. Sive

Over time, I’ve realized that’s it’s extremely helpful to know exactly what I’m going to write on every single chalkboard. So, I make board notes. On my notes, I have a box to represent each chalkboard, and each box includes exactly what I plan to write on the board, in exactly the way I plan to write it. All the diagrams are there. In the 7.013 classroom, there are 12 boards, so I always plan to use no more than 12 boards. I try not to erase in class, because it’s so time-consuming and it’s hard to keep the students’ attention while erasing.

On the board notes, I also note what time I plan to be done with each board, so I know exactly where I should be in the lecture at what time. This helps me pace the lecture. I like telling jokes and playing around, too, but I have to keep moving in order to finish in the 50-minute time slot. The lectures are really action-packed.

It takes a lot of time to create and tweak the board notes until they’re ready to use, but they’re extremely useful for delivering an effective, well-timed lecture.

Slide Preparation

I make my own diagrams so that they’re clear and they show exactly what I want. But it can take hours to put a good diagram together. I also spend time looking for videos, images, and other resources to incorporate into the slides, in order to make a point or paint a picture that I wouldn’t be able to achieve on the chalkboard.

Updating Lectures from Year to Year

"Biology is constantly changing, and so all of our biology courses change from year to year. This is even true in our most fundamental courses."
— Prof. Sive

Biology is constantly changing, and so all of our biology courses change from year to year. This is even true in our most fundamental courses, including introductory biology. The content changes from year to year because it takes into account new ground-breaking discoveries; my current notes are substantially different from my notes from a decade ago.

For every lecture, I try to include something that is current and say, “Here’s this topic as it’s presented in the news.” I try to pick things that are kind of cool that get the students’ attention and make them understand this is living material. For example, in Spring 2013, we talked about the chemical weapons that were purported to have been used in Syria, and how we might view them in light of neurobiology. This isn’t material I’ve pulled out from some dusty shelf; it’s really living material. Sometimes I just include these snippets as part of the lecture, or I mention something I’ve read in the newspaper that is particularly relevant to the topic we’re talking about. Sometimes I highlight these connections with a PowerPoint slide, which allows me to show a news article or an image. On our class website, we also post current papers and articles that the students can look at.

Every year, I look at my lectures, find a set of four or five lectures that haven’t been substantially revised for a year or two, and I completely redo them. For example, I might take my three neurobiology lectures and ask, “What do these lectures teach? Is this really what I want to teach? Is this the best way to teach the material?” and then redo the lectures.

After I give each lecture, I make some brief notes as to what worked and what didn’t work, whether the lecture was timed properly, and whether I was happy with the diagrams. Then the next year, I revisit those notes and adjust the lectures accordingly.

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