The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

2.2 Effective presentation

Students are likely to learn more if a lecture is well structured and well presented. Not every lecturer has a charismatic personality, but students can still be engaged and find the lecture an effective learning experience if thought is given to the structure and method of presentation. This section reviews four issues in planning the structure of a lecture: aims and learning objectives; overview and clarity of structure; use of examples and pace. The second half of the section examines three aspects of method of presentation: presenting graphs and equations; displaying material; and using videos. The section concludes with some observations on dealing with disruption.

Aims and learning objectives

It has become commonplace for lecturers to give the aims and learning objectives at the beginning of a lecture, usually in the form of a PowerPoint slide, an overhead transparency (OHT) or a sheet of paper displayed on a visualiser. One of the main drivers for this has been university ‘quality’ procedures and accountability to external bodies, such as the QAA, and the stress placed on making intended learning outcomes transparent. Whilst it is good practice for students to see the purpose of what is to come in the lecture and what they are supposed to learn, beginning the lecture with a bullet list of aims and learning objectives in educational jargon can be a 'turn-off' for students. It is important to communicate in 'student-friendly' language. For example, if the learning objectives of a lecture include an understanding of a particular economic theory – its properties, its assumptions, how it can be applied and what its limitations are – then state this as such, rather than in terms of, say, the development of cognitive or analytical skills. It may also be helpful to the theory by looking at the problems and issues it can address.

The format of lecture objectives also gives students an indication of the approach to learning that is expected of them. For example, an objective in the form ‘Movements along and shifts in the demand curve’ implies that students are required to memorise a list of causes and how to depict these on a simple diagram. An objective ‘Analyse changes in the demand for consumer products using a market demand curve’ implies that the focus of assessment will be on understanding examples of economic behaviour in practice. The signals communicated by these objectives may indicate to students whether surface or deep learning is expected.

Top Tip 2: Students need to comprehend why they are being taught what they are and how they will subsequently be assessed on it.

Overview, contextualising and clarity of structure

At the start of a lecture it is even more important to give students a sense of how the lecture fits into the syllabus and how it follows on from the previous lecture. A ‘lecture map’ on, say, a PowerPoint slide or OHT can be used to outline the structure of the lecture in terms of main topics, issues and theory. This summary can be referred to as the lecture progresses, helping to retain and reinforce the students' grasp of the lecture's structure. This can also be referred to at the end as part of a brief summary of what has been covered.

Top Tip 3: If you give the students a 'lecture map' on a PowerPoint slide or OHT, this can be referred to as the lecture progresses, thereby helping to retain and reinforce the students' grasp of the lecture's structure. This can also be referred to at the end as part of a brief summary of what has been covered.

Use of examples

Brief up-to-date examples, or appropriate historical examples, can make the lecture much more interesting for students and help them to see the relevance of theory. Careful thought should be given to the number and nature of examples. Too many examples and the students might not be able to 'see the wood for the trees'; too few examples and the material could appear dry and disconnected from reality.

Examples could be very short: for example, reference to some current news item or to some real examples of something (e.g. of actual firms when discussing market structures); or for a quantitative lecture a very brief worked example. Students' understanding of economic concepts is likely to be much better if they can relate them immediately to the concrete. There is an opportunity cost of using examples in terms of time not spent covering additional material, but again, if the success of a lecture is to be judged in terms of learning outcomes, this may be a cost well worth incurring.


Pace is crucial to the success of any lecture. It is very easy for lecturers to imagine that if something has been said, then it has been understood and absorbed by students. Part of this mindset is the perception of students as receptacles: ‘At the beginning of the lecture, you lift the lid on students' heads, pour in an hour's worth of knowledge, close the lids and the students walk out an hour wiser than when they arrived’. Although we all know that this not how students learn, we are frequently faced with the dilemma of how to ‘cover all the material’ in the lecture. Too many lecturers, when faced with the approaching end of the lecture and still having a lot of material to cover, talk faster and faster. The problem stems from two main sources.

The first is that courses have become tightly structured to meet the requirements of auditing and quality assurance. For example, each lecture’s content might be laid down in the course handbook. This can remove the flexibility of being able to vary the pace and content in response to student feedback or current events.

The second is an increasingly crowded curriculum. Whilst we strive to keep courses up-to-date and include new theoretical developments, policies and applications we are reluctant to delete an equivalent amount of old material. Take the case of a core level 2 Macro module. If we want to look at the development of macroeconomic theory, do we include both classical and Keynesian analysis, the monetarist critique, the rational expectations revolution, new classical theory, real business cycle theory, new Keynesian theory, including DSGE theory, post-Keynesian analysis, models to incorporate inflation targeting, such as the Romer model with aggregate demand considered as a function of inflation rather than the price level in addition to the traditional AD/AS model, the lead up to and aftermath of the financial crisis, the reassessment of theory and policy in the light of the crisis, the importance of balance sheets and regulatory frameworks, and so on? In other words, do we keep adding new developments to the existing course? Our module specifications say that in lecture x we will cover topic y, and yet in topic y we want to include more and more each year. What is the solution?

