The Last-Minute Lecture TriLemma

The First Lecture

Delivering a lecture is tough. The challenge is further heightened when you are a novice lecturer tasked to deliver a lecture with little time to prepare. As I reflected on my first lecturing experience as a student teacher, I found myself trying to reconcile the tension between three different specific properties a lecture can instantiate. I call this tension the last-minute lecture trilemma (for beginning lecturers).

The Trilemma

The Last-minute Lecture triLemma — or "LLL", or "triple L", to reflect how it feels like sometimes — suggests that a lecture (delivered by a novice lecturer) can only have two of the following three properties:

  1. Delivered on short notice: The lecturer delivers the lecture with little time for preparation and/or rehearsal.

  2. Connection: The lecturer establishes “connection” with students by maintaining eye contact with them throughout the lecture.

  3. Comprehensiveness: The lecturer faithfully covers all the concepts in the lecture without forgetting key ideas or sacrificing depth.

In other words:

  • A: To (1) deliver a lecture on short notice and (2) sustain connection, the lecturer sacrifices (3) comprehensiveness.

  • B: To (1) deliver a lecture on short notice and (3) be comprehensive, the lecturer sacrifices (2) connection.

  • C: To (2) sustain connection and (3) be comprehensive, the lecturer cannot (1) deliver a lecture on short notice.

Compromises, Compromises

Different lecturers may adopt different options for compromise due to their own pedagogical commitments or prior convictions when it comes to teaching and learning. Rightly so — formulating a hierarchy for the three ostensibly competing characteristics of a lecture seems heavily dependent on subjective value judgements that may vary across academic levels, content subjects, student profiles, culture, and so on.

After careful consideration, and assuming that the trilemma holds, I find myself leaning towards compromise B: prioritising comprehensiveness at the expense of non-optimal connection. This is for two main reasons.

1. Practical Considerations

First, students are likely to record live lectures so that they can listen to them again after the fact. Thus, privileging comprehensiveness would maximise the replay value of the lecture as the lecture transmutes. Put another way, as the live lecture becomes a visual recording, a podcast, or a part of students’ notes, the depth of information can be preserved across all forms; “connection” cannot.

2. Theoretical Considerations

Second, I am sceptical that delivering a memorised lecture without reference to speaker notes is a sufficient condition for genuine connection with students. A much more defensible claim is that a sustained effort at eye contact is a necessary condition for such a connection. Other contributing factors to maximising student engagement include the tone, speed, and dynamics of the delivery as well as the lecturer’s personality.

Conclusion: A Way Out

I conjecture that the trilemma holds mainly for beginning lecturers who have yet to discover how to deliver a compelling presence despite a paucity of time for lecture preparation. An experienced lecturer’s delivery and confidence can often make up for ill-preparedness. Therefore, perhaps novice lecturers like myself can find a way out of the trilemma: if we hone in on delivery, our students may still find our lectures engaging and comprehensive even as we develop them in time-poor school environments.


Featured image by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash.

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