'15 rounds with Tyson' can be a knockout

March 19, 2004

Marathon three-hour teaching blocks left staff and students reeling at first. But refinements have made the strategy a success. Stephen Halliday reports

When Buckingham Business School introduced a timetable to replace lectures and seminars with two and three-hour teaching blocks four years ago, I soon observed colleagues emerging dazed and exhausted from classes with 100 or more undergraduates. The students were in a similar state.

The aim had been to make more productive use of lecturers in larger classes, but an email survey that I conducted produced few positive responses. Lecturers complained about lecturing on and on until "we all collapsed in a heap". Other comments included: "Not a good way to learn" and "Two hours of solid lecturing is not productive". Students reacted with a similar blend of exhaustion and frustration.

We carried out a series of experiments over the next two years to see how best to engage students and sustain their enthusiasm over long teaching blocks. The classes were scheduled at different times and on different days. One was on Monday afternoon, one on Thursday morning and a third on Friday afternoon, a notoriously difficulty time to capture students, let alone engage them. Class sizes varied from 35 to 45 with a mix of nationalities. The subject was marketing. Most of the classes involved second-year degree students, though one class was for third-year degree students.

Each class received the same materials, consisting of:

  • A handout (in PowerPoint) of all the slides the lecturer would be using for the semester
  • Copies of the syllabus, the reading list and the previous two years' examination papers (designed to convince the overconfident that they had no chance of passing without regular attendance)
  • Case studies that students would work on in class, week by week
  • A copy of the assignment the students would complete in groups (worth 50 per cent of the assessment for the module).

Students were encouraged to occupy the same seats each week, sitting in self-selected groups of three or four in which they would complete the assignment. The lecturer would teach the class for 20 to 30 minutes, after which the students worked in their groups on a case or exercise from the handout. At the end of ten to 20 minutes they would give feedback.

Students quickly learnt that groups that messed about and did not take the exercise seriously were generally singled out first to give feedback. A desire to avoid humiliation soon asserted itself and staff had no problems in persuading students to work conscientiously. After the feedback and discussion, the process began again: 20 to 30 minutes teaching followed by further exercises. Little use was made of videos. Students could watch them in their own time in the library.

Complacency was the first problem we detected. Many students believed that a comprehensive handout absolved them from the need to take notes, read books or otherwise exercise their minds. We dealt with this in two ways: first by nagging and virtually standing over them while they wrote; second by setting exercises based on previous years' examinations designed to reveal the previous week's learning. Those whose note-taking was poor found themselves unable to answer questions of the kind they were likely to encounter in the examination. We used the desire to gain marks - the motive that most strongly animates most students - to encourage attendance and active participation.

Student feedback has been very positive. Some complain that they find the three hours heavy going - "like 15 rounds with Mike Tyson", one student said. But attendance has been high - 78 per cent for the Friday afternoon class. This suggests that the students find the classes rewarding, if exhausting. The lecturers also share these mixed feelings.

At one point we experimented by using two lecturers working simultaneously in a class of 84, but this was not a success. The large room required for the class encouraged students to migrate irresistibly to the back, making it difficult to generate the sort of learning-centred discussion that the method requires. Room layout is critical. The ideal room is furnished with tables for groups of three to four students that the lecturer can move between without having to clamber over benches. It takes an enormous amount of work at the start of each semester to produce a handout that covers the whole syllabus but once the semester is under way there is less weekly preparation. And the students do seem to learn.

Stephen Halliday lectures at Buckingham Business School.

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