How To Give a Teaching Demonstration (A Guest Post)

Today’s post is a Guest Post by Dr. Melissa A Barlett, who is an Instructor in Biology at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, NY.  Melissa kindly came to my rescue when I asked for a post on the Teaching Demonstration.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve had only one of these in my career, and bombed it so badly I have wiped it mostly from my memory.  I made the classic mistake of assuming the students had read the assigned text, based my entire lesson plan on discussion of the reading, and then had to stand there in the excruciatingly painful silence of a roomful of non-participants for most of 50 minutes.  It was dreadful.  Thanks, Melissa, for sharing the insights that will prevent this from happening to others.  (For a bit more on the subject, be sure to also read the Addendum in the middle of this post, provided by another reader).

Take it away, Melissa!  (and see below for a later addendum added by Karen in April 2015)


One of the things that makes Academic Interviews so much different from many other interviews is the presentation. Depending on your discipline and the school you are applying to, this can come in a variety of forms. For example, after a year’s worth of interviews for biology positions, I could give my research seminar in my sleep. However, in some schools, and especially SLACs, they are starting to get away from the research seminar and are moving more towards the teaching demonstration where you actually teach either a lesson or an entire class.

For many people, this is a terrifying prospect. You probably haven’t spent much time in front of students. Even a typical TA, in my field at least, is not usually creating their own lecture materials on a regular basis. Of course, since a huge part of what you’ll be doing in the near future, especially if you get this job, will be teaching, this is probably something that the committee will weigh heavily. Therefore, you want to do everything you can to make a great teaching impression.

Fortunately, I have some tips to help you out.

Tip 1: Know your audience

Ask lots of questions.

Are you actually teaching a class or are you giving a demonstration mainly to faculty? If it is a class, be sure you know the student population. Are they majors? Non-majors? Freshmen? Seniors? If you are only doing a demonstration, ask specifically what level/type of student that your teaching should be geared for.

Teach to the correct level. You are not showing off how much you know in a teaching demonstration. You are trying to show how well you can explain a complex concept to someone who has never studied it. Even if you are teaching to a “class” of faculty, treat them like the students you would be teaching. This isn’t talking down, nor should it be to students, but be sure you define terms as appropriate and go over difficult concepts a few times. Repeating things 2-3 different ways is a common teaching technique.

One of the best things you can do is try to physically engage your audience. This can really depend on the type of class. For very large classes of younger students, engagement is often more difficult. I like to throw out simple yes/no questions near the beginning of my lectures. Then I can ask “How many people say yes?” and when no one raises their hands, I add on, “nodding is a completely acceptable way of responding.” Usually, if you work them in slowly, head nods will turn into hands raising. Even then, my favorite line was, “How many for A? How many for B? How many abstain from answering?” Students always raise hands for that last one, which shows that they are listening. I also once did a sorting exercise during a teaching demonstration where I had two columns and put up a word on the powerpoint. I then had the students point right or left as to where it went. They didn’t have to talk, but they mostly played along. This lets you and the evaluating faculty know the students are listening.

Tip 2: Make the material fit the course and the time

Find out not only the topic, but where this topic fits into the course outline. Better yet, find out what textbook they use and find/borrow a copy so you know what the students will be seeing.

Choose the topics that you will cover to fit into the time period. Going over time in a seminar is usually forgiven. If you are teaching a class and you go over, they might just walk out on you, which is probably not the impression you want to make. I’d even say aim for shorter rather than longer. Although, being able to show that you can time a lecture within 5-10 minutes of class time goes a long way to showing that you could do that when you are teaching as well. What this might mean is that you have to teach a smaller chunk of material than the probably broad topic you were given. Choose something that makes a good complete story. It is impossible to cover an entire actual textbook in a semester of lecturing. Showing that you can pick and choose the important topics or choose an appropriate level of detail shows you could do that in your own class.

As a biologist, I teach Human Biology to non-majors. I don’t need to cover the material that would be covered in an Anatomy and Physiology class, so I choose to focus on how structure relates to function and not on the details of each system. I want my students to see how signals travel in the nervous system, but I don’t need to stand up in front of them and describe what each neurotransmitter does in detail.

Tip 3: Use visuals effectively

The number one way to lose students is to hit them with a block of text or a non-stop lecture. There are probably two main possibilities of visuals for this demonstration: powerpoint or writing on a board. I’ll discuss both. First of all, find out as much as you can about the room and the available technology. Is there a computer set-up? A place to plug in a laptop? Chalk? Smart board or white board? The more you know, the better you can prepare.

Writing on the board

The bonus to this method is that you are showing that you are comfortable enough with the topic to not need extra visuals. However, this is not a method you should use if you have bad handwriting (or in my case, can’t draw a picture to save her life).  The other problem is that you have to turn away from the class to write. Be sure not to talk to the board! You say something, turn and write the word/phrase, and then turn back around and say it again. It will feel strange to you if you’ve never done that before because for the moment that you are writing, there is silence. Most people hate silence, but when teaching, it gives the students a chance to write and process the material. You can’t rush through a lecture. In all cases, watch the students. If most of them are writing, pause. Thirty seconds of silence will seem like ten minutes, but it will show that you are aware of the students’ needs. Many times, students are told they will be tested on this material. Keep that in mind.


To avoid rushing through a powerpoint based lecture, you need to be aware of how much text you put on the slides. As a general rule, less is more. I typically use sparse bullet-pointed lists containing only the most complicated terminology. Remember: your presentation supplements your lecture, it shouldn’t be your lecture. I’m a huge fan of pictures, videos, and animations. The whole point of the computer is to explain things that are difficult to talk about or draw on the board. Make use of that. I typically browse Google Images and YouTube for materials that are different than the textbooks. I’ve been known to have ten slides in a row with just a title and 1-2 pictures. If you are any good at all with powerpoint animation functions, use them. People are always impressed with a well-done animation. Do not use a canned presentation, make your own. I was asked on multiple occasions if my presentation was premade, and I was glad to be able to answer “no.”

Some other quick notes about making a great looking powerpoint for teaching. Assume you will be in a lit room (dark rooms put students to sleep, keep the lights on), and therefore, you should use a light background and dark text. However, don’t use white, it’s too bright to look at for long periods. Use a light color and a dark color of matching text. Preferably, use a gradient on your background, but still in light colors, for example: light blue transitioning to light green. On that I would use a nearly black navy text in bold. Make sure it’s bold, and at least 24 point font (watch the font sizes on pictures). Most of the pre-made choices for backgrounds are terrible, don’t use them. Don’t use a dark background and light text, it’s hard to read in a lit room. Don’t mix red and green, just don’t.

Here’s an example of a slide from one of my presentations on how to give a presentation.

Tip 4: Practice

Unless you are an experienced improviser who feels like they can estimate times without practicing, you should always practice. Gather up your closest friends and colleagues and teach them. The best thing you can do is use a mixed audience as well. Use your spouse/friend in another field and see if they can follow and understand you. Ask them about your flow, how topics run into each other, and how the story connects together.

Then, have them ask you questions. Tell them to channel their inner annoying freshmen and ask questions like, “Will this be on the test?” When you are answering questions, don’t forget not to make up answers for students. Even during a teaching demonstration, it is fair to respond with, “You know, I’m not sure about that, but I’d be glad to discuss it with you after class.” Or, if you have an excited questioner in your class, you can try, “That’s really interesting, and I’d love to talk more with you later about it, but it’s more detail than the class needs to know, so hold that thought until after class.” You might have the faculty ask you “student” questions. I know I did at one of my interviews. Answer them the same way as you would a student, this is a teaching demonstration, demonstrate being a teacher.

So, these basic tips: know your audience, make the material fit the course and time, use visuals effectively, and practice should be able to help you on your way. The only other major tip I have for you is to have fun! You are in this field because you love it, and as a teacher, one of your jobs is to make your students love it as well. Let that come through, and everyone will notice.

I talked more than you should in your lectures, so I think that’s enough!

Good luck!


Refer to this excellent column by Rob Jenkins in the Chronicle of HIgher Ed on Teaching Demos:

January 26, 2009

Demonstration or Demolition?


The teaching demo is arguably the most important part of the community-college interview — and the most terrifying

If you’re fortunate enough to have scored a job interview at a two-year college, congratulations. Now it’s time to start preparing for what is arguably the most important, probably the most arduous, and certainly the most daunting (judging from the e-mail messages I receive) part of the interview: the teaching demonstration.

Over the course of my 30 years’ teaching at community colleges, I’ve observed dozens of teaching demos. Only a few were actually good. Most were just OK, and many were downright awful. I’ve seen a number of otherwise-solid candidates derailed by their demonstrations, and many other people whom we hired despite a lackluster performance, hoping against hope that it was an aberration.

Those candidates were not bad teachers. OK, some of them were, but in most cases, the problem was not that they didn’t know how to teach but rather that they didn’t know how to conduct a teaching demonstration during a job interview. The two things, while obviously related, aren’t exactly the same.

Here, then, are some tips to remember as you prepare your teaching demo.

It’s a demonstration, not a presentation. One of the biggest mistakes job candidates make is treating the teaching demo like a conference talk, sometimes even complete with PowerPoint slides and handouts of those same slides.

It’s not that using technology is a bad idea (more on that later); it’s just that candidates who are using it in that particular way are demonstrating the wrong thing. They’re showing the committee how well they can present information to peers in a conference setting, not how well they can teach students in a college classroom.

The problem with the presentation approach is that candidates spend all their time talking about what they would do in such-and-such a class rather than actually doing it. That deprives committee members of the opportunity to observe the way candidates present real material in a real-time, quasi-classroom setting. And that’s what we need to see in order to hire the best teachers.

Choose a manageable topic. While some search committees allow candidates to choose a subject for their demonstration, most panels provide the topic. In fact, committees often give all of the candidates the same topic in an attempt to place everyone on an equal footing.

If you don’t get to pick your topic, you still have some important choices to make: Exactly what information, and how much, do you hope to convey in the time allotted (usually 15 to 20 minutes)? How will you present it? Will you mostly lecture? Invite some discussion? Involve everyone in a group activity? Dazzle committee members with your technological brilliance?

The first step is to narrow your topic to something you can manage in your few minutes on stage. Here again, one of the biggest mistakes that candidates make is covering too much information — basically, trying to squeeze a 50-minute lecture into a 15-minute presentation. Once again, they end up talking about what they do instead of doing it.

My advice is to identify a 15to 20-minute segment of a familiar lesson, an excerpt that can stand on its own without a lot of background or lead-in material. Preferably, it should be something you’ve taught often enough that you already know how you’re going to present it.

Treat committee members like students. Sometimes a search committee will give you this directive explicitly, either in written preinterview instructions or verbally as you’re about to begin. But whether they mention it or not, remember that you can’t teach without students — and committee members are the only other people in the room. (It’s true that a few colleges have job candidates teach actual students in a classroom setting, while committee members observe. But in most hiring situations at two-year colleges, it’s the committee members themselves you’ll be “teaching.”)

Treating committee members as if they were students means forgetting, for a few minutes, that they hold your professional future in their hands and relating to them as you would to students in a classroom. Address them just as you would address students. Ask them questions, try to engage them in discussion, and call on them to answer. Involve them in activities, whether they, much like real students, appear willing or not.

Although that approach may seem to involve a great deal of role-playing on your part — and perhaps on the part of committee members as well — it actually provides them with invaluable insight into your teaching style, your classroom manner, and your ability to establish a rapport with an audience.

Just be careful not to appear condescending. If you do, committee members will wonder if you will treat a bunch of 18to 20-year-olds the same way, or worse. And don’t take the “student/teacher” relationship too far, like the candidate who confiscated a committee member’s cellphone during “class.”

Do more than lecture. Tempting as it might be to stand up and talk for 15 minutes, don’t. And for heaven’s sake, don’t simply read from lecture notes; that’s a surefire way to eliminate yourself from contention.

At the very least, mix in a little discussion and some question and answer. (One nice thing about having faculty members as your “students”: They’re going to know the answers.) And be sure to distribute at least one handout that clearly enhances the lesson.

You might also use a group activity, although I would add three caveats: First, make sure the activity is, shall we say, age-appropriate. Don’t be like the candidate who gave each of us on the search committee a cracker, asked us to stare at it for three minutes, and then instructed us to write a paragraph about what we saw. I confess: I just saw a cracker.

Second, don’t use an activity that will take up too much of your time. We want you to do more than just lecture, but we do want to hear you lecture. So choose an activity that can be completed in no more than five to seven minutes.

Finally, don’t expect committee members to be any more enthusiastic about participating in your activity than your actual students would be.

Use bells and whistles — in moderation. After you are invited to an interview that includes a teaching demonstration, one of the first things you should find out is what kind of technology will be available to you. If it’s something you’re comfortable using — that is, something you already use regularly — plan to use it in your teaching demo. So, for example, if you normally use PowerPoint in your classroom, or like to pull up YouTube videos on the Internet, the committee would probably love to see you do it.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t go to great lengths to concoct some “totally wired” lesson plan that doesn’t reflect the way you actually teach, just to show how savvy you are. Your lack of comfort (and perhaps familiarity) with the technology will almost certainly be evident.

Also, even if you’re a bona fide geek, avoid giving a teaching demo that is so technologically based that it’s almost a lesson on technology rather than on the topic at hand. Remember, search committees at community colleges are looking for the best teachers, not necessarily the best techies. By all means, dazzle them with technology, but do more than just dazzle. Teach.

And bear in mind that if you do intend to use technology, it’s vital to have a backup plan. In my experience, nothing is more common during teaching demonstrations than for the classroom technology to malfunction. So if you’re using a CD, have the data on a flash drive as well. Prepare handouts that you can substitute for the images that won’t appear on the screen if the projector refuses to boot up. (Here’s where those copies of your PowerPoint slides might come in handy.) If all else fails, be prepared to teach in the old-fashioned way.

By following those few simple steps, you can set yourself apart from other candidates. And if you’re interviewing at my institution, where I’m once again serving on a search committee, I’m not just suggesting you follow my advice — I’m begging.

After all, how many awful teaching demos can one person sit through?

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College.

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How To Give a Teaching Demonstration (A Guest Post) — 28 Comments

  1. Another helpful suggestion– especially if your teaching demonstration to a group of students at an SLAC. Come to the demo with a stack of index cards and black sharpie, pass the cards out to the students and ask them to write their first names with the sharpie marker to be displayed on their desks, facing you. This allows you to call on students by their names (which is so much easier and less crass than simply “yes” or “you” and you can refer to their comments, “as Janet was saying earlier….” or “this goes back to Andrew’s question”), it creates an instant atmosphere of congeniality, and it demonstrates to the observing faculty that you care about making a connection with their students.

  2. This is great. But how do you handle not a class, but a “meeting/interview” with SLAC students during a campus visit? How do you charm a bunch of students when you’re not teaching them, and when they don’t have their own research to talk about (since they’re not graduate students)?

      • Ask them questions! Undergrads almost never get asked how the department’s offerings are working out for them, so it’s a great opportunity for them to reflect and for you to learn a bit more about the place. Ask them where they are in the program, what courses they have taken, what courses they wish they could take, have they had any interesting outside speakers, do they have a study-abroad component, do they make use of other resources in the area outside the university, do they find the department’s offerings to complement other courses they’ve taken outside the department, etc. etc. It doesn’t have to be an interrogation, but if you listen closely, you might learn something more about the feel of the place, which can help you in envisioning and communicating how you might fit in there during the interview.

    • Responses to your question from the FB page:

      Martina Miles: When I was a student at a small, private, liberal arts college, I went to many lunches and meetings and “informal chats” with prospective professors, in my field and others, and the faculty took our recommendations seriously, so I understand that this much be a very fraught meeting for the job candidate. But the professors I always liked best were the ones who asked more questions instead of just rambling on about their plans and who made genuinely interested inquiries into what kind of campus we had, what kind of faculty-student interactions we enjoyed, and what kind of niche that new professor could fill that perhaps the faculty wouldn’t know about. If they had this kind of attention to the campus environment as a whole, I knew they would not only be interesting to take classes from, but also a vibrant member of our close-knit community.
      15 minutes ago · Like

      Meghan Roberts: The key is to never talk down to them, bore them, or act disinterested. Like Martina said, you want to ask them questions about the college community, because they probably love to talk about it. If they’re seniors working on honors theses/independent studies, you can ask them about their work. They’ll want to talk about what classes you’ll offer, so be sure to have copies of your teaching materials — namely a list of courses that you’d teach and sample syllabi — because they probably won’t have access to your file. But above all, be fun and relate-able. Coming across as arrogant and out of touch is especially problematic in this situation.
      8 minutes ago · Like

  3. Insightful post. Here’s a follow-up question.

    How do you approach a teaching demonstration that is geared toward students; however, because students are on break, you will be presenting it to faculty. Typically I would ask students basic questions and play off their responses. Do you do the same for an audience of faculty, or should you approach it as more of a straight lecture.

    There is a balancing act here: you don’t want to insult the faculty members’ intelligence, but you still want to show that you can engage students.

    • great questions; difficult to answer. I’d do it more as a straight lecture, with some lively questions thrown in as punctuation, but not the main text so to speak.

  4. How would you approach a teaching demonstration in which you are given the subject, have 15 minutes to prep, and then present a 15 minute lesson to the committee? They want to see if I can “think on my feet.”

    • run the other way. ha. that’s insane. but basically, don’t panic. Try and “spin” the subject to reflect your long-standing areas of expertise. Never try to fake what you don’t know.

  5. This happened to me this year, only I wasn’t given 15 minutes to look it over, and it was a major musical work I had never seen before that I was supposed to “teach” to someone pretending to be a first year undergrad. I turned this job down. I felt that giving me such an unreasonable test in the interview – which I think I actually did fairly well with – did not bode well for the tenure process.

  6. This post is very helpful. I am at the moment preparing for a teaching demo. Although I’ve had more than 500 students in my budding career, and spoken in front of senior colleagues, being aware that someone is actually testing your teaching skills can be nerve racking.

  7. Pingback: Teaching Tuesday: Interviewing–the teaching test lecture | Small Pond Science

  8. I am currently teaching at a local two year college where I teach communication classes such as public speaking, intro to com, etc. I am full-time and love what I do. But, as silly as it sounds, I have an issue with writing on the chalkboard. I teach from PowerPoint as well as facilitating classroom activities. But, I have terrible handwriting and feel this hurts my credibility with students to write on the board. The result is I do not write on the chalkboard unless it is to post updated information for important dates, etc. I find however, that not using the board hinders me. Do you have any suggestions for other visuals other than PowerPoint to use in place of writing on the board?

    Warm Regards,

    • Hi Lisa,

      I’m not sure if you still need the advice eight months later, but I wanted to share my thoughts in case you or others might find it helpful. If you’re using a computer already for PowerPoints, you could flip to a Word or Google doc where you could type in the same sorts of things you would write on the board. If you find that it works for you and you’re able to get some relevant and helpful information in the document, you could even send it to the audience as a way to sum up what was covered during the presentation. I usually use the board for taking down student contributions, so sharing them in a document is a nice way to let others engage with their peers’ thoughts (and also can demonstrate that you value the intellectual work students do in classes). I’ve started using this method in the past year because my handwriting is a cursive/printing sort of hybrid, and most of my students, who are no longer being taught cursive in elementary school, are baffled by my handwriting.


  9. Hi, this is all fairly good advice. Although a bit past when this piece was posted, I am based in Japan and I am applying for Visiting Assistant Professor jobs at the moment. However, I interviewed at a SLAC last week via Skype and they have asked me to make a 20-minute teaching demonstration video. I would be interested if anyone has any observations from their own experiences of doing this or if they have any special advice…

  10. I’m going to give a demonstration class after few days. I think it’ll help me in delivering my lecture. And, I’m very grateful to you for your great suggestion. Thanks.

  11. I’m preparing for several on-campus interviews with teaching demonstrations, and I’m trying to figure out how much “myself” I should be in the class. I have a lot of teaching experience, and I’m generally a very informal and relaxed – and funny, so I’m told – professor. But should I dial that down a few notches for a teaching demo? On the one hand, I get that people watching and evaluating my teaching isn’t the same as a standard environment; on the other hand, I think that my comfort in the classroom is my strongest attribute as a prof, and it seems a shame to lose that now. Any ideas?

  12. How do you deal with them asking you to send a teaching demonstration on a cd or online? I don’t have any of my classes recorded and only have 2 weeks to do this. I will only have one class before the deadline and it will be the first meeting of the semester when I go over syllabus and other things. Should I record a lecture online and just send it to them without them seeing me physically in front of a class?

  13. I am scheduled to do a teaching demo in a law enforcement school. My audience would be police officers. I was told to do a demo. I am thinking now what topic should i discuss with that kind of audience. Can you help me.

  14. I’m interviewing for a community college teaching job. Like most community colleges, they emphasize “active learning”, and I tailored my teaching statement around providing evidence of my commitment to active, engaged learning. And truly, I think one of my strengths as a teacher is situating material in a way that promotes discussion, questions, reflection activities, etc.

    As part of the interview process I am asked to give a 15-minute teaching demonstration… to the panel interviewing me (no students present), with no use of technology, and it can’t be interactive.

    As I’m preparing to give an exceptionally clear, well-organized, and interesting lecture, I’m wondering about how I might showcase my ability to engage students (but, you know, without making them do anything).

    Should I…

    (a) situate a discussion question, identify contributions a student would plausibly make, and respond (i.e., lecture in a way that simulates a conversation I would expect to have).

    (b) make little asides about what I would do if I were interacting with students (e.g., note how I typically begin a lesson with activities that get students to identify what they believe/know/notice/wonder, note where I would typically break for discussion, note how I would end a lesson with activities that encourage students to reflect on what they learned / give me a sense of what they learned, etc.)?

    (c) something else?

    (d) stick to the clear, well-organized, and interesting lecture?

  15. I have been invited for a demo lecture on a topic which is not very close to my expert field. I am not so much theoretically and technically knowledgeable about the given topic. The lecture duration would be not more than 20 minutes. After my lecture, there will be a 10 minutes question answering session which has made me more panicked and uncomfortable. In this situation what is your advice for the preparation of my demo lecture? The audiences will be students and selection committee.

  16. Great advice. I’ve been asked to give a 40 minute teaching seminar demonstration during a Skype interview (the actual position involves teaching in person, not online). Any thoughts / experience with adjusting to such constraints?

    • Not on a skype teaching demo per se, but please do check out today’s Chronicle Vitae post on managing skype interviews in general.

  17. it was indeed a great advice for me, hope it will help me for my demo, Thank you so much! Hope I can make it, without any butterflies because it was my first interview and first demo.

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