Cure for the Common Lecture: 8 Ways to Improve Your Pathology Lecture

by | May 10, 2017 | Education, Residents | 6 comments

Pathology didactics are classically been taught in lecture style.  While pathologists aren’t known for their charisma and outgoing personalities, we’ve all been asked to give a lecture, whether during grand rounds, tumor board, or oral abstracts, pathology is by nature a teaching specialty.

That being said, the quality of our lectures can vary drastically from truly inspiring to coma inducing. Recall that early morning lecture where the speakers droning voice lulls you to sleep while they read straight from the PowerPoint. You wish you could pay more attention but honestly the lecturer isn’t doing you many favors.  Pathology lectures can be down right boring sometimes!

I’m no expert in education but by the time I graduate from fellowship I will have officially spent 26 years in academics. I’ve sat through thousands of hours of lectures.  I’ve thought a lot about what lecture styles helped me learn the most (and kept me awake) so that I could replicate those qualities in my own lectures.

Improve pathology lecture

So here are…

8 ways to improve pathology lectures

(and keep residents awake during all those early morning didactics):

1. Know your audience

Teaching above someone’s head is a good way to lull them to sleep.  Teaching far below someone’s education is a good way to insult them.  Find out what they know and then teach them something new.  It can be as easy as asking before you start or, with a little preparation, you can ask the organizer of the lecture a few days before.  Things get tricky when the education level of group varies widely. However, you should still make an attempt to find out where the majority reside in terms of understanding your topic.

2. Engage with your audience

It’s important to make eye contact and actually hold a conversation with your audience.  After each slide, take a second to look at several people in the audience to measure their facial expressions.  This will help you know if they are understanding the subject or if you should spend more time of a certain section.  Ask good questions to see if people are paying attention.  Respond to questions that they ask you.

3. “Tell ‘em what you’re going to say, say it, then tell ‘em what you said”

Start with a summary slide of your lecture topic.   Next, go through your lecture. Finally, show a summary slide of what you just presented.  Sounds pretty easy!  You’d be surprised how often this is missed.

4. 16:9 vs 4:3

New projectors are now are being installed in campuses and lecture halls that use a 16x9 aspect ratio.  This is similar to what you see at a movie theater.  This means there are many more pixels available to use than the old 4:3 aspect ratio.  Your low quality images from that 5-year old presentation will look really pixelated when it’s expanded to fit the newer projector screens. WORD OF CAUTION: If you create a beautiful 16:9 presentation and then find out that they still use older 4:3 projectors than your slides will display with large black bars on the top and bottom of the screen.

Bottom line: find out the aspect ratio of the projector you will be using, and create your presentation based on that aspect ration.

5. High quality images

Pathology is a visual field.  Any effort you can put into higher quality images will be worthwhile.  There are many ways to capture high quality images and just as many opinions about each method.  Look for a future post about my preferred workflow on how to create super high quality histology images.

6. Less Text, More Figures

There are a 3 fun analogies that help elucidate this helpful hint:  1: Great PowerPoint presentations should make terrible handouts, 2: Presentations should not a file where you keep a repositories of all your knowledge on the subject, and 3: What you say should be similar to the captions of images in a journal article and the presentation should be just the images and figures from the articles.

7. Large Fonts and Summaries

When you do need text on slides use large fonts, fewer bullet points, and summaries.  The text should be a brief, grammatically incorrect (no typo) summary of what you will say about the slide.  You don’t have to worry about grammar because you want people to look at you instead of the words on the slide.  Here are two bullet points as examples:

Good example:

12 negative lymph nodes

Stage T1b N0 M0

 Wordy example:

I found 12 negative lymph nodes in the main surgical specimen

He was staged as a T1b N0 M0

You can verbalize all the details and you don’t have to actually put it in writing.

8. Audience response systems

Audience response systems (ARS) can take some time to set up but are worth the effort.  This is probably one of the best ways to engage your audience and help residents interact with your presentation.  ARS can perform several functions:

  1. Gage resident understanding of subject prior to lecture (Pretest)
  2. Test residents after the lecture is over (post test)
  3. Gather opinions about topics in the middle of lecture
  4. ARS ice breakers are fun to use in the beginning to wake people up and test whether your ARS is working properly

Here are two ARS websites that I highly recommend; one for the novice and the other for more advanced computer users.

Socrative, Very easy to use, free, audience response system.  If you’ve never used an ARS before, this would be the first one to try out.

Poll Everywhere, pollev.comI’ve had the most experience with this platform and I’ve enjoyed working with it.

Great Sources of Inspiration for Your Next Lecture

Next time you watch a TED talk, notice they don’t read the words on their slides.  All the focus is on the speaker and only briefly do they reference a well-designed figure or a short bullet point list that summarizes their thoughts.

Apple also focuses on the speaker and uses the presentation to enhance the speaker, not overshadow the speaker.

How to Tell You Gave a Quality Lecture

When you’ve tried your best, it’s good to see if your efforts made a difference.  A good way to tell if you gave a good lecture is if your audience showed signs of SLR.  Just think of a taking a picture of your audience with a nice Canon, Nikon, or Sony SLR camera to help you remember the results of an above average lecture:

Stayed awake

Learned more information

Retained information longer


Best of luck on your next lecture or presentation.  I hope this gives you some good ideas!  What else have you tried to improve your pathology didactics and increase engagement?  Comment below!