In Defense of Lectures? II (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part IX of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part III, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, X]

[NB: In the first half of In Defense of Lectures? I note how most modern lecturing is mischaracterized and discuss the basic principles of an active learning environment.]

Defenders of the didactic lecture format will often point to a widely popular lecturing style seen on the internet – TED Talks (Technology, Entertainment, and Design Talks).[1] These talks typically combine the spoken word with various media (audio, video, image), thus resembling a tech savvy university lecture. The reasoning follows that college and university lecturers should emulate these TED Talks to best capture the attention of students.

Yet, TED Talks also keep a relatively tight time cap at 18 minutes, a fraction of the time for a typical university class period. What is our aspiring lecturer to do in the face of a 55 minute – or longer – lecture?

The emerging consensus seems to advocate for 10 to 15 minute blocks of “classic” lecture (i.e. straight presenting) divided by some sort of class activity where students reflect upon or apply the lecture content. This blend is often represented as an interactive lecture-tutorial hybrid, sometimes referred to as “lectorials” or sometimes “lecturettes.”[2] The assumption is that students will reset their internal “attention clocks” through these interspersed activities. Then have another 15 minutes before students attention precipitously wanes. Tick-tock tick-tock.

I would like to reflect on this for a moment. To me, the scenario above seems to conflate two different concerns. First, interactive teaching-learning activities (TLAs) are typically implemented in order to allow the students to deepen their knowledge of the concepts – this is what transforms the passive learning environment of the classic lecture into the active learning environment of the flipped classroom. It seems odd to me that TLAs would be considered “dead time” where students recharge their attention clocks.

Secondly, the worry over the attention span of students is a very different matter – one that is not based on empirical studies. A recent analysis offered by Neil Bradbury criticized the magical 10-15 minute window, summarily noting:

“A review of the literature on this topic reveals many discussions referring to prior studies but scant few primary investigations. Alarmingly, the most often cited source for a rapid decline in student attention during a lecture barely discusses student attention at all. Of the studies that do attempt to measure attention, many suffer from methodological flaws and subjectivity in data collection. Thus, the available primary data do not support the concept of a 10- to 15-min attention limit. Interestingly, the most consistent finding from a literature review is that the greatest variability in student attention arises from differences between teachers and not from the teaching format itself.”

Interestingly, and as other recent scholarship has shown, the ability to captivate the audience is not due to the format of the learning environment, but the performative ability of the instructor. Unsurprisingly, a bad performance can turn even a 5 minute lecture into an interminable affair. Eleanor Sandry makes an astute observation that educational research frequently excludes personality and rhetorical style from the quantitative evaluations of pedagogy, thus leaving the lecture to be uncharitably characterized as dead learning environment.[3]

I do not think it was accidental that the champion of the didactic argumentative style, Aristotle, was also the champion of rhetorical techniques (noted in our last post). According to Aristotle’s analysis of rhetoric, cool-headed logical persuasion (logos) was most effective when it was combined with emotional flourish (pathos). Academic writing, for better or worse, trains young scholars to avoid emotive expression in favor of logical argumentation. Yet, the ability to craft a sound argument is not the sole criterion for devising a good lecture that holds attention.[4] The performance, or acting if you will, of that argument in front of the class also matters.

Thomas Buchanan and Edward Palmer also pose an interesting critique on the anti-lecture paradigm – much of the current research focus on STEM disciplines, especially the applied sciences, where skill acquisition and demonstration is paramount. What of disciplines where interpretation is the primary skill? It can be argued that the act of interpretation necessitates the acquisition of large amounts of contextualizing information – of which the lecture is most effective at disseminating. Additionally, in the disciplines of history or religious studies, narrative creation and story-telling is not only central to their research agendas, but also in their classroom deployment, thus making lecture a valuable modality of pedagogy.[5]

Outside of having students engaging with higher-order thinking, a better argument for breaking up a lecture into segments than attention (or performance) deficit involves “cognitive load,” the idea that our working memory can manage a relatively limited amount of information at one time. Load increases based on the difficulty of the material itself (intrinsic cognitive load), the elements that aid in the information processing (germane cognitive load), and the elements that potentially distract from the information (extraneous cognitive load). Cognitive capacity diminishes not at a set point in time, but at a certain threshold of information – thus it is advised that we pay closer attention to the difficulty and amount of information provided, than merely the time it takes to present it.

Grist for the Mill: I am in no position to settle these arguments – and certainly wish to read more stimulating research – but it seems to me that if your goal is to simply deliver data, especially to students who have very little background, then lecturing would be entirely sufficient. If you have any performance chops or can craft a good story, that lecture could certainly last far longer than 10 or 15 minutes. More importantly, we should pay attention to the quantity and difficulty of the data, and intersperse activities accordingly so students can work with the data in more encompassing ways in order to form a better comprehension of it.

Yet, if we want students to do more than simply recognize and recall facts, or in other words to perform certain skills (such as interpretation, analysis, assessment, and so forth) we need to allow them to practice those skills in a more active classroom environment and this is where lecture falls flat.


*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] E.g. Freisen 2014, Bradbury 2016.

[2] The concept of the lectorial, punctuated with 10-15 minutes blocks, is discussed in Cavanagh 2011.

[3] Suggestions for livening-up a lecture include watching motivational or charismatic speakers (Bradbury 2016), and incorporating paralinguistic expression and kinesics (non-verbal voice qualities and bodily movement)(Sandry 2006).

[4] I am unaware of any studies that look at the reception of the classic lecture that is ritually delivered at almost every academic conference. If there are apologists among my readers who claim that you enjoy conference lectures, and consequently students should learn to enjoy all classroom lectures, please let me suggest this. The conference papers you enjoyed are either performed by charismatic scholars or are related to your deeply invested academic interests. Imagine at a conference I asked you to take copious notes on a poorly performed presentation of which you had no background knowledge. Then, after you sat bleary-eyed through the presentation, I would give you a quiz on it. Or even better, make you write a paper about it. Performance and motivation matters for lecturing and learning.

