Get students to run the show

November 26, 1999

WHAT. Dave Shaw describes how his final-year psychology undergraduates taught themselves about sport.

WHY. Students have knowledge, experience, resources and presentation skills that more traditional methods do not tap.

HOW. About eight years ago my then head of department (psychology) asked if I would like to develop an academic interest in my hobby,sport. I jumped at the chance, without thinking about the personal and professional development implications. "Fine, get it going for next semester," he said.

Year-one material I could have created in a few weeks, but this was final-year option, a different kettle of fish.

Necessity mothered invention and I decided to experiment by taking the journey to sport psychological nirvana alongside the students rather than as their Zen master.

In the very first session I said that, as they had chosen the option, they clearly wanted to learn about sport psychology and as I did, too, I suggested we learn it together. I asked them to select the topics of study and then research and teach them to each other.

There is something very liberating about owning up to ignorance. I no longer needed to be the expert. Despite this, the students gave me the impression that they never really believed I was only a few articles ahead of them in my content-based knowledge of the psychology of sport.

I have now firmly established the principle of students teaching each other on this module. Each year the initial meeting involves three main activities:

Negotiation of a collaborative approach to researching and teaching the module

Selecting the syllabus content with, if necessary, some guidance from me. Fortunately, at third-year option level, there is scope to "go with the student flow"

Students sort themselves into teaching teams and select one syllabus topic per group.

In addition to teaching some of the chosen topics, I act as a facilitator for teams, enabling them to deliver well-organised lectures with supporting handouts, overhead projector slides, and reference lists.

This involves providing academic support, for example, advice on where to research, giving references, advising on BIDS and internet searches, assisting in the creation of PowerPoint slides etc. I also provided administrative support, for example, providing blank OHP acetates, video equipment, a computer file with a house style for both handouts and reference lists.

At the time of the setting up of the course, departmental policy on assessing final-year options constrained me to a traditional unseen exam. But the policy has been modified to allow a wider range of assessment strategies.

As yet I have not introduced any such methods because of some of the complications they raise. For example, I wanted to avoid forcing any student to take a presenter role against their will. This meant not everyone could be assessed by presentation, but as the numbers have grown from 12 in the first cohort to 33 now it has become less easy to offer everyone the chance to present anyhow. Of course, it might be possible to assess volunteers by presentation and the non-volunteers by exam.

The course has been evaluated by module questionnaire and the picture that has emerged over the years is in most cases extremely favourable. Several students referred to the course as the best they had attended while at university. A few (fingers of one hand) have hated the idea.

My subjective evaluation of the whole exercise is that things went even better than I had expected. The student presentations were often good and on many occasions excellent.

I suspect the main reason is because students who present have opted to do so. Self-selection rules out some potentially poor presenters and raises commitment. Students produced interesting and innovative demonstrations and learning support materials. In one case, two combined honours students, who were also studying television journalism, created a video that presented their sport psychology topic in the form of a newscast.

Another team videotaped interviews with people in a local sports centre to enliven a lecture on exercise motivation.

Yet another presenter, talking on aggression in sport, pre-arranged for his rugby friends to burst into the lecture room in full rugby kit, have a mock punch-up for 30 seconds and exit.

Stunts like these might have been considered by students to have been "naff" coming from me, but from student presenters, they brought the house down.

Something that has become clear is that students have resources that are not utilised in the typical passive lecture situation. The most obvious of these is time. Students can and do make the time to set up interesting extras like the rugby punch up in their one-off lecture. Staff might not feel their time is best spent on such extras week in week out, year after year.

Students also have access to skills that lecturers do not. They can be quite surprising. For example, one student wanted to illustrate the use of catastrophe theory as applied to the anxiety-performance relationship. The theory can be represented by a three-dimensional model that looks a bit like a contoured mountain. She built, painted and donated a wonderful catastrophe mountain, three-feet square and two-feet tall, which beautifully illustrated the theory - and has continued to do so each year since.

I did expect to be faced with sessions when the student presenters failed to turn up so I always had a prepared lecture up my sleeve.However, in six years I only had to make use of it once. I also expected there to be times when teaching teams would have major disagreements and fall out with each other or fail to get together to prepare materials. Surprisingly, this did not happen.

On a less positive note, there were a few minor problems. For example, the administration of this form of delivery is time-consuming, and is not, as many of my colleagues initially joked, a "lazy" option.

This is not a trivial consideration as student numbers rise.

Second, I felt that student presentations sometimes did not reach the required depth for third-year work. However, this may be to fall into the trap of thinking that lectures should provide everything needed for learning.

Third, it is true that occasionally, the student teachers were not particularly gifted communicators. However, this problem is not unheard of among lecturing staff.

Over the past six years I have encountered a small minority of students who have expressed reservations.

For example, some students felt that they were not getting the best information. Others have suggested that it is too demanding a way to learn.

The introduction of fees may mean that students feel we have abrogated responsibility. "I paid a Pounds 1,000 so you should teach me" could be the reaction. Perhaps our task is to argue that, in higher education, what has been bought is not just lectures but also help with the development of academic skills such as searching out, evaluating and manipulating information and learning to learn.

Finally, I found it a little frustrating to be "in the audience" rather than "out front" presenting. I recognise now that job satisfaction stems from positive feedback. The experiment was a success. I am convinced students get more from this type of delivery.

First, they have greater ownership in the learning process.

Second, they are more likely through independent study to develop abilities in scholarship and achieve deeper learning.

Third, they have the opportunity to develop several key skills, for example time management, team working, oral presentation, learning to learn and so on.

Last but not least, they seem to be having fun in the process.

Dave Shaw is a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire. This article was written with the help of Melissa Shaw, principal training and development officer at the university.

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