Lessons learnt by lecturing a class at MIT

Me lecturing a class at MIT!

This spring semester, I was fortunate enough to be invited to give a guest lecture at a product management class at MIT. The course was 15.828 — Product Management, taught by Prof. Tony Ke and was aimed at MBA students looking to get an introduction to the product management process.

The course is a half semester course in the first half of the Spring 2016 semester. The course syllabus covers all the different stages of the product development process : opportunity identification, design, testing and launch. Each of the process steps is a module within the course and has associated industry guest speakers. I was invited to give a talk within the testing module to talk about how testing and experimentation was employed in new product launches.

This was my first time teaching a class, especially one that was 1.5 hours long. There were also two sections within the course (with each section having about 40 students) for which the class ran back to back. This meant that for 3 hours straight, I was talking about and discussing the virtues of experimentation.

While I did learn that teaching requires a fair bit of stamina, I also got to learn a few more life lessons from this fruitful exercise.

Engagement is key

I quickly realized a few minutes into my first lecture that it was important to keep students engaged with the lecture, especially when it goes on for more than an hour. It is very easy for your audience to lose focus and you start to see them get that glazed look over their eyes. Although I had a few points of humor planned, I noticed that I got a lot more engagement when asking questions / opinions from the class. Asking questions from students was also a quick tip that Prof. Ke gave me a few minutes before my lecture started.

As a result, in my second lecture, I proactively looked to encourage discussions by asking questions or by seeking reactions/opinions from the students. I also came away from my second lecture feeling that it had gone a lot better than the first one.

The most important thing in teaching a class is how you engage the students

Following these lectures, I came and watched videos of other industry speakers in similar scenarios. I noticed that without exception, they were very good in keeping the audience on their toes and sought engagement from the get go. One of the speakers, Milo Werner (leads new product introductions at FitBit) asked students to come to board and brainstorm ideas in her lecture as well. Incidentally, Milo was also one of the guest lecturers for this course this semester.

Don’t force the content

Not knowing how much discussion would occur, I planned on having 45 slides divided across 5 different sections in my presentation. In my first lecture, as I got more discussions going, I could cover only 3 out of the 5 sections. However, I was guilty of quickening the pace in the latter half of the third section.

During my second lecture, I already knew that I wouldn’t get through all the content especially as I was looking to ask more questions and seek more reactions. I just realized that it would be much more valuable to not rush through the content and just make sure that the core points make it through. In many classes I have been in, I have seen the presenter trying to push through the entirety of the material. But more often than not, those parts just fly over the audience.

Learn and not just teach

Teaching a business school class was very different from what I had experienced before. Although I anticipated a few questions here and there, the class was a lot more interactive and we often side-tracked into fairly long discussions with multiple students participating. In many cases, the students also played the devil’s advocate, making me dive deeper into my points of justification than originally planned.

As a result I came away with interesting insights into what I was presenting. It felt refreshing to get different view points and to listen to others on their experience, which is something that rarely happens at the workplace. Collectively it felt more like a discussion and I came away with a lot more learning than I anticipated going in. All in all, I think teaching is a great way to learn and I am excited to do more of that in the near future!

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