[5] Buchanan & Palmer 2017.


  • Bradbury, Neil A. 2016. “Attention Span During Lectures: 8 Seconds, 10 Minutes, or More?” Advanced Physiological Education, Vol. 40, pp. 509–513
  • Buchanan, Thomas & Palmer, Edward. 2017. “Student Perceptions of the History Lecture: Does this Delivery Mode have a Future in the Humanities?” Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 1-17.
  • Cavanagh, Michael. 2011. “Students’ Experiences of Active Engagement through Cooperative Learning Activities in Lectures,” Active Learning in Higher Education, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 23–33.
  • Friesen, Norm. 2014. “A Brief History of the Lecture: A Multi-Media Analysis.”  Medien Pädagogik, Vol. 24, pp. 136–153.
  • Sandry, E. 2006. “Positively Speaking – Actively Listening: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Lecturing as Valuable in Higher Education,” in Critical Visions, Proceedings of the 29th HERDSA Annual Conference, Western Australia, 10-12 July 2006, pp. 324-330.

In Defense of Lectures? I (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part VIII of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part III, III, IV, V, VI, VII, IX, X]

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Here at the Religious Studies blogging headquarters, we enjoy a good lecture. Admitting this in certain circles may seem a touch tone-deaf given the focus on student-centered learning.[1] If you have been hiding in a cave for the past few years (or ignoring the pleas of the Chronical of Higher Education), the sage-on-the-stage format has been widely rejected in favor of the now-preferred guide-on-the-side.

Of course, over the past two decades good data has emerged from educational psychology announcing the successes of more “active learning” models of teaching, while the field of instructional design has tailored these theories to suit the needs of university environments. In preparation for a short seminar on the deficits of the classroom lecture for my colleagues, I wanted to take the stance of the apologetic – what was the best research-based defense of lectures I could muster?

The motivation was slightly nefarious, I had long been a convert to active learning environments, but found many of my colleagues in the humanities hesitant (if not hostile) to modify their lecture format, thus I wanted to be equipped with the best possible argument for lecture, in order to defeat it. At least, so went my thinking.

In my reading, the two basic arguments against the lecture format can be boiled down to the efficacy of engendering “deep learning” and the ability to hold the attention of students for a sufficient period of time (typically, for the entire 50-55 minute lecture). Both of these actually require interesting caveats, which I will return to below (and in the next post).

Before we fully dive into this topic, I feel duty bound by my history training to cover some groundwork. The term “lecture” derives from Latin legere, “to read,” but more specifically here it means to read aloud, the dominant form of reading throughout the medieval period in Europe. Traditionally, the method of the lecture is more didactic than dialectical (or Socratic), a division stemming from ancient Greek distinctions in styles of argumentation. Aristotle is often presented as the champion of the didactic “lecture” style, where the straightforward presentation of information was paramount. Importantly for our brief analysis, Aristotle is also known for his interest in the artful use of rhetoric – for simplicity’s sake we can just call this “strategies of persuasion.” Thus Aristotle’s didactic style, suffused by artful presentation, became the origins of classic Roman oratory and even early ecclesiastical sermons.[2]

Moreover, the material conditions of the medieval European university helped maintain the lecture as the primary means of pedagogy. Manuscripts and other text media were relatively scarce, thus the most efficient means of disseminating information was to read aloud the written material that was available. In this case, the act of lecturing and reading aloud were functionally equivalent.[3]

Let us pause here. I do not think many would disagree that, given the widespread availability of textual materials, the bland and pedantic reading of a text retains little value in the modern university. I would also suggest in modern practice the lecture is more varied than simply reading text aloud. University lectures are often rife with multimodal media, incorporating image, audio, and video, in addition to text (via various presentation software, but also chalkboards and whiteboards).[4]

Consequently, one concern I have with several arguments against lecture is that they offer only the most uncharitable and limited definition of what lecture is in modern practice (at least in my personal experience).[5] To offer the full spectrum of definitions of lecture would bring me too far afield here, but I offer one characteristic gloss to situate my claims: “50-55 minutes of largely uninterrupted monologue from a lecturer with student activity being focused on listening and note-taking.”[6] Again, in my experience, lecture is oftentimes punctuated by instructor or student questions (or even brief analytical activities, such as inviting comments on a video), allowing for a calibration of understanding on both sides. In a strict senses, these activities fall outside the purview of the “classic lecture.”

This is important for university instructors to note, by calling for student responses they are already moving towards a flipped classroom. A bedrock claim of student-centered learning advocates is that the more students are involved in the learning process, the more effective knowledge acquisition becomes. Of course, the quantity and quality of these student-centered moments vary greatly by teacher, and at a basic level, I would encourage non-conformists to expand and explore more of these techniques. Nevertheless, a diagram depicting an active learning environment may already look like what many others simply call lecturing [Figure 1].

Figure 1 (from Lumpkin et. al. 2015)

Screen Shot 2019-01-31 at 09.22.19.pngCommon consensus “best practices” recommends that “classic lecturing” be divided frequently by student-centered exercises. Active learning does not replace lecturing, it complements it by structuring the learning experience with moments where students can reflect, analyze, evaluate or synthesize the material that was presented. This is, of course, not a full-throated defense of lecturing, but a qualified defense that it should be paired with other modalities of learning.

But for how long can a lecture captivate a student audience? How regularly do we need to incorporate student activities and what should be their purpose? We will return to these questions in out next post. To be continued…


*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] For those unfamiliar with this jargon, here’s a brief primer: student-centered learning is opposed to teacher-directed learning and refers to the primary mode of educational engagement. This maps imperfectly to, but is oftentimes used synonymously with, active and passive learning as well as deep and surface learning, respectively. Student-centered, active, deep learning is often theoretically grounded in constructivist theories of learning, while teacher-directed, passive, surface learning is typically aligned with a vessel theory of learning. The flipped classroom signals a shift from the latter forms of pedagogy to the former. As with any theorized dichotomy, however, these distinctions are blurred quite frequently in practice.

[2] Many of these points are notes in Sandry 2006 and Friesen 2014.

[3] Friesen 2014: 138-9.

[4] Points raised in Freisen 2014.

[5] It seems to me that the modern attack on the lecture has its beginnings in the early 1990’s, specifically with the publications of Charles Bonwell and James Eison’s Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom (1991) and Diana Laurillard’s Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology (1993).

[6] Wood, et. al. 2007


  • Friesen, Norm. 2014. “A Brief History of the Lecture: A Multi-Media Analysis.”  Medien Pädagogik, Vol. 24, pp. 136–153.
  • Lumpkin, Angela; Achen, Rebecca M.; Dodd, Regan K. 2015. “Student Perceptions of Active Learning.” College Student Journal, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 121-133.
  • Sandry, E. 2006. “Positively Speaking – Actively Listening: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Lecturing as Valuable in Higher Education,” in Critical Visions, Proceedings of the 29th HERDSA Annual Conference, Western Australia, 10-12 July 2006, pp. 324-330.
  • Wood, Leigh Norma; Petocz, Peter; Joyce, Sadhbh; Rodd, Melissa. 2007. “Learning in Lectures: Multiple Representations.” International Journal of Mathematical Education, Vol. 38, No. 7, pp. 907-915.

Setting Student Expectations and Intentions

While designing my course syllabus, I was focused on all of the traditional aspects: crafting learning outcomes, deciding on course content, selecting class readings, figuring out student assessment, and so forth. It never occurred to me to think about syllabus design, meaning graphic design. This is all the more strange because I was a graphic designer.

I was lucky enough to stumble across this blog by Tona Hangen (Update, also Zac Wendler) which had a profound impact on my syllabus design (I’ll discuss this more in-depth at another time). Her design reminded me of newsletters I created in the past and that insight led me to reconsider the purpose of a course syllabus. I wanted to make a document that was more than a course “contract” that was squirreled away and never thought about again.

One aspect, which I will discuss here, was the role a syllabus played in helping to frame the intentions of students. Hangen’s post does a great job of analyzing three different types of learners in her class, those who need to acquire basic knowledge, those that have that knowledge already, but want to expand their knowledge, and those who have extensive knowledge and who can analyze and assess at higher levels. Her syllabus  utilized the metaphor of scuba diving to describe the different “depths” her students would reach. I adapted these categories to the content of my course, dividing them between arhat, bodhisattva, and buddha.

Screen Shot 2017-10-22 at 22.16.25.pngDuring our first class meeting, these ideas are approached through conversation with my students about why they are taking my class (I’ve yet to have a religious studies major in any of my classes; I’m lucky if I have anyone whose major is in the humanities!). Typically, after listening to several comments on how this class fulfills several requirements, I begin to ask slightly more probing questions: Why this class? (Surely other classes fulfilled these requirements too!) Undoubtedly, a few start to open up about personal interests or express their genuine curiosity. I use those insights to propel discussion about the potential value of Religious Studies classes and how students can approach our class. For this summer class, I then introduced them to the three levels of aspiration (above) and asked them where they thought they might fall in the spectrum.

This is more of a reflection exercise to establish expectations and intentions than anything else. Overall I find this to be a much better introductory conversation than asking students about their majors or hometowns.

Meditation or Mind Lab?

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Slide introducing a Mind Lab Exercise

I arrived on campus a few days before classes began to find my classroom. The room number suggested that I had to go to the gym to find my classroom, so I was curious. After being directed by a few students on the basketball team, I came to find that I was slated to teach my Zen class in a dance recital room, complete with mirror and ballet barre…and no desks what-so-ever.

I immediately went to the department to see if I could switch rooms, I had no idea how I could conduct a religious studies class there. I was told that room was selected because the previous instructor  – someone I knew was wildly popular – had requested to teach there. It immediately made sense – his Zen class was all about the practice of Zen (meditation) while mine was going to be about the history of Zen (myth, lineage & literature).

This immediately struck me. I love when I find someone who has a completely different approach to the same material. I talk a lot about the history of meditation in my classes on Buddhism, delving into its correlation with cosmology, the debates over non-cognitive states, the endlessly varied terminology the English term “meditation” masks, the arguments over the modern mindfulness movement, and so forth. I encourage students to seek out meditation clubs or to sit on their own time, but I dutifully omit much meditation practice in class. Perhaps when I discuss the Seven Point Vairocana Posture and ānāpānasmṛti (Mindfulness of Breathing) will I ask students to briefly engage in sitting – to get the flavor of it.

Part of this reasoning is simply practical. Much of my lecturing on the history of meditation was developed while students were actively engaged in sitting regularly during the Woodenfish program. My lectures tried to give context to their practice – they did not need me to teach them the practice as well.

Buoyed by the potential expectations of my students who planned to meet in the dance hall, I decided to introduce what I had been calling Mind Labs – quick and simple exercises to help get students to develop their own personal phenomenology of mind. (I suppose one could call these Thought Experiments too, but I prefer Mind Labs…)

For example, when the Abhidharmists claim that mental events can only occur in quick succession, and not simultaneously, I prefer to do an exercise which asks students to determine what they think first. Another question I like to ask is whether or not students always have an affective coloring to their thoughts (for Theravādin Abhidharmists, unless a highly achieved practitioner, the answer is typically “yes”).

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Slide introducing a Mind Lab Exercise

For all Mind Lab questions I ask that students write down responses and hand them in to me for tallying. I try to quantify the results the best that I can and identify patterns of belief. During our next meeting I will have a small discussion about the results and try to relate the discussion back to the “standard” Buddhist position.

Thus while I do not typically engage in much meditation practice during class time, I feel that there are numerous other philosophical exercises of mind that may touch upon similar aspects.

Intro to Religions & Threshold Concepts

[OCTOBER 2017 UPDATE: Since the class ended I have been thinking about how I used the term “threshold concepts” and decided that it was too broad, i.e. several of ther terms likely did not meet the criteria for a true threshold concept. I may just use the terms “lenses” in the future.]

This summer I decided to try something slightly different for my survey course on Asian religious traditions. I wanted a way to bridge the diverse religious traditions I planned on covering. In other words, I wanted a way for students to more easily and creatively engage in the act – and art – of comparison.

I decided to use a set of “threshold concepts” to function as lenses for comparison. I described “threshold concepts” in my syllabus, along with how I wanted them to be used and which terms I selected. Here is the relevant excerpt from my syllabus:

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There were plenty of comparative terms that did not make the cut, including: deity, monism, human nature, millenarianism, sacred/spiritual, and cosmogony/cosmology.

My basic criteria for selection was, admittedly, biased. But generally, the terms needed to serve several functions. First, they needed to be potentially useful for a definition of religion. The main writing projects for my students were oriented around critiquing and creating such a definition. Second, I needed to be able to clearly exemplify the term in the content of that day’s assigned reading and lecture. For example, we discussed material culture on the day we examined the Indus Valley Civilization, which is re-constituted solely through archaeological and art historical remains. Asceticism was discussed in the context of the śramaṇa movements in ancient India, epistemology was introduced to talk about the early Buddhist approach to the Dharma, metaphor was used to understand the explanations of the Dao in the Daode jing, and so forth. Sometimes I selected a term because I thought it could highlight a different way of thinking about religions (see non-violence, immortality, humor).

The immediate problem I encountered was trying to figure out how to introduce these concepts effectively without spending too much time on them. I first thought about simply using Wikipedia entries, but then settled on selecting entries from the widely used Encyclopedia of Religion. The entries here were too long, however, and many times too complex for what I was looking for. Oftentimes the entries placed too much of an emphasis on Western religious traditions, which I didn’t want confusing (or even “tainting”) my students.

Ultimately, I decided I would make short audio recordings, hitting the points I thought were most effective and illustrative of the traditions we were covering. I based many of my ideas on the entries in the Encyclopedia of Religion and provided the pdf’s to my students who wanted further clarification. I didn’t want students to do more (and potentially needless) reading and was hoping to provide them with another mode of learning. These recordings, shunning all modesty, worked perfectly. Students listened to the recordings (which I called “briefs”) and located where the concept was illustrated in that day’s reading. They were then expected to write about their ideas in daily reading posts.

I will do another post on creating the “podcasts” later. Ultimately I found the threshold concepts worked well in helping to organize student thoughts and gave them a solid framework for crafting a definition of “religion.” I recently asked my student to select two potential threshold concepts they would highlight for their definitions, and the tally was as follows:

  • Soteriology x7
  • Community x6
  • Mysticism x5
  • Material culture x5
  • Morality x4 (=ethics)
  • Ritual x3
  • Epistemology x2
  • Myth
  • Ontology
  • Scripture (=textualism)
  • Metaphor

Clearly not every “threshold concept” was equally valuable in this assignment (though we had not yet discussed paradise, nature, or humor when the students posted their ideas), but I am quite happy with the variety. I am also happy some students decided to wrestle with tricky terms like epistemology and ontology, or even ideas that often get overlooked in religious studies, such as material culture or metaphor.

If I was to employ threshold concepts again in this manner I may cut some out in future iterations. But, nevertheless, I am quite pleased with how this turned out for this iteration of my survey course.

The Art of Cold Calling Students

Peter Romaskiewicz photo.JPG

Jin’e Temple 金峨寺, Ningbo, China, summer 2017. Photo Peter Romaskiewicz.

I have never cold-called students in my classes, but I am becoming more intrigued by it. I am hesitant for the reason many others likely share: I would never want to embarrass or alienate a student who is uncomfortable speaking in a group setting. Yet, I run against a persistent problem in my classrooms where only a narrow segment of students consistently share their thoughts. Simply, I am looking for a tool in my pedagogical “tool kit” to combat this problem.

My current summer class has been no exception to this rule. I also noticed this segment of students thinned throughout the term, with only about 4-5 students (out of 25) regularly participating by the end. I was happy to observe that small group work was effective in producing “new” speakers when we convened for class discussion. But I cannot plan group activities for every facet of a lesson, lecturing and asking (open-ended) questions still remains the backbone of my teaching style.

There has been some compelling research on the value of cold-calling recently. One study (by Dan Levy & Josh Bookin) shows that cold-calling actually helps to increase voluntary student responses. It appears that effective cold-calling “breaks the ice,” so to speak, giving the classroom environment a sense of inclusivity that makes students more willing to volunteer ideas. Another study (by Elise J. Dallimore, Julie H. Hertenstein & Marjorie B. Platt) shows that when cold-calling is used in conjunction with student online postings, students devote an additional hour to assigned readings. A slightly refined technique is suggest by a recent dissertation (by Brittany Carstens) which calls for teachers to gradually switch over from cold-calling to voluntary participation after student engagement increases.

Personally I am not motivated to use cold-calling as a coercive technique to ensure students do their assigned readings (I discussed my primary coercive technique elsewhere). I am interested in getting more engaged students, however. After talking with some colleagues and reading around on the internet, these are my most important takeaways about cold-calling.

