After the initial energy and excitement of the early school months, the fall and winter seasons bring the annual challenge of maintaining student engagement. This precise point in the school year provides teachers with an opportunity to sustain crucial student engagement through project-based learning (PBL) that allows for collaboration and student choice.
Youki Terada powerfully conveys the value of project-based learning in his Edutopia article “New Research Makes a Powerful Case for PBL” when he writes that PBL “fosters a sense of purpose in young learners, pushes them to think critically, and prepares them for modern careers that prize skills like collaboration, problem-solving, and creativity.”
All teachers know that learning never ends, so we’re acutely aware that teachers continuously enter and exit our lives. We spend hours in professional development seminars taught by experts, but sometimes our best teachers are right there in our classrooms. We all know, too, that one of the best demonstrations of mastery of a specific skill is to teach that skill to someone else.
Teaching to Learn
One of the most successful strategies to bolster student engagement is the ever-reliable flip of the classroom, in which teachers give over the teaching to their students. A student-centered project-based learning lesson that works well for me is a specific type of collaborative project: the student lecture. This strategy has, for me, boosted engagement, particularly at the close of a semester or the end of the school year.
My first experience with student lectures occurred in college when my literature professor assigned a collaborative lecture project. My group and I had the flexibility to choose our subject and then present a lecture to our peers, teaching them a lesson we researched and prepared. Decades later—many decades later—I vividly remember this experience: It was a potent learning experience that has left an indelible imprint on me to this day. My aim is for my high school students to have a memorable opportunity like this.
My own method for assigning student lectures is simple and straightforward: I either assign groups or allow students to self-organize into small groups, usually of three to four students. They research an area of interest, create a lecture, and then teach a carefully constructed lesson to the entire class (and to me). Here, students become the teachers and, therefore, the experts on their subject. Students have a variety of interests to choose from—lecturing on an analysis of time and memory in Romantic poetry, the autobiographical elements in Virginia Woolf’s essays, or the rhetorical strategies of U.S. presidents or world leaders.
Groups also create assessments and quizzes to deliver to their class. They field a variety of questions testing their knowledge on their selected subject and often assign homework to their peers. Finally, each student completes a self-reflection on the learning experience. This is an opportune time to reveal the inner workings of the group dynamic, what worked or didn’t work, who did all the work, and so on.
Above all, student lectures not only teach students essential skills like research, reading comprehension, oral presentation, and reflection, but also provide a sense of ownership over their own learning, encouraging their collective curiosity. Student lectures teach content and a variety of inter-curricula knowledge.
For the teacher, there’s a palpable charge—a teacher joy—to see a group of students lecturing to other students, seeing your students become learned teachers to others. The audience doesn’t have to be solely fellow students. Several times, I’ve invited fellow English teachers, social studies teachers, principals, and other administrators to be the “students” for my student lecturers.
During one student lecture on braiding the themes of John Keats and F. Scott Fitzgerald, an English teacher grilled my students with a series of challenging questions, and my student lecturers answered them with confidence and poise. If we hope to instill a lifelong love of learning in our students, wouldn’t it be good to instill a love of teaching within them as well?
Student lectures are also amazingly versatile. At my school, the social studies department assigned a lecture project that lasts the entire year. The group determines an issue that our community—local, national, or global—faces and then researches potential solutions for that issue. Groups conduct interviews, compile research, determine a design plan, and prepare for their lectures. Then, at the end of a year, we hold an evening symposium in which each group presents to peers, teachers, and members of our community. This yearlong lecture assignment provides an indelible learning experience that intertwines content knowledge with practical, real-world skills.
Student lectures provide teachers with a product that reflects a culmination of student learning, allowing us to interweave several important skills into one summative project. Perhaps even more important, beyond content-specific skills, student lectures also teach tangible real-world skills such as collaboration, problem-solving, conflict resolution, communication, and researching that will travel with our students into their futures.