Guest speakers breathe new life into classes

Male presenter standing at podium holding the microphone

What do you remember the most from your experiences as a student? When I ask this question, I do not hear stories of an amazing final exam or a particularly stunning transparency on an overhead projector. Most graduates recall the people and the stories shared with them during their educational journey.

When I began teaching, I embraced this theory of bringing in speakers to enhance the students’ learning experiences. Even though I entered college decades ago, I still recall many of the speakers. In particular, I recall the speakers who became mentors and/or employers and helped shape my professional career.

Some see opening the classroom as a tremendous leap of faith and there is an element of trust that comes into play when you give someone access to your students. However, by choosing to take this bold step, we allow our students to learn through a kaleidoscope of viewpoints from a diverse group of professionals.

As an adjunct teaching real estate fundamentals and business law at a state university, I wanted to highlight different perspectives of the industry. I created a speaker series to allow my students to hear from a topic expert in a niche area to kick off each week’s class. I watched this concept, which some fellow professors thought was too much work and/or just bizarre, become an outstanding draw for the course. My enrollment soared as students expressed a desire to learn from a cross-section of experts. I was excited that this experience helped boost interest for these courses, but was more impressed how it propelled students’ options for employment.

Nearly a decade later, I embraced this process once again as I adopted a Project and Artist Management course. I redesigned the course to provide a speaker series for students to learn and grow. In the span of sixteen classes, my students would meet ten speakers.

Speakers embraced the opportunity to share their knowledge. Whether they joined us via a physical classroom lecture shared with our online cohort via GoToMeeting, or they utilized other technology, like Skype, FaceTime, or Google Hangout, our campus and online students gained knowledge from these speakers. Again, students expanded their professional network and gained mentors and opportunities for jobs.

My students expressed gratitude in their critiques for being able to see so many perspectives of the industry through speakers’ backgrounds and experiences. Some students discovered a new passion or career option and over 20% found internships or jobs through this learning method. Many took advantage of the speakers’ offers to connect on LinkedIn as well as to continue the conversation over email or coffee.

The first question that I get asked most frequently about this teaching method is about the time/process. I would map out my class and select potential speakers – some that I had known for years, some that were graduates, and some that I had seen speak elsewhere. I would send messages to the speakers to inquire as to their availability. Most speakers were confirmed within two emails. I would email, text or call the day before to confirm and then meet them about 15 minutes early to get everything set up in the classroom.

The second question is always about the cost. I never paid a speaker. For some, this statement is a shock. The speakers want the ability to meet future interns, employees, and/or customers. In addition, these speakers wanted the ability to give back, to share secrets of their success and to get a little taste of why we all love teaching so much. I provided water and offered coffee, but never paid an honorarium.

The last question that I get asked is about the return on investment. Is there value in this practice of inviting speakers? I would say that the answer is a resounding yes. I have featured graduates, who have experienced success through a path of determination and hard work. I have featured industry professionals, who share examples of projects, passions and tips to becoming a superstar in the industry. Seeing a rise in enrollment and hearing how these guest speakers became mentors and bosses has changed my perspective.

I challenge you to create a list of potential speakers that you would like to share with your students. I am proof that it works. I stayed after class and talked with a few guest speakers as a student and I can tell you that they were amazing mentors and bosses that helped shaped my career.

Cassandra was one of our featured presenters at Cite 2016. Her presentation, Innovative Learning in a Digital World, explored ways to inspire learners, and integrating guest speakers is one of the ways she covered. Recorded sessions from Cite’s virtual track can be viewed until July 2016. Watch this one and more than 30 others.


About the Author
Cassandra Willard

Cassandra Willard

Cassandra Willard, Esq., is a course director, teaching in the Entertainment Business Masters Program at Full Sail University. Her broad experience in teaching includes not only Full Sail, but also other colleges/universities in Florida.

Cassandra graduated Magna Cum Laude in Business Administration from the University of Central Florida. She then earned her J.D., with honors, from the University of Florida’s College of Law, focusing on Intellectual Property. Cassandra served as the Chair of the Entertainment, Art & Sports Law Section of The Florida Bar and is a partner at the law firm of Franklin & Willard in Orlando, where she focuses her practice on intellectual property and entertainment law.