Finger on pulse of teaching skill

September 15, 1995

Teaching postgraduates how to give their first lectures is the aim of a course at Lancaster University. Claire Sanders reports

. Taking your own pulse before giving a lecture may sound a little paranoid, but it was one of the suggestions on a three-week course called "New Approaches to University Teaching" run by Lancaster University this summer.

It is apparently a great way of relaxing just before you teach for the first time. "We were told that it helps set up a rhythm," says Janet Cowper, one of three postgraduates from the University College of Ripon and York St John, who attended the course "and then you speak to that rhythm and it calms you".

Attended by 18 postgraduates and young lecturers, the course aimed to give them new insights into teaching - as well as some basic skills.

This is the second year that the School of Independent Studies at Lancaster has run such a course. The philosophy is to move away from the straight lecture style of teaching and use interaction instead. John Wakeford, one of the course organisers, explains: "The financial pressures on universities are such that academics need to teach in a new way. They need to be facilitators rather than straight lecturers, to teach students to learn independently for themselves."

Hence there is a stress on learning in small groups rather than on lecturing to 400 - although the course does cover both.

After last year's course students were asked to write up a diary of their subsequent teaching experience. In particular students recorded their efforts to make their teaching more interactive.

Jeff Eaman of Lancaster University, began the new academic year determined to introduce seminars into a ten-week course on Italian cinema that he had been asked to teach that autumn. He begins his diary ominously: "The tutor does not want to give me his lecture notes mainly, he argues, because they are not legible . . . I have notes to only seven lectures, so the remaining three will have to be written from scratch." In common with other students, Mr Eaman found that preparing lectures took far longer than he had originally anticipated.

On a visit to the tutor, catching him just before he leaves for a year abroad, Mr Eaman still has somequestions: "How many students will there be? Will I have a room to work from? Are all the films on hand? How is the course assessed? Will I have to set essay questions?

Mr Eaman does not record whether he took his pulse before giving his first lecture, but does record: "I feel well prepared, but a little nervous. I imagine it's a bit like waiting in the tunnel for your first cup final at Wembley".

Thirty-five students turn up in all - five more than expected. At the end of the lecture Mr Eaman has his first stab at a seminar. The students are divided into two seminar groups, simply at this stage to discuss timetable problems: "This informal discussion leads to quite an animated discussion and is a good ice-breaker. For me, the students have become more than just a sea of faces, and the students seem to appreciate that I'm not just a lecturer, but partly human too."

The seminars continue to be a success, although Mr Eaman is worried about his own role. "The discussions are not 'free' enough and I play too prominent a role in the discussion," he records at one point. He eventually sets a "routine" for himself: Give an introduction; make the agenda explicit; divide the class into groups of three or four for ten minutes; bring the whole group back together again for 35 to 40 minutes discussion.

And he has three little reminders for himself: don't dominate the discussion; respond clearly and positively to student contributions; and try to facilitate discussions which do not always include myself.

From Mr Eaman's concluding remarks it is clear that his course has gone well, but he adds: "I am aware that to continue further with the same workload would put paid to my chances of completing my PhD."

The diaries of other students reveal the same pressure. "The first lecture is almost finished, no one told me how much time it would take to prepare, more than five hours . . . now I can see why lecturers give the same lecture over and over again," another student recorded. In this year's course, the Independent Studies School put more stress on "academic theories of learning, some teaching of study skills like critical analysis from a subject base, and 'before and after' videos."

Dr Wakeford says: "Participants are always keen to learn academic theories, but our view is that theory has to studied alongside practice."

Martin Gough, in his fourth year of teaching philosophy at Leeds University, found the practical sessions the most useful. "We each did a presentation and were given feedback on our performance afterwards. The whole thing lasted about half an hour and was exhausting."

He said it was particularly useful being told what to do with his hands, how to project his voice and also to keep his knees flexible. Apparently locked knees and stiff legs are not a good idea.

Mike Bramley, one of three postgraduates from Ripon and York St John, along with Ms Cowper - they are the college's first PhD students - found the sessions on information technology very useful. "The use of bulletin board systems for students is something that will grow in the future, as well as the setting of assignments and sending of lecture notes through e-mail," he predicts.

Richard Schiverrell, Ripon and York St John's third PhD student, found the sessions on teaching in an alien environment the most useful. "This is something we have to do a lot in geography," he says. "It raises a lot of questions about legal responsibility for students - as well as how to combine good preparation with a student-centred approach."

For Victoria Hatton of Nene College a key lesson was not to be too friendly. "I'm naturally a very friendly person, but I now realise that it can become quite dangerous to become too involved. This is not something I would automatically have thought of."

She agrees, as do all the other students, that training is essential for university lecturers.

"I think all postgraduates should have some training. It is wrong that university lecturers are invariably people who have not been taught to project their voice, let alone engage students."

These students, like those on the course in the summer of 1994, have been asked to write up their first experiences of teaching. Lancaster is planning to produce a book, with each chapter based on an individual's first teaching experience - and hopes to include some of the students' accounts.

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