Teaching and Learning Development Unit

Activities for lectures

If the presentation you have to give is more than about 20 minutes long, it is important to break it up with some activities. A short break or change of activity will help students to consolidate the material you have delivered and will also help them to concentrate for longer. Here are some examples of breaks and activities that you might use in lectures with some possible ways of introducing them. These notes are adapted from First Words from the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, with some additional suggestions from Sussex colleagues. 
Your discipline, the topic and the level of the students will determine which are most relevant or practical for you and your students:

  • Regaining attention - establish a clear signal beforehand: 'When I flash the room light off and on I’d like to get going again'.
  • Rest: 'OK, take a break for a minute -- stretch or move about, but don't leave the room'.
  • Read your notes: 'Take two minutes to look at your notes. Check them, fill in gaps, make sure you understand them'.
  • Share your notes: 'Share notes with the person next to you to compare what you have both written about. You may spot things you could add to your notes'. Be sensitive to anyone who may be dyslexic.
  • Write down one or two questions: 'I'd like you to write down one or two questions you have at this point in the lecture. Get the question exactly right so that it addresses what you are really interested in or confused about'.
  • Ask your questions: 'Take the questions you have written down and ask them of the people all around you until you have satisfactory answers'.
  • Tackle a problem: 'Tackle this problem I am displaying on the screen'.
  • Read some material: 'Read the case / text / poem / account ... on the handout'. Be sensitive to anyone who may be dyslexic.
  • Answer a question: ‘On the screen is a multiple choice question. Take a moment to decide which answer you think is best. Raise your hand if you think answer a; and answer b; and answer c?’ or ‘Everyone stand up. If you think the answer is ‘a’, sit down; if you think the answer is ‘b’, sit down; if you are still standing, you are right!’
  • Discuss a question: 'In pairs, discuss the following question'.
  • Take a short test: ‘In your handout, you will see a quick test which will help you to assess your understanding. Take 4 minutes to answer the questions, then swap your answers with your neighbour and mark each other’s answers from the sheet I’ll show on the screen.’
  • Apply this concept: 'In threes, analyse this case / problem / text using the concepts I have just outlined'.
  • Reflection: 'Take three minutes to think about what we have dealt with so far. Stay quiet so as not to interfere with others' reflection'.
  • Planning: 'Take two minutes to plan out what further work you need to do on this topic -- what you need to read, try out, get practice on . . .'
  • Forming an overview. Towards the end of the class: 'What do you think were the two or three (whatever is the appropriate number) key points made in this class? Write them down and compare notes with your neighbour. I’ll ask for some ideas in a moment.’
  • Think of examples: ‘Now we have seen the theory, what example can you think of to illustrate it? Discuss your idea with your neighbour and be prepared to share the example which you think best fits the theory’.
  • Brainstorm: ‘Shout out all the factors that you think might be important in…. I’ll jot down keywords now and we’ll discuss them in a moment.’
  • Video clip: ‘The video clip you are about to see contains several examples to illustrate the theories we have just discussed. Be sure to note down the examples so we can compare them afterwards’.
  • Podcast: ‘The clip you are about to hear contains an example of recent research which uses the concept we have just looked at. Jot down any thoughts you have on how this could be expanded to a different area’. Quality Podcasts are readily available, see for example http://www.nature.com/nature/podcast/index.html for weekly excerpts from top stories in Nature.
  • Research Critique: ‘The data I am showing on the screen was obtained using the method outlined in your handout. In threes discuss how effective you think the research design has been.’
  • Estimates: ‘On your own, estimate (the proportion of the population with cars; the accuracy of these instruments; the cost of social services; the number of known beetle species etc). Share your estimate with three other people sitting near you.’
  • Comparing: 'Now I've outlined these two theories, what are the most important similarities and differences between them? Make notes on this for a couple of minutes'.
  • Prediction (part way through a derivation of proof): 'What is the next stage? Note down what you think it will be'.
  • Setting a question (more advanced): 'What would be a good question which would test your understanding of what I've said so far?'
  • Engagement with the debate (1): 'I've presented one theory or model. Suggest one way in which it could be tested empirically'.
  • Engagement with the debate (2): 'I've presented one theory or model. Offer one critique or counter example.'
  • Vote: Either use an electronic voting response system or a card flash or show of hands to get students to vote on their preferred choices to a question.
  • Annotate an image: Give students a copy of an image/diagram and get them to annotate it in pairs so that they engage with the material before you cover it. Get feedback from pairs and run analysis as a discussion.
  • Sandwich it: Give a lecture style format for 15-20 minutes, sandwich in a 15-20 minute activity for the class in groups and then wrap up with a 15 minute lecture slot.
  • Speed Dating: Use the fun but time limited, concise communication style of speed dating to get students interacting with each other to share a question or idea. 
  • Acting: In this case from sciences, students are asked to act or role play the part of a wire/current/particle in physics or different atoms in chemistry to illustrate what happens when…
  • Demonstration: Give a demonstration asking for a couple of student volunteers to help you. For example, in medicine, using balloons and tubing to demonstrate lung function with different conditions. Or in Law, create a real dramatic incident in the lecture theatre using a colleague or PhD student. Then use the student reactions to highlight issues with eye witness accounts.