Engaging Students through Mini Lectures


By Amy Erickson

Mini Lectures
Next month, I’ll be giving a presentation on microlectures to Excelsior faculty. As I looked into resources to fortify this discussion, I came across a wonderful 20-minute mentor video by Dr. Christy Price.  I love it when I can assemble a reading list after watching one of these presentations, and Dr. Price did not let me down. She recommended the following books: “How the Brain Learns” by David Sousa, “Student Engagement Techniques” by Elizabeth Barkley, “Learning and Motivation in the Post-Secondary Classroom” by Marilla Svinicki, “How Learning Works” by Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett and Norman and Garr Reynold’s popular book “Presentation Zen.” Distilling content from these resources, Dr. Price (2013) shared helpful techniques for creating engaging, relevant, and visually appealing mini lectures to promote learning.

Guided Practice
Dr. Price (2013) calls the brain a “novelty seeker” and suggests that we grab student attention by changing up our teaching techniques (para. 2). Interestingly, Dr. Price (2013) additionally notes that Sousa found in his aforementioned book “that lecture continues to be the most prevalent teaching method in higher education despite evidence that it produces the lowest degree of retention for most learners” (para. 3). This is troubling. Why would instructors continue to use the same method (typically without novelty) that does not work for the majority of students?

In order to provide a bit of novelty and improve student understanding, Dr. Price (2013) suggests using mini lectures. These can start off with a unique background, your favorite music, or captivating images. You are really only limited to your own creativity here. It could be a video of you going over the material in your yard, or at a café, or even next to your dog. It is up to you, but it doesn’t have to look or feel like a lecture hall. In fact, it might be better if it doesn’t.

Mini lectures should not force students to furiously take notes. Instead, Dr. Price (2013) recommends using a “guided practice, which means minimizing the note taking, in order to enhance memory processing” (para.  11). One way to do this is to start off the mini lecture with a question. It can be as simple as “How do I create a hanging indent?” to something more complex like “What are some key differences between Post-Structuralism and New Historicism?” Dr. Price (2013) notes that “there’s evidence that questions facilitate memory processing. So we want the students to go into the mini lecture primed with these particular questions, so as they are listening, they’re listening for answers” (para. 11).

The tactic of using questions recalls the SQ3R reading strategy. SQ3R stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review. Before reading, students are asked to survey the material they are going to read, and then turn the headings (and subheadings) into questions. This forces students to look for answers while reading, resulting in active engagement with the text. Many of my students reported a better understanding of material after using such questions and felt their reading now had a specific, achievable goal.

Brevity and Relevance
As the name suggests, mini lectures should be brief. Price (2013) recommends keeping them around five minutes long. It is easy to start tackling additional subjects or go off on tangents, so consider preparing an outline to help you stay focused on one topic.

Although Price (2013) suggests that content needs to be made relevant to Millennials, I would argue that every generation wants to see relevance in their education. With this in mind, think how content in a mini lecture can be discussed in terms of your students’ lives and careers.  This morning I was making a video for a creative writing class and tried to do just that; share with students why the assignment was relevant. I told them that although they may never be asked to write a short story or experiment with different poetic forms in the workplace, they will want to be innovative in their fields and be able or provide creative solutions. I asked them if they had ever heard of chief innovation officers. It may sound surprising, but pointing this out to students is important, as this connection between the classroom and their careers may be lost on students who feel they are simply ticking required boxes toward a degree. I tend to think that it improves engagement, too, in that it puts assignments in a new light.

Students may find personalized content to be especially relevant. For example, if I have a student who is struggling with a specific topic, a personalized Jing screencast for that student demonstrates the importance of the content and your commitment to their success. Taking the time to do this shows students that their comprehension of the material is indeed relevant.

If you are using PowerPoint to create mini lectures, Dr. Price (2013) recommends limiting the amount of verbiage per slide and instead using “captivating images that they [students] can form associations with” (para. 17).  Here is where Garr Reynold’s book “Presentation Zen” can help instructors. Reynolds has his own website, several Ted Talks, and multiple interviews available online for those who don’t yet have his book.  The goal of using this style is to “evoke memory processing with vivid visuals and simple main ideas” (Price, 2013, para. 13). Don’t feel like you are limited to PowerPoint, though. Some instructors find that they enjoy creating infographics, Emaze presentations, or Prezis to help communicate material. Whatever format you choose, make sure you start with a question, make the content relevant, and have the visuals outweigh the verbiage. Best of luck to you!


Price, C. (2017, February 15). How can I create effective mini lectures? [Webinar]. In Magna 20-Minute Mentors. Retrieved from http://www.magnapubs.com/mentor-commons/?video=3170