Agony aunt

July 6, 2001

Q: The passivity of our first-year students in lectures has come under criticism this year. What can we do to liven things up?

A: You are not alone. The passivity of students, especially in big, first-year "core" lectures, has been reported by many teaching quality auditors and assessors. It worries many of us who believe that there could be more life in the lecture - and the students.

So what can we do?

Well, try using questions. Many lecturers already ask rhetorical questions in lectures, and it is only a small jump to asking a question for real.

The problem is that the students may treat it as rhetorical. They probably expect to just sit and take notes in a lecture. If so, you need to work to change that point of view. This is not for the faint-hearted and is certainly much harder to do if you are the only one in your department trying to change lecture behaviour. If colleagues share your vision of lively, involved students, the road ahead is less bumpy.

Plan to start as you mean to go on - the first lecture with a new group should not just ask for but require their involvement. Chances are few of them will have sat in a lecture before, so their expectations are more easily challenged. Do not expect them to risk it all by going it alone. Would you have responded to a lecturer's question in your first lecture? You run the risk of getting it wrong and looking a fool or getting it right and looking a swot to all your new friends - neither is an option.

You have to make it safe for students to respond. Break them in gently. Get them to write down an answer before you give it; do a calculation using the equation you have just explained; fill in the points on a graph or the labels on a diagram before you show the correct ones. There will be much less at stake for them and yet you have still succeeded in involving them with the lecture.

"But they won't all do it," I hear you cry. No, but some, if not most, will - and the number will rise during a lecture course if you keep at it. From there it is just a short jump to asking them to compare answers with each other, in pairs, before you give them your views. It is then another short jump for you to ask the pairs for reactions, answers or questions - and some may actually respond.

Kate Exley On a career break from Nottingham University where she is staff development officer.


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