Managing that awkward “topic change” during lecture effectively


Reminder: CTI has drop-in hours for CANVAS help from 11-1 on Wednesday in 191 Rhodes. Starting next week, this will change to Mondays from 11-1 in the same location.

The constraint of our 50 (or 75) minute standard meeting times doesn’t always mesh with the time required to complete topics in a course, and some of us are left with the challenge of making a clean transition to a new topic in the middle of lecture.   As instructors, it is only slightly challenging since we know it is coming from that blank section at the end of the notes or the line across the page.  But for students, it can be disconcerting and, in some cases, students may not even notice that the topic has changed.  Even when the shift is clear, there is often a very significant lag in their attention as they “close that folder” and “open a new topic folder”. 

The mind needs a moment to reset, just as we do when shifting tasks.  Last minute thoughts need to be filed away, and the existing clutter reorganized to provide space for the new topic.  Simply adding an intentional transition time can make the change less jarring and keep the students with you.  Here are some suggestions on how transitions might be handled:

  • Take an intentional 2- or 3-minute stretch break.  Let students relax, talk with each other, or finish up their own notes before starting the next topic.
  • Explicitly stop and give students a few minutes to jot down final notes on the topic and ask (or write down) remaining questions.  Set aside a specific amount of time to avoid the awkward “any questions” silence.  During the time, you might also
    • Answer questions from the class or from individuals (wander around)
    • Collect questions to pass on to recitation instructors
    • Collect questions and promise to answer in the next lecture or through Piazza
    • Ask students to bring their questions to office hours or recitation
  • Develop an intentional transition “micro-lecture” that links or compares the old and new topics (how related, why this transition now).  This can simultaneously serve as a summary of the old topic and introduction to the new.
  • Try the think-pair-share.  Ask students to write down several important points about the first topic and then share them with a neighbor.  This helps them mentally summarize and close the topic, while also hopefully internalizing the key takeaways for the topic.

And remember, spring will be back soon … just have patience.