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Improving Student Engagement at Public Lectures:
Improving Student Engagement at Public Lectures:
Assigning a Writing Task

January, 2006
Revisiting our CAE Teaching Excellence Workshops Slater, University of Wyoming; & Brissenden, University of Arizona

In previous research we found that many faculty state that their top three instructional goals include wanting students to have a life-long interest in astronomy and science (Slater et al; 2001). That is, they want their students to read newspaper articles, go to planetaria, and attend public lectures. We also know that if this is one of our goals we have to explicitly state this to our students, provide the learning opportunities for them to become successful at it, and assess them on their achievement of it (Brissenden et al; 2002). But we also know from our own experience, and the many comments and questions we receive from our workshop participants, that this is no small task. So, how do we succeed at achieving this goal? Step number one is easy: Tell your students. Steps two and three? Slightly more difficult.

We think it safe to say that many of us have had the following experience. A famous scientist—maybe even an astronomer—is visiting a nearby museum to give a public lecture. We think to ourselves, "What a unique opportunity for my students! Maybe I'll give them extra credit for attending or make it a requirement of the course. Maybe I'll even have them write a short paper about it." But when we hear what students had to say about the talk, or read their papers, we quickly realize just how often students seem to gain very little from attending even the most entertaining public lecture. So, what can we do to help? This is where instruction comes in. By providing students with a framework for how to engage in the talk, instead of being a passive listener while there, we will come closer to achieving our goal. What does such a framework look like?

One framework that has been highly successful for us is the development of a set of tasks that students are to complete during, and right after, the lecture. Even a simple, single sheet of paper with bulleted questions and a space to write responses is sufficient; although it can become complex and more robust the more we align the questions to a particular speaker, and their topic, instead of making one generic form for use with all public speakers.

Imagine how much more students could engage in a lecture it they were tasked to write answers to these questions:

  • Where is the speaker from, and what is his or her area of expertise (which students are to get from the speaker's introduction)?
  • Beyond simply rephrasing the title, what is the overarching scientific question the speaker is trying to address?
  • Where did the speaker get his or her data?
  • What makes this particular work complex, or what difficulties did the speaker encounter in doing the work?
  • What does the speaker still not know about this area, or what are the next steps in the project?
  • What was the most interesting aspect of the lecture?
  • What was the most confusing aspect of the lecture?
  • If you had the chance to, what question would you ask the speaker?

Although this might sound like what students should do naturally when they attend a lecture, we should all remember that many of our students have gone to considerable effort to avoid engaging in scientific discourse in their daily lives. These same students can benefit greatly from a guiding framework that helps them engage in a public lecture.

Now that we have instructed our students on how to engage in a public lecture, how do we assess it? Not all assessments need to, nor should they, lead to grades, but we do have to assess: Assessment drives student learning Tobias & Raphael, 1997). This type of assignment does not have to be graded for the correctness of answers, but can be graded for completeness of answers. Here is one possible rubric (grading guideline):

  • Note: Complete these questions during, or immediately after, the public lecture using complete sentences. Always be sure to explain your thinking clearly and completely. It is due the class period following the lecture. This assignment is graded with only four possible outcomes:
  • 10 points: complete with considerable detail
  • 5 points: complete with some details
  • 3 points: evidence indicates entire lecture was attended
  • 0 points: some answers are missing or provide insufficient detail to demonstrate that the student paid attention during entire lecture

In the end, if our course goals include a life-long interest in science and astronomy, we believe that it is our responsibility to teach them how to do it. One way is by having our students attend high-quality public lectures that can inspire, as well as inform. We also know, however, that structure and guidance are needed if we want to achieve this goal.


Brissenden, G., Slater, T. F., & Mathieu, R. (2002). The role of assessment in the development of the college introductory astronomy course: A "how-to" guide for instructors. Astronomy Education Review 1(1). Retrievable from

Slater, T., Adams, J. P., Brissenden, G., & Duncan, D. (2001). What Topics Are Taught in Introductory Astronomy Courses? The Physics Teacher, 39(1), 52-55.

Tobias, S. & Raphael, J. (1997). The hidden curriculum—faculty-made tests in science, Part I: Lower-division courses. New York: Plenum Press.

Teaching Strategies Archive

CAE is housed in the Astronomy Dept. at the Univ. of Arizona's Steward Observatory. CAE is funded through the generous contributions of the NASA JPL Exoplanet Exploration Public Engagement Program. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0715517, a CCLI Phase III Grant for the Collaboration of Astronomy Teaching Scholars (CATS). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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