How to save students from boredom

September 29, 2000

WHAT: Paul Sander and Keith Stevenson believe academics should listen to what students say about teaching style. WHY: Responding to students' fears and expectations can help improve courses and create an effective learning environment

How do you like to be taught? It is a question most academics were never asked when they were students, and they would certainly not have expected lecturers to adapt their teaching style to suit their students' desires.

But that was back when teaching was teacher-centred. Things have changed. Students are now the clients, and education is a service. The views of the consumer are taken seriously. Or so we are led to believe.

A survey that we conducted in 1998, involving 395 first-year students enrolled at three UK universities, produced some interesting results about what students expect. The students were questioned in their first week. They were asked to indicate how they hoped they would be taught, how they expected to be taught and how they would least like to be taught. They were also asked about how they would prefer to be assessed. Finally, they had to indicate the qualities that they thought were most important in a university teacher.

The main findings were that few expected to be taught in a way that they would like, and most expected to be taught in a way that they would not like. The message was that formal lectures were almost universally disliked but almost universally expected. What a state of affairs. There was more tolerance for the interactive lecture, where students have an opportunity to become involved.

We all know that lectures are not necessarily the teacher's preferred medium. But what else can you do when facing 200 students in a lecture hall? We also accept that institutions are required to find cost-effective methods of engaging students with the material that they are supposed to be studying. It is odd, however, that the formal lecture is still regarded as the best method of doing this. If students' preference is for more interactive learning, lecturers might do well to consider how lacking in interaction their presentations are.

However, our survey showed that students were concerned about the value of role play and student presentations, although it is possible that the definitions in the questionnaire presented these activities in an anxiety-producing way.

Given the result, we would suggest that teachers considering using role play or student presentation would be well advised to establish their students' feelings about them. It may be that the students would be less anxious if they were provided with an appropriate rationale for using the methods and if support were provided for those who express anxiety.

Do students on different courses expect or prefer different teaching styles? The three courses sampled in our study (medicine, business studies and psychology) had students with noticeably different academic histories. Yet a significant number shared the belief that there would be less interactive lecturing, less student-centred teaching, less group work and more formal lecturing and private study than they wanted.

Assessment, some say, is the main driver of student motivation. It seems a shame that students cannot contribute more to deciding how they should be assessed. The findings on course assessment showed that students' preference for coursework was inversely associated with previous exam success. This is not surprising as students are likely to support the method that has brought them success in the past.

Interviewees placed good teaching skills at the top of the list of desirable qualities in a lecturer and good organisational skills at the bottom. We wonder if Quality Assurance Agency assessors are aware of this view.

Finding out what students expect is a valuable exercise if universities and colleges want to create an effective learning environment, and it should be automatically included in their quality assurance activities.

It can also help teachers in designing more effective course modules. Sometimes the teachers' response might be to move towards meeting the students' preferences, other times the students' preferences might be unrealistic and they would need to be sensitively managed. For example, if students express concern about their ability to connect with a particular teaching style, a teacher may decide to change the mode of delivery or provide extra support classes for those expressing concerns.

This expectations-led process should help student and teacher find the best learning route for each cohort of students, which is what students at our universities should be encouraged to expect.

Paul Sander is senior lecturer in the School of Health and Social Sciences, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. Keith Stevenson is a non-clinical lecturer in the department of general practice and primary healthcare at the University of Leicester and an associate lecturer with the Open University.

WHAT STUDENTS SAY ABOUT LECTURES

Medical students

* All you learn is what you would if you had simply read the books or lecture notes

* They involve least contact with teaching staff and imply that assessment will simply be a regurgitation of info

* They don't put the emphasis on making you think

* They are dull and boring, there is no student input

* I think that you can learn more by actually participating rather than just taking notes

* Group work is less pressured and allows you to learn to be a doctor, not an exam parrot.

Psychologystudents

* No interaction, no learning

* It is easier to understand and to develop views if the students can interact with the lecturer about topics, not just listen

* I retain and recall very little information as I am not an active part of the lecture so pay little attention to what is being said

* I find it quite hard to keep up the pace of taking notes

* Not all the information goes in.

Business students

* There is no participation

* Continuously taking notes gets boring

* Not interactive enough

* No allowance for students not understanding or wishing to input something.

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT ROLE PLAY AND PRESENTATIONS

Medical students

* It takes a long time and little is learnt

* It rarely works as students do not incorporate much info; it is more of a social activity

* Presentations too often produce little information

* Each group learns specific detail about their presentation but very little about other people's

* I'm too concerned with the presentation itself to actually learn anything

* If the main teaching is done through students' presentations, we will not necessarily be learning the right stuff

* I believe that you learn a lot less and pay less attention to the ideas and presentations of your peers than to those of teachers or lecturers

* Although funny and providing variety, the presentations are rarely very informative and it is difficult to learn anything from them.

Psychologystudents

* Although student role play could be useful, it does not convey enough information to be a main teaching method

* I find using this method extremely embarrassing

* You might have to be good at drama for role plays, which I am not

* Participating in front of groups makes me nervous

* I'd get nervous standing up in front of everyone else.

Business students

* It is sometimes difficult to learn from presentations

* It is more about acting than about learning

* Some people always end up doing much more than others

* It is not fair to shy or nervous people

* Many people would not feel comfortable in this situation, and I do not believe that it offers an effective method of learning.

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