The solution is not to speak faster and faster! Students would almost certainly end up learning less, not more. Either you have to reduce the syllabus content so that it can be covered in sufficient depth and at an appropriate pace within the lecture time, or you have to abandon the notion that the lecture should be used to 'cover' all the material. If this latter is to be the solution, then you have to plan carefully how the lecture fits in with the remaining parts of the students' learning. Is it to be used to introduce topics, or to go thought the core theory, or to give pointers or examples not available elsewhere?

Pacing is not just about covering an appropriate amount of material. You will have to decide just what you want students to do in lectures. If you merely want students to copy down notes, it would probably be more efficient to give them the notes as a handout, or post them on your Intranet (unless a key purpose of the lecture is for students to learn the skills of rapid note taking, in which case some specific instruction in the process would probably be a good idea).

Presumably, you will want students to understand what you are covering, to see its relevance and to be motivated to learn more. In that case, the pacing must take account of this. The planning and delivery of the lecture will need to balance demands on students' writing, listening, watching and understanding. It is too easy to put up a completed OHT, a sheet full of material on a visualiser, or a complete PowerPoint slide and then start talking about it straight away. What are the students to do? Are they to copy it down or concentrate on what you are saying? If you want them to take something down, it might be best to pause while they do so, especially if it is something they are unlikely to grasp immediately.

An important part of pacing is recognising the attention span of students. This tends to drop off quickly after 20 minutes, unless the students are particularly excited or fascinated by what you have to say (see Bligh, 1998). Part of the solution lies in varying the pace through examples or anecdotes when attention is likely to flag. You could vary the use of visual materials, so that sometimes the students would be concentrating on them and at other times on you; sometimes copying things down and at others just listening or composing their own notes. The key is to inject light and shade: to vary the tempo, the nature of the material and what is required of students. Alternatively you could move away from the lecture being solely a talk and engage the students in various activities. Some suggestions are given in section 2.3.

Presenting graphs and equations

If you are using PowerPoint slides, an overhead projector or a visualiser, an effective way of presenting graphical or mathematical material is to give the students a half-complete diagram or proof which is completed in the lecture. For example, if you were presenting a model which shows an initial equilibrium position and then the effects of a shift in one or more curves, you could give the students the initial position on a handout (with or without the equilibrium marked) and ask students to complete the diagram. This is particularly useful for complex diagrams, such as general equilibrium diagrams. Not only does it save time by avoiding the need for students to copy down the initial part of the diagram, but it also ensures that students can focus on the key points you are making. It is also likely to mean that the finished diagram that the students are drawing is accurate.

This approach allows learning to be an active, yet efficient, experience. Learning is likely to be more active if you ask the students to complete the diagram or proof first and then you go through it. But even asking students to copy down the additional material is likely to make learning more active and effective than students rushing to copy a complete model. If they are copying the key parts (e.g. the effects of a shift in a curve), they have more time to reflect on what is happening in the model.

Resources provided in this way may cause problems in terms of cost and equal opportunities. Can your department afford to make copies free to students? If you make them available electronically, what will you do about students with no personal access to a PC or a printer, or who simply forget to print them off beforehand or cannot be bothered? Is it acceptable to sell these materials to students? One solution adopted by several departments is to produce detailed course handbooks with lecture outlines. These outlines could contain the partially complete diagrams and proofs. The handbooks could be sold to the students at cost, with all students expected to purchase them. However, this practice incurs up-front cost in preparation time, and reduced scope to amend the teaching programme in response to student feedback.

Displaying material

Whether using the whiteboard/blackboard, a visualiser, OHTs or PowerPoint slides, it is important to give careful thought to what you want the students to do. In lieu of any other guidance, students will assume that you intend the displayed material to be copied down. If used well, visual materials can considerably improve learning by providing a clear structure for the lecture. If the structure remains on the screen, or is referred back to at the start of each new section, students will find it easier to see how the various parts of the lecture are related, even if their attention wanders for a period of time. Similarly, if students lose the thread of an argument, they will be able to pick up the thread from a ‘lecture map’ presented on a slide or board.

But how much material should you display? If you display a lot, students will spend a relatively large proportion of the lecture simply copying things down. Is this an efficient use of their time? Would it be better to give them a handout or post the material on the Intranet or VLE (such as Blackboard or Moodle)? If you do want them to copy things down, then you must allow enough time for them to do this.

An advantage off using a board is that your writing speed imposes a natural brake on the rate at which students have to process new information. However, if you are talking while you are writing, students will have great difficulty in listening to what you say, copying what you write, and adding notes on what you are saying. Also, some students may find difficulty in reading your handwriting, or in hearing what you say if your back is turned while you are writing. To some extent this can be overcome by writing on a sheet displayed on a visualiser, but students may still struggle with some lecturers’ handwriting.

If you use PowerPoint slides or OHTs, the problem of note taking can be worse, as the slides are already complete. Too often, lecturers display a slide and then start talking about it straight away. What is the student to do: copy the slide or take down your comments? For experienced lecturers, this may sound obvious, but it is easy for all of us to fall into the trap of expecting students at one and the same time to copy a slide and to listen to our commentary on a slide and annotate their copy of it accordingly.

One solution to the time constraint is to give students your lecture slides in advance, whether in hard copy, or as Word, PowerPoint or other file. If the slides are merely headings, the students can then make their lecture notes under them.

Top Tip 4: Whatever media you use, it is important not to display too much material and to give students time to take things down.

If you are using PowerPoint, you can animate your slides so that bullets or paragraphs or stages in a mathematical demonstration appear one at a time. Similarly you can animate graphs by having lines appear one at a time. They can easily be made to shift in the required direction. A little playing around with the 'Slide show', 'Custom animation' feature can enable you to display diagrams in an interesting and effective way. Increasingly, textbook publishers provide OHTs and/or PowerPoint files of lecture outlines. While these can save you time in preparation, there is the danger that they can make the lecture too 'pre-programmed' in a way that does not necessarily match your style of delivery or the content you wish to cover. In this respect, PowerPoint files are clearly much more flexible than OHTs, since you can customise them to suit your particular lectures.

If you do use the animation features of PowerPoint, be careful not to make them too ‘whizzy’. The animation should be designed to help understanding, by, for example, showing the direction of a shift, and not distract the students from the model’s properties and the points being made.

It is also important, especially in diagrams, to make a consistent use of colour. For example, original lines could be in one colour, initially shifted lines in a second colour and further shifted lines in a third colour. Alternatively, one type of line (e.g. revenue curves) could in in one colour and another type (e.g. cost curves) in another colour, and so on. Shifted lines would be in a lighter or darker version of the original colour. Either scheme, if consistently applied, makes it much easier for students to understand what is going on in a diagram.

Use of videos

Many lecture theatres permit the playing of DVDs or streaming video clips through the lectern PC or laptop and data projector. Videos, if used with discretion, can add substantially to the impact of a lecture.

Two important questions to consider in using videos are ‘What length of clip should I use?’ and ‘What are the best sources of video material?’ If the video is being used to illustrate a point it is best to keep the clip to no more than five minutes. This change of media and pace can aid students’ concentration and help them to see the relevance of points you are making. Even with a short video clip, the relevance of the clip may not be obvious to all students. You may well need to introduce the clip so as to prime students about what you want them to gain from it.

Top Tip 5: Video clips, if used carefully, can considerably enhance student learning by helping to contextualise material through the provision of examples. By providing interest and variety in a lecture, they can increase student motivation and interest.

Sometimes you may wish to show a longer extract. For example, you may wish to use the video as a case study. There is a potential problem here. With the exception of videos made for educational purposes, the pace and structure of the video may make it difficult for the student to make notes. If this is the case, you might find it useful to display some bullet points on an OHP while the video is playing. These could help to make the structure of the video more transparent.

One of the most effective uses of video is to give a topical illustration of a point or to set the scene with something in the news. Probably the best sources here are news magazine programmes, such as Newsnight on BBC2 and Channel 4 News. Other broadcast sources include Panorama and The Money Programme. Alternatively, you could stream clips from news sites, whether from broadcasters’ sites or from newspaper sites.

Most universities hold an ERA (Educational Recording Agency) Licence. This allows free use of TV material for educational purposes. The licence permits you or any other university employee to record programmes off air at home or at the university, to make multiple copies (e.g. for depositing in the library) and to compile extracts. You can edit, but not adapt the recordings. You can show all or part of a programme, so long as it is for educational purposes. The DVD should be labelled, 'This recording is to be used only for educational purposes'. Open University recordings require a separate licence. There is no licensing scheme to cover cable or satellite broadcasts and you are free to copy and show these. It is advisable to check with your university the precise nature of what you can and cannot show.

Dealing with disruption

Hopefully, you will not experience this. If you do, you need first to be aware of why the disruption is occurring. It is likely to stem from lack of student involvement and boredom. While it would be nice to think that you are so charismatic that this could never occur, the solution lies not so much in how good a performer you are, but rather in what the students themselves are being required to do in the lecture.

If they are merely being required to listen for an hour, they are very likely to get bored unless you are a superb entertainer. To keep students engaged, try the following (several of which are examined in more detail below):

  • ensuring that they have a clear understanding of the structure of the lecture and its relevance to the rest of the module;
  • changing the pace;
  • giving students different activities (such as short questions to test their understanding);
  • making it possible for them to take notes by not going too fast;
  • making careful use of visual aids;
  • illustrating points with examples;
  • giving them one or two short breaks.

Sometimes, students studying economics are doing so reluctantly, either because they had no choice (e.g. they are studying an economics module as a compulsory module on a non-economics degree) or because the subject has turned out to be different from what they had expected. The solution here is to focus on the relevance of the subject to their degree and more generally to important social issues. If they can see that economics grapples with real-world problems, and if what you are doing with them helps them to gain a better understanding of these problems and possible solutions to them, they are likely to be much more sympathetically disposed to studying the subject.

If, despite the above, students are disruptive (by talking, leaving the lecture, coming in late, etc.), then deal with it directly. If you ignore it, it will probably get worse. First try talking to the whole lecture group about your expectations of them and why 'good behaviour' is vital. Then, on any subsequent occasion when disruption occurs, address the culprits directly and, if necessary, ask them to leave.