  1. Prime the Students: List “public speaking” and/or related skills, as a course goal. Devote a few words to it as well at the beginning of the course.
  2. Start ’em Early: Cold-calling students has to occur on the first day of class and occur regularly thereafter. I really wanted to try cold-calling during this summer class, but decided to ease off on the idea because I was pleased with student participation early on. By the middle of the term I wanted to hear from different student voices, but also did not want to shift the learning environment so significantly halfway through the class and risk really embarrassing a student.
  3. Be Inquisitive: Be motivated by caring to hear what students have to think and say. Too easily cold-calling is conceived as simply testing students to see if they did the work. That’s setting up a rather antagonistic environment. I had one grad seminar when the teacher cold-called a student and caught him a little off guard (he did not regularly cold-call folks). The student asked, in a friendly manner, why he had be chosen. The teacher simply shrugged and said, “well, I usually enjoy your thoughts, so I thought I’d ask.” It was a natural and honest response, and I still remember it.
  4. Model Thinking-Out-Loud: Students may be intimidated to speak without well-formed thoughts. This is one reason why I think my group exercises generated several “new” participants, they were able to rehearse their ideas. Perhaps instructors can speak a little off-the-cuff to invite similar “live thinking” from students.
  5. Inviting Others: Closely related to the above point is inviting students to help others along or to fill in the blanks. Instead of moving on from a student who does not have a response, you could have him or her take a wild guess, or just invent something (as students commonly do on exams!). From a different angle, you could also invite students to critique or build upon a response.
  6. All’s Fair: To avoid bias (or always picking on the student who doesn’t pay attention) it may be reasonable to select students (truly) at random. Index cards with names are one clear option. There are several “random picker” and “random name picker” apps for phones.
  7. The Shift: Not all responses need to be cold-called. Cold-calling can be used to generate initial conversation. You can ask for volunteers after a few responses, or even switch completely over to volunteer participation once broad engagement is achieved.

To be honest, even after reading and thinking about this, I am still hesitant. Cold-calling is not a natural part of my personality nor my teaching persona, but I do want to challenge myself and try new things, even if I ultimately decide they are not well suited for me.

Student Peer Review

My students this summer have been charged with writing a final paper that argues for their own definition of “religion” based solely on the Asian traditions we cover in class. (I will discuss this assignment more fully in a later post.) In addition, I required them to craft a rough draft that was due during our mid-term exam. Technically, this was a slightly different shorter assignment that built towards their final product.

I assigned this shorter assignment with three specific goals in mind. One was to motivate them to think about their project early. The second was to force them, through peer review, to see how their fellow students tackled them same problem and hopefully to inspire their own approach. The last goal was to allow students the opportunity to practice the (slowly acquired) skill of good critique. While this last objective really has little to do with the content of my course, I feel it is incumbent on me to teach writing even when I am not formally teaching writing. (Yes, I have been indoctrinated, happily.)

Prep work: Each student had to bring in two printed copies of their paper. I crafted a reader review rubric that each student had to fill out. I divided it into three sections: 1) basic requirements, 2) organization & structure, 3) overall.

Peter Romaskiewicz Reader Review.png

Reader Review Rubric [Summer 2017]

Set-up: The students took the midterm the same day we did reader review, so there was limited time. I wrote basic instructions on the top of the sheet and read them aloud. I regularly remind my students that there are real human beings reading these comments, so be nice; the tone can also be colloquial. I also tell them to cite praise as well as criticism as long as its constructive (meaning I want them to consistently tell the author why they made the specific comment).

In this case, I had the students pass their papers to a random person, and then again to a random person until they “lost” their paper. In hindsight I should of had them trade with a partner so they could talk about their papers with each other, but I knew time was going to be tight as it was and didn’t know if time would allow for it.

Practice: We had about 20 minutes total to do this exercise, which was a bit rushed. After a few minutes for instructions, less than 15 minutes were left to do a read through and write comments. I encouraged marginal comments, but also directed students to read the rubric and fill it out as much as they could. With about 2-3 minutes left in class I had the students hand back the papers to the authors so they could look over their comments and ask any final questions.

Outcome: As I mentioned, I wish I had made time to allow the students to talk to one another about their papers after the review session. Some shouted back a few comments to one another as we ended class. The class seemed engaged and invested. My curiosity overcame me and I asked each student to hand in their rubric with their “clean” paper. I wanted to see the type of comments given and gauge how constructive or helpful this exercise might have been. Overall, the rubric appeared to help focus comments on higher-order issues, like argumentation and organization, not just spelling. At least one conversation with a student revealed to me that exposure to another student’s take was key to her understanding the assignment.




Making Lecture Slides

I have never been tempted to use those PowerPoint templates or slide themes, they were always too tacky to me. I’ve developed my own lecture slide style over the years, and while it has matured over that time, there are still several principles I have come to consider non-negotiable.

Given the universal usage of presentation software (PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, etc.) in the classroom, it is quite shocking to me how few internet resources discuss the creation of effective lecture slides. The best I’ve found is Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching. Many online resources are directed towards perfecting business presentations, and while useful ideas can be gleaned from these I find the rhetorical situation (purpose, audience, topic, etc.) of the boardroom to be different from that of the classroom. It should follow that design conventions would be different as well.

Basic Slide Design

In my earliest days of lecturing (starting around 2005) I designed my slides with just images. I considered the slides (I used, and still regularly use, PowerPoint) to be the same as “old-fashioned” projection slides used in art history classes. I choose images that complemented what I was saying, either in depicting particular people, places, or events, or in providing a visual metaphor that helped give shape to an abstract idea. I wrote a lot on the white/black board back then. I thought that if the students had to write it, I should also take the time to write it.

My slides today have significantly more writing on them, but I still consider images to be the main focal point. Here is a breakdown of how I create lecture slides, focusing on basic design elements. In writing this post I realized that I’ve naturally developed three basic design templates: text-heavy slides, image-heavy slides, and image-text slides.

