How to... Spice up life in a big group

June 11, 1999

WHAT - Kate Exley gives some tips on keeping students amused and focused when lectures are large and hours are long.

WHY - So that students can join in activities that help fix new ideas and information in their minds rather than just take notes.

HOW - The idea of encouraging students to "think", "do" and "discuss" during a lecture, as opposed to simply taking accurate notes, is supported by a lot of research into how people learn best.

Many of the activities more commonly found in seminars or tutorials are now being adapted and used in large lectures. Lecturers can use a range of techniques to increase the involvement and participation of students in even very big classes and not all require massive preparation or major redesign of the curriculum. It may be helpful to consider these in four categories:

* Things that the lecturer can do

* Things that individual students can do

* Student:student interaction

* Lecturer:student interaction.

Lecturers can also introduce greater variety into the way they present information and ideas. For example, Powerpoint presentations that incorporate video clips, animation or simulations are commonly used in medicine and engineering.

Lecture duets can be used to present ideas in the form of a discussion or debate between two academics who hold different views. This is a useful technique in law, politics and psychology.

Demonstrations of equipment, artefacts, methods, techniques, and suchlike can help to bring a subject to life or to explain a difficult topic. Individual students can be asked to solve short problems during a lecture or perhaps more interestingly, set a short problem for themselves or a colleague. They could take part in a mid-lecture quiz, watch a short video or use some computer software.

Another idea is to ask students to work with an incomplete or partial handout. This is a set of written notes in which gaps are left for the student to complete during the lecture. Simple gaps may be left in lists of cause, symptoms, effects and so on or gaps can be left in diagrams, graphs, derivations and tables.

These handouts encourage students to think for themselves. For example, the lecturer could provide each student with two copies of an incomplete diagram to be used to help explain a particularly difficult concept.

The lecturer can then give a verbal explanation before asking the students to complete the diagram. Then the lecturer would go through a correct version of the diagram on an overhead projector so that any student who had made a mistake could copy down a correct version of the diagram, that they now understand (one hopes).

This technique has proved to be extremely useful in subjects as diverse as economics and biology.

A lot of these activities can be further developed if students are then asked to discuss their views or findings with each other. For example, two or three students can be asked to answer a question together, compare their responses to a controversial piece of research or think of the question they would most like to ask the lecturer. These discussions should ideally be kept short (two to three minutes only) and it is often helpful to get some feedback from the students to complete the activity.

There are a number of ways that students can work together in small groups during a lecture. There are quick activities such as swapping and reviewing lecture notes or analysing a case study.

In some disciplines it may be possible to introