Guest speakers can be one of the highlights of a course you teach.
Good guest speakers can help students learn about trends in the industry and inspire students to excel. Good guest speakers can become contacts for your students, leading to internships or jobs.
Guest speakers can provide a range of views and can contribute to the diversity you want to incorporate in your teaching.
Guest speakers can reinforce what you’ve discussed in class and what the reading assignments have presented.
But not everyone automatically is going to be a good guest speaker.
Let me offer some tips for having a great experience for your students and the guest speaker. I offer this advice based on years of inviting guest speakers to class – with classes ranging from a dozen graduate students to an undergraduate class with more than 200 students.
1. Provide context about the course and students
When you invite someone to be a guest speaker in class, you want to talk about the course and the students. By talking about the course and students, you can help the speaker understand how the speaker’s visit to class is contributing to the course.
Where does the speaker’s visit to class fit into the design of the course? What have the students been learning and doing in the course, and what will be happening in the course next?
You also can help the speaker be aware of the students’ background in the subject. Are these students in an introductory course who you hope to become inspired to pursue a career in the field? Or are these upper division students who need to learn what the expectations are for being an intern?
2. Consider using a Q&A format.
After years of having guest speakers, I’ve found that a Q&A format is the most effective approach for most guest speakers.
By you posing questions, the guest speaker doesn’t have the pressure of preparing a 30- to 45-minute presentation. Typically when I suggest this format to the person I’m inviting to speak to class, the person is greatly relieved.
Often the person had envisioned having to speak for 45 minutes, complete with a slide presentation.
Sometimes speakers say “no” because of the time involved in preparing or the anxiety of having to make a prepared presentation to a room filled with students.
With the Q&A approach, I send questions in advance for the speaker to review, but I also let the speaker know that the students and I will have other questions, too.
With the Q&A format, you can redirect the guest who might be going into too much detail on a topic or going off on an unhelpful tangent. You can ask the guest to define terms or provide a background on something they are discussing.
If the guest speaker is making a presentation, it’s more difficult to interrupt to ask for clarification or to redirect.
3. Get the class involved.
You will decide – based on the course and the number of students – how to get the students involved. You can design a number of ways to promote active learning.
In a small class, you could ask each student to prepare 2-3 questions and then be ready to ask at least one question of the guest speaker. You might award participation points for asking questions.
I’ve found that a writing assignment about the guest speaker is a great way to keep students tuned in.
Sometimes I’ve assigned students to take notes and write an article, complete with quotes, based on the guest speaker.
In my multimedia writing class, I’ve asked everyone to live tweet during my conversation with the guest speaker. They use the class hashtag so we all can find their tweets.
Two of my teaching assistants searched the class members’ tweets, using the class hashtag, to find good questions that the students were asking. Periodically, I’d ask the TAs to share questions the students had raised.
4. Prepare the class for the guest speaker.
At least one class meeting before the guest speaker’s visit to class, you want to talk with the class about the guest speaker. Explain why you have invited that individual and what the speaker will be adding to the course.
Discuss what your expectations are of the students. For your first guest speaker of the term, you should remind the students that they are representing the program and the university. Explain what you expect in terms of them asking questions, completing an assignment, using their technology during class, etc.
I often recruit a student to take photos (cellphone photos are fine) that I can use to tweet about the guest speaker’s visit or can share with the college’s communications office for use on the college website.
5. Determine how much time to allocate to the guest speaker.
You may want to include a speaker in class but not have the speaker take an entire class period.
If the person is on campus, then asking them to come by for 20 minutes of class can work. However, if they are leaving work and driving to campus, you don’t want them to think that they are making a lot of effort for only a few minutes of class time.
6. Video-conferencing can be the best solution.
If I want to have a guest speaker for only a few minutes or want to invite someone who is out of town, video-conferencing can be a great solution.
The University of Florida has every classroom set up with a video projection unit, and the campus has high-speed internet.
I’ve been able to use Skype and project the speaker on the big screen.
You also could use video-conferencing in a small class with a laptop or tablet.
Be sure to talk with the speaker about the logistics of video-conferencing. You don’t want to discover at the last minute that your speaker hasn’t set up a Skype account.
7. Make arrangements for the speaker who is coming to campus.
If your speaker is driving to campus, you will need to make parking arrangements. That may require obtaining a guest parking pass or reimbursing the speaker for paying for parking.
In some situations, I’ve asked a student to meet the guest speaker at the parking location to give the speaker the parking pass and escort the speaker to class. That can be a professional opportunity for that student to have the one-on-one time with the speaker.
You also may want to take the speaker to lunch or coffee. If the speaker is coming from out of town, you may need to provide mileage or even a hotel room. (Does your department have a fund for guest speakers or will you be paying for meals and mileage?)
The guest speaker may be interested in a tour of the campus or want to meet with the dean or other faculty.
8. Provide clear directions for locating your classroom.
Email the link to the campus map and provide directions about finding parking and finding your classroom.
Be prepared in case the speaker is late or has to cancel.
Several times guest speakers have been delayed due to traffic or parking difficulties and called or texted me when I already was in class.
Be aware that guest speakers can have a last-minute issue that could lead to being late or having to cancel – a car accident, a sick child, their own illness, etc.
So be ready to talk about something until the speaker arrives, and have a lesson ready to go if the speaker cancels.
9. Thank your guest speakers.
At the end of class, you can ask the class to join you in thanking the guest speaker, and then lead a round of applause.
When UF alum Lauren Gonzalez was a guest speaker via Skype, the class and I did a group Gator Chomp as part of our thank you and sign off.
In the next class meeting, I encourage students to send an email or tweet to the guest speaker. I send an email thank you to the speaker and copy the speaker’s supervisor.