To start, I first choose one aesthetically pleasing, high-resolution image as the “cover image” for the first slide. I incorporate the lecture title and date. (Because of an old job as a book cover designer when I have the time I treat each cover image slide as a design problem, playing around with how I incorporate the title and other information, as if a book cover.)

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Example: Cover Slide

For example, this image depicts a figure (Bālakṛṣṇa) that is central to my topic (Hindu devotional literature). Sometimes it is difficult to locate imagery that matches closely with the topic or to find an image with the necessary resolution. In these cases I will select an image that is more loosely related to the theme (say, an image of the Ganges River). This cover image then serves as my background for my text-heavy slide template.

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Example: Text-heavy Slide

By using the same image I hope to create a subtle visual clue that unifies the day’s lecture material. Sometimes, if I switch to a significantly different topic during the lecture I will change the background image to also visually suggest the change in theme.

Let me break down the design of this text-heavy slide. I typically type text on top of a partially transparent white box, usually around 30 percent transparency (here, because the background image is so busy, the box is closer to opaque than normal). The title box identifies the theme (here: “Vishnu”) and subtopic (“Overview”). This theme/subtopic layout is the only element that is carried over to (almost) every slide of the lecture. It is important for students to easily identify these components, and thus the theme is the largest font (32 pt) on the slide, while the subtopic is smaller (20 pt).

I’ve become accustomed to including the pages of that day’s readings in this box as well (at 16 pt). I used to regularly add the page numbers to the notes sections on the PowerPoint slides for my personal reference, but I’ve recently began to share these with the students by placing them direclty on the slide itself. It allows direct reference to the readings if necessary and helps the students study.

The main content text is organized by bullet points. I typically use 24 pt. font here for this text. (And yes, I use different types of bullet points to create visual correspondences. For this class, I’m using Dharma Wheels for all the lectures on Buddhism, yinyangs for all the lectures on Daoism, etc.)

I’ve been slowly shifting to using more complete sentences, but I’m aware that this may be problematic – students spend a lot of time writing everything on a slide before they start listening to you speak. I should be clear here – I never advance a text-heavy slide with all of the content showing at the outset. Using the “Animation” function in PowerPoint I fade in each bullet point as I come to it. This eliminates the “text shock” that can come from seeing a slide filled with text and paces when the students write/type.

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Example: Text-heavy Slide (quotation)

I also use this slide format to cite longer quotations I want the class to read together. In this case I cite the primary (or secondary) source as the subtopic in the title box.

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Example: Image-heavy Slide

I take a different approach to designing image-heavy slides. In these cases I typically switch to a black background (to accentuate the image) and white text. I keep the same layout and font sizes for the title box (it is slightly higher on the slide in comparison to the text-heavy slide) and move all of the content text to the bottom of the slide in order to highlight the image. Again, as always, I only use high-resolution images.

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Example: Image-heavy Slide

The font size of the  text depends on how much information I want to include. In these examples the font is at 20 pt., but I try to keep it at 24 pt. I’ve also begun to incorporate labels or captions noting the origin, age, or current location of the image. I’ll put this in small 10 pt. font somewhere on the edge of the image where it is almost invisible. I’ll return to this at the end, but since I distribute my slides to my students this information is really only for those who are looking at these images on their computer after class. One reason I’ve started doing this is because I’m developing exercises where students are expected to find their own images depicting religious studies themes.

Design issues regularly arise, sometimes forcing me to tinker with the template slightly, but overall the image-heavy slide remains fairly versatile. For example, I may use the central space to zoom in on a certain part of a larger image and highlight particular elements. In the example below I use the “Animation” function to add in the word balloons as I tell a story.

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Example: Image-heavy Slide (variant)

I also often use the “Remove Background” function to highlight the most significant parts of the image. Here I’ve removed the background of the terracotta figurines, bringing them into greater focus and allowing me to place three different examples on a single slide. With fairly uniform design elements I hope to present a sense of coherency for the lecture.

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Example: Image-heavy Slide (removed background variant)

Image-text slides are roughly half image and half text. I use this layout when there is too much text for the image-heavy slide or especially if I want to use bullet points. In practice, I often use this layout when discussing the biography of an important figure, balancing the text with a illustration/photograph (or relevant image) of the person. I also use this template when citing a passage that I want to compliment with an image.

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Example: Image-text Slide

These three design templates, text-heavy, image heavy, and image-text, form a majority of my current lecture slide collection. Yet, there are always situations that arise which cause me to design new slides for a particular rhetorical context. Some of my favorite challenges are when I have to think of (and then locate!) visual complements or visual metaphors that help exemplify or elucidate the idea. (I am partly motivated in the endeavor by research done on “picture superiority effect.”) In general, these types of slide tend to be far more interactive, meaning that I use the “Animation” function frequently to reveal colors, text, or new images.

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Visual metaphor for karma theory

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Illustration for the Chinese Buddhist metaphor of water/waves


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Visual metaphor for Vedantic non-dualism

Transitions and Animations

In terms of Transitions between slides I almost always use “fade.” Every once and a while, if I think a transition visually reflects a narrative element in my lecture – a discovery (uncover transition), or a debunking (fall over transition) – I will consider incorporating it. Since I use a lot of maps in my lecture slides, I have become quite enamored with the “drape transition” recently which replicates a piece of fabric being unfurled from above, similar to pull-down maps one finds in classrooms.

As I noted above, I use Animations quite frequently in my slides. Every bullet point on my slides are set to fade in when I want to advance to that topic. This avoids text-shock and rapid typing by students. This creates a steady pace for my lecture and controls what I share and when.

There are some advanced Animation settings which I use frequently as well. It is possible to trigger a series of animations right after the transition with only one click of the advance button. This means I can transition to a new slide and then slowly populate it with images and text while I talk without needing to continuously hit the advance button. You can set the animations to start at different time intervals in 1/2 second increments. Much of the time I use these to add just a little flair to the slide, meaning that most of the animation is over within a second.

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When I advance to one of my Focus-Quote Slides (I did not cover these above, but they are pretty straightforward design wise), the transition is a simple fade, here revealing the blue background and white title banner. Immediately after the transition is complete the figure on the left (Zhuangzi) flies in (“fly in” animation) from the left side of the screen and the quote flies in from the right after a half second delay. Thus I treat this animation sequence as an extension of the transition which is complete in one second. For this particular slide I have the butterflies slowly float in after a five-second delay, adding a little dynamism to the slide.


I make my slides available to my students after lecture. Since I have many slides with long quotations (sometimes not found in the readings), I don’t want students wasting time copying them down. I will print the PowerPoint as a PDF and upload the slides to our class website. I usually add a small “watermark” on the bottom of each slide with my name, date, and email address.


In Defense of Lectures

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The passing of the Buddha, Dazu Rock Carvings 大足石刻, China, circa 2011. Photo Peter Romaskiewicz.

In the waves of interest over “flipped classrooms” I feel that lecturing gets unfairly vilified. I am not the only one to feel this way. Sure, dry presentations are not the best way to transfer information and there are plenty of more dynamic strategies to get students actively learning. But I still feel lecturing has some merits and I want to share some thoughts on how I plan lectures – yes, plain no-frills lectures – specifically where I am dominating speaking for over the magical fifteen to twenty-minute threshold.

Perhaps the most critical element to my “plain lectures” is the incorporation of narrative elements, especially conflict (and possibly, resolution). Not that long ago Pixar released a series of free lessons called The Art of Storytelling. The short video introducing the topic of story structure poses this very interesting question: “What do you want the audience to know and when?” This is something I keep in mind when developing lectures because I want to build suspense, or at the very least, slowly lead to a problem that requires a solution.

I’ve developed two types of lectures along these lines: One I’ll call the Basic Story Lecture and the other I’ll call Critical Modeling Lecture. These are really ideal types; more typically these form smaller components of more dynamic lesson plans that involve discussion, class exercises or group activities, etc. – the token activities of the flipped classroom.

The Basic Story Lecture is simply that, a good basic story. It has characters, a setting, a plot, a climax, and so forth. Religious studies is ripe with good stories and so is the history of religious studies scholarship (think about archaeological and textual discoveries that had revolutionized different sub-fields). For example, I’ve created a lecture to introduce Buddhism through the life story of the Buddha – a natural fit for the Basic Story class – and I will outline how I developed this class below. Shorter lectures I’ve developed that fit naturally into this mold are the life story of Mahāvīra (Jainism), Bodhidharma (Chan/Zen), and Huineng (Chan/Zen).

The Critical Modeling Lecture requires me to pit two or more scholars against one another. I introduce a topic, or more specifically, a scholarly question that begs for a solution, and lay out the process by which one scholar attempted to solve it. Often this will be the required reading for the class and invariably this stirs up some discussion or clarifying questions from the students. I introduce conflict by explaining a competing scholarly theory that the students were (likely) not aware of. Its nice when this theory is based on recent discoveries, like archaeological finds or newly discovered texts. I then lay out this new theory. Or, I may give my personal interpretation of the evidence, offering critiques of the conclusions, highlight assumptions, problematizing evidence, etc. In other words I model the critique process. This lecture will usually end with a discussion asking the students which theory they find more convincing.

(An aside: I have integrated the Basic Story Lecture with the Critical Modeling Lecture too. For my Zen class, I’ll tell the story of Huineng, the 6th Chan/Zen Patriarch, and then undercut the traditionally received version of his story by discussing the early 20th century scriptural finds at Dunhuang which dovetails into the new scholarly interpretations based on those finds. I get to tell a great story and then offer an even better – in my opinion – story that undercuts the tradition.)

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Slide for “Life of the Buddha” storytelling lecture

To return to the Basic Story model, last week I was able to give my lecture on the life of the Buddha. It’s probably the fifth or sixth time I’ve given the full lecture with this model in mind and I’ve come to really enjoy it.

Prep Work: Students are assigned reading homework that covers the life story of the Buddha and some basic Buddhist doctrine. I always use picture-heavy slides, but this class is exceptional in this regard. I use images depicting life events of the Buddha that are all from the first few centuries of the common era. Thus, all of the main images are rock carvings, almost entirely from northwest India. (The images come from various museums around the world, with many others coming from the Huntington Archive.)

Set-up: I begin the class with a provocative statement; I tell the students that the entire lecture is a fabrication. No scholar believes the existing life story of the Buddha to be historical fact; it was all cobbled together several centuries after the demise of the Buddha. I then ask, if this story is a complete myth, should any of it be important? Why should we care about it?

Ultimately I try to bring class discussion to this point (made nicely by John McRae): It’s not true, and therefore it’s more important. This typically ruffles some feather. Myths tell us about idealized visions of humanity; they reveal assumed cultural and religious values. Thus, the life story of the Buddha reveals important Buddhist values and hints at its central doctrines. I direct the students, as I tell the story, to try to tease out which values Buddhists find most significant and which episodes potentially reflect typical doctrinal viewpoints. 

Practice: I then detail the life story of the Buddha using slides to compliment my narrative. Each slide has minimal wording, with mostly names and locations in captions to the images. If I have not been able to find an image depicting an event in the story of the Buddha I do not describe that event. I make it clear that artisans helped to craft the story of the Buddha by depicting only certain life events. (In practice, much of what I’ve read has actually been depicted in art at some time but I will mention a few examples.) This also allow me to break down the images, talking about symbolism, visual narration (synchronic and diachronic modes), and artistic conventions. I try to build the climax around the Buddha’s early ascetic practices and also around his battle with Māra.

