Don't let them nod off at the back

September 24, 2004

Spicing up the tired lecture-hall dynamic can be no mean feat. Harriet Swain investigates how to rekindle the passion and keep your students coming back for more

So you're facing a room of freshly minted students, eager to soak up the drops of wisdom gathered over an academic career, newly sharpened pencils at the ready. How do you keep them keen? And, more important, how are you going to get them back next week?

First, know who they are. Talk to colleagues who have taught them before. Find out their level of learning, what they have already done on the syllabus and what they are going to be studying later and fit your lecture series to them.

You could even try talking to the students themselves. Arrive early and engage a few of them in conversation. You might get to like and understand them - or at least get them to like and understand you.

All this depends of course on making sure you've got the right room - and the right students. This is where arriving early helps. It should also allow you to make sure the mike and your PowerPoint presentation are working.

You are likely to be one of the few people who are early, however. Make sure there's room for latecomers, but don't wait for them. Start on time, but spend the first few minutes thinking around the subject and recapping on their existing knowledge. Don't be rude to people arriving late - they may not come again - but gently let them know that they might have missed something.

Next, remember that research shows that you have only about 20 minutes'

talking time before your audience starts losing concentration. Once the time's up, get students to do something themselves. Either discuss something in one of the handouts, or get them to talk to the person sitting next to them about a problem you have raised. And keep everyone sharp by asking questions during the lecture rather than at the end, perhaps picking on specific individuals so that everyone is thinking up the answer in case you choose them.

Opinions differ on what you should be trying to do with your lecture. There is an adage that "lecturing is the transfer of information from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either". Thirty years ago, in What's the Use of Lectures? , which has since become a classic, Donald Bligh wrote: "Use lectures to teach information. Do not rely on them to promote thought, change attitudes, or develop behavioural skills, if you can help it."

James Wisdom, higher education consultant and co-chair of the Staff and Educational Development Association, agrees that there are limits to what a lecture can do. "Lecturing is a very old-fashioned model of higher education," he says. "Just because you do it, doesn't mean you have to do it." He argues that there should be fewer lectures, but that they should be really exciting when they happen. "It's bloody hard on a wet Thursday morning as a basic student teaching method, but terrific as a special event," he says.

He also suggests that a lecture should be the culmination of students' work on a particular topic rather than its start, perhaps giving an extensive literature review, looking at all the major texts that have built up the subject to the point where the students are now studying it.

He strongly objects to obligations on lecturers to cover a full syllabus or comply with demands for coverage from professional bodies. "What students are interested in is interaction with an expert in their subject - what it is to be a chemist, how a lawyer thinks," he says. "The effective lectures are where students witness an academic dealing with a problem in their discipline."

However, Kay Sambell, a national teaching fellow and course leader in childhood studies at Northumbria University, believes in letting assessment become "the engine that powers your teaching" and building in plenty of informal "rehearsals" in which students have a go at using and applying the ideas or concepts you want them to master to do well in the final assessment.

Phil Race, author of The Lecturer's Toolkit and co-author with Sally Brown of Lecturing: A Practical Guide , also advocates emphasising how a lecture "counts" in assessment terms and stresses that students should feel the added value of each lecture.

"Near the start of the lecture, let students in on what they should be able to do by the end of that particular lecture," he says. "And at the end of the lecture, show the intended outcomes again and check to what extent students now feel they have cracked the learning outcomes."

James Atherton, principal lecturer in post-compulsory education at De Montfort University, suggests creating a mind map at the beginning of a lecture series, showing the relationship between topics to be covered, highlighting in one colour those already covered and using another colour to highlight those being covered in that day's lecture.

While most experienced lecturers advise using humour and interesting anecdotes to grab students' attention, Race warns against trying to be humorous if it is falling flat with a particular audience.

In the lecture's closing minutes summarise its main points, but Atherton suggests preventing too much paper-shuffling by explicitly getting students to make sure they have noted down the various points.

Finally, try ending early. It's an easy route to popularity, not only with your students but with the colleague booked into the room after you. And don't forget to flag up the unmissable topic of your next lecture.Further information: Donald Bligh, What's the Use of Lectures?, Intellect, 1998 Graham Gibbs, 53 Interesting Things to Do in Your Lectures, Technical & Educational Services, 1992 Sally Brown and Phil Race, Lecturing: A Practical Guide, Kogan Page, 2002 Kate Exley and Reg Dennick, Giving a Lecture: From Presenting to Teaching, Routledge Falmer, 2004


Be passionate: sell your subject to the students; and try to be likable

Practice: think about pace, delivery and lecture structure, and use a microphone if necessary

Pitch it right: make sure your material fits into the syllabus and don't make the students feel stupid

Use humour, but give up promptly if it isn't working

A lecturing style that works for one lecturer and group may not work for others

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