Teaching excellence: substance, delivered with style

In the second blog from nominees for Most Innovative Teacher of the Year at the THE Awards, Luke Burns calls on lecturers to embrace technology and a sense of theatre

February 24, 2016
Actors in a public park in Ronneby, Sweden

While perusing Twitter and discovering a famous yet (deliberately) humorous academic account and seeing a quote that “reading a PowerPoint aloud is not the same as teaching”, I wondered if it really was possible to define effective teaching.

There is no doubt that simply reading from slides is nothing more than dictation and definitely not teaching, let alone effective teaching. However, if you listen to students today it is far from uncommon in many university lectures.

In my view, even the driest of subjects can be made interesting, and this is the key; these subjects can range from long-established underpinning theories to modern science. What is most important is that the lecturer maintains enthusiasm, and reading from slides is not a way to do this. 

As lecturers (or higher education teachers), we are awash with tools to aid us in delivering effective teaching.  The availability of tools such as voting software, video recorders and even social media platforms should make our lives easier. The first-ever Social Media for Learning in Higher Education Conference, which took place in Sheffield in December 2015, is an example of how higher education educators are now looking to embrace tools that the typical student is all too familiar with. If the mere fact that this conference even exists isn’t enough to suggest that we should move with the times, then the very healthy attendance of academics who made it to the event certainly is!

I remember part-way through my second year as an undergraduate and reaching the time when I needed to come up with a potential dissertation topic to discuss with my tutor. I had the usual big ideas and research questions that one would typically expect, but I also had a growing interest in the pedagogy of my subject, even if I didn’t know what that word meant at the time. I wanted to know why my preferred subject niche was so interesting to me yet less so to most (or all) of my peers. Although I never explored this question at the time, I have seen the perceived “popularity” of subdisciplines change quite readily over time and, if the content of a course isn’t changing, then it can only be one thing that drives this swing: the teaching. The way teaching is delivered can have a huge bearing on subject uptake and popularity, and this is often overlooked in favour taking the easy option and labelling content “dull” or “dry theory”.  

Most university teaching takes place in a lecture theatre. A theatre is a place where people are (usually) entertained and teaching is no different. Being able to enthuse, entertain and provoke interest in a subject is something I try to do each time I lead a session. Entertainment in this sense doesn’t mean putting on a show per se, but what it does mean is maintaining the interest of the students: using examples that they can relate to and often embracing the technologies that they are familiar with. Doing this leads to interactivity and a move away from the traditional one-way dialogues that lectures have historically been known for, arguably generating a more engaging, modern and entertaining way to teach. All subjects are without doubt very different, but the concept of theatre and not being afraid to embrace the tools available to us (and the buzzwords of learning technology and blended learning) are a good place to start. 

In an information-rich society where much of the content conveyed in lectures is almost certainly freely available to students through other means (such as the internet), sometimes it is necessary to put style a little closer to substance to improve student engagement; and at no time has this ever been as pertinent as now as we move towards an impending teaching excellence framework.

Luke Burns is a lecturer in the School of Geography at the University of LeedsHe was nominated for the most innovative teacher of the year title at the Times Higher Education Awards 2015.

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Reader's comments (2)

We're already "awash" with "innovative" teaching - what has declined is substance. This article is missing any practical description of "innovative" teaching - THE rewards anybody promising difference from "traditional one-way dialogue" even if they cannot describe what this difference is. THE wastes our time again with another useless article.
The case method, widely used in post-grad management education, stimulates learning through classroom discussion facilitated by the tutor. Students acquire understanding, and analytical and rhetorical skills combined with a strong dose of theatre. The approach has a very powerful impact on student engagement and learning, but is not so widely known or understood as it should be outside management education or at undergraduate level. www.thecasecentre.org

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