Overall the story of the Buddha (starting from an ascetic bowing before Dīpankara Buddha to relic worship at stūpas – taking John Strong’s approach that the biography of the Buddha continued after his death) takes me between 40 minutes to 1 hour, depending on speed and detail. I’ll take questions during the story, but rarely do I allow them to lead to extended discussion. If necessary, I’ll tell student to make notes for later.

I hold off discussion to the end of class when I ask which elements of the story stuck out the most; where were the students the most surprised, shocked, or curious. (I have a slide that shows an outline of 20 different story elements to jog their memory). The Buddha leaving his son and wife often gets mentioned, as does his severe ascetic practices (there are many beautiful, if not haunting, images of this episode), as well as his performance of numerous miracles (while textbooks often overlook these episodes, the art historical record is quite rich).

The final discussion transitions to which values are presented as most significant through this story. Renunciation and the overcoming of desire and the realities of the suffering of life are commonly highlighted themes. For those familiar with basic Buddhist doctrine (or who did the reading), they may point out the connections to the Four Noble Truths or the seal of impermanence.

Outcome: With about twenty minutes of discussion at the end, I can squeeze this class into an 80 minute session. And while bookended by class discussion, the “meat” of this class is straight lecture, or in this case, storytelling.

UPDATE: I stumbled across what I would consider a masterclass in straight lecturing. Michael Puett’s class on ancient Chinese philosophy at Harvard has received rave reviews, but I would say this has as much, or more, to do with his delivery than the actual content. His lecture on Zhuangzi was enthralling to me, and he doesn’t even use slides! I’d say his structuring is almost perfect, he builds and releases tension regularly, bringing the audience back into what he is saying consistently. His intonations complement the content well (note, for example, the contrast he intones between the “quiet” Dao of Laozi and the “ever transforming” Dao of Zhuangzi, starting at the 8 minute mark). He speaks for 40 minutes continuously, and I’d say holds that audiences attention well throughout. Again, he uses no slides, asks no questions, just talks. I’ll perhaps do a breakdown of this lecture for a later post. For me, he has mastered the question asked above: “What do you want the audience to know and when?”

UPDATE II: I ran across this article which specifically talks about lecturing in the humanities.

UPDATE III: More insight on this issue here.



Readings in Class

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Tibetan Buddhist masks for sale in Chengdu, China, circa 2011. Photo Peter Romaskiewicz.

When teaching introductory courses (like I am this summer) I tend to shy away from having students read texts/passages in class individually. I more typically type out passages on my slides and have students read collectively, or simply read the passage aloud and offer a question for discussion. Mostly this is due to time. I find reading in class often necessitates small group discussion, which then necessitates class discussion. Five minutes of reading (minimum), five minutes of group consultation (minimum), and ten minutes of class discussion can eat away precious class time. The topic needs to be worth the deep dive.

I have encountered more radical approaches to reading in class. During a teaching demonstration a few years back a grad student preparing for an upcoming interview did something quite…unique. The lecture was geared for an undergraduate class on the topic of the Portuguese Trans-Atlantic Empire. It was enthralling because the grad student giving the lecture was almost unhinged in his role playing, running back and forth and yelling as if he was really on a ship crossing the Atlantic during a storm. At some point he started throwing out balled up sheets paper and each person who caught one had to read it aloud to the class. (I really don’t remember the rationale, but I think it was something about sending out letters in bottles into the ocean.) Ultimately, this was not my style (and other than getting students involved and laughing, not too effective), but it was challenging to me to think about my pedagogy.

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Slide for Analects exercise

Nevertheless, I’ve been working on an in-class reading exercise to introduce the Confucian Analects. Its outlined here:

Prep Work: For homework, students should have read several passages from the Analects. Before class I printed out five sets of five double-sided pages of different passages from the Analects. (I break the class up into five groups of five students, each student receives one double sided page of passages from the Analects – thus every student in each group reads a different group of passages). At least one of the passages in each set is 15.23 (on reciprocity/shu 恕).

Set-up: After describing the political and social turmoil of the Warring States, I told the class that Confucius just wanted people to get along with one another. I asked them to find a passage in the Analects they would consider central to accomplishing this aim. After reading individually they consulted with their group and decided on the best answer along with one/two alternate(s).

Motivation: To add a sense of challenge, I told them there is a correct answer, or at least an answer I am looking for. This was not necessary, but I felt it fit the nature of my students/class. I also had a “scribe” write down the final responses for their group (they were not allowed to switch responses if they heard something better from another group) and post the responses to our course website for posterity.

Practice: I gave them 6 minutes to read, which meant they had to read with focus. They had 5 minutes to discuss and plead their cases to their group. Class discussion was between 15-20 minutes long. As each group offered their response I asked them why/how they made their choices and/or to explain what each passage meant in their own words and/or to give a concrete example from their everyday life.

Outcome: I thought this exercise went well. Each group, interestingly, chose different passages, there was no doubling of responses. This exercise allowed students to get a sense of the breadth of the Analects and to discuss the meaning of several passages with each other. I think having a clear focus or problem solving aspect added to the exercise. I have done a similar exercise in the past having students reading passages to find one they “liked” the best with mixed results. The class conversation ended up being more broad and ultimately covering terrain that was not central to my lecture (of course, this may be a desirable goal!). This new version of the exercise allowed me to move forward with my lecture and hit the themes I wanted to cover.

One group did select the “correct” answer (15.23), which allowed me to transition into my lecture on reciprocity and the “Golden Rule.” Other groups also talked about the gentlemen (junzi 君子), virtue (de 德), and humaneness (ren 仁) which allowed me to reference their insights later in the lecture.

Out of all the primary resources I have my students read, the Analects are probably the easiest to pick up and read passages at random and to stumble across something personally insightful. Thus even with minimal introduction to the material, an exercise like this is still fairly effective.