Don’t ask guest lecturers to give a lecture, let students interview them instead

As a lecturer, I like to invite guest lecturers to educate my students. It is good for them to have access to people from the ‘real world’, and I’ve noticed that students enjoy a fresh face.

Yet, I am always a bit hesitant to invite people. It is a big ask for people to prepare a talk specifically for your students. Also, you never know what you are going to get: some guest lecturers capture attention very naturally, and others lose my students after their first few sentences.

I have found a way to overcome this hesitation and accomplish these two goals:

  1. Allow the guest lecturer to come in with zero preparation.
  2. Make sure that the students stay engaged with the guest lecturer.

Rather than asking guests to give a lecture, I let my students interview them instead.

That is more work for me, but I think it is worth it. This is how I do it:

  1. Tell the students who is coming and ask them what questions they would like to pose to this person. I usually share a couple of links to the person who is coming, their work, and their organization. Most times students will have to hand in two questions each, with a strict deadline. For this, I use a web form that captures the student’s name and each of the questions in separate fields. This allows me to download all the questions as a single spreadsheet for further processing. This step ensures that students are activated before the lesson starts.
  2. Cluster and curate the questions and list them in a document. I go through each of the questions one by one and try to cluster them into different themes and order them chronologically. A question about how somebody got into this type of work lends itself to being at the top, and a question about future plans should probably come at the end. For each student, I try to pick at least one of their two questions, ensuring they have something to ask the guest. Usually, there will be a broad range of questions, covering most of what the guest would have brought themselves. I make a single document that lists all the questions that are to be asked in the right order and with the student’s name behind every question. I add a blank line between each question. If I want students to ask multiple questions before the guest answers, then I omit the blank line.
  3. Print out the list of questions and give each student (but not the guest!) a copy. Before the lesson, I print out the questions, making sure they fit on a single (two-sided if necessary) piece of paper. I hand these out to the students as they come into class. I don’t give the guest a copy, because that would make it unnecessary for the students to ask the questions. I will occasionally send the guest a copy of the questions in advance, especially if they are a bit nervous. But if I do, I tell them not to let the students know they’ve seen the questions already.
  4. Facilitate the interview and keep things moving along. I tell the students that I am expecting them to pay attention and ask their question at the right moment. They have to be ready when I say “OK, next question!” forcing them to keep paying attention. It is important to tell the guest to keep their answers short. In my experience, you can comfortably do around 25 questions in an hour. You can do a bit more if you keep up the pace.

Try it! Your guest lecturers and your students will be thankful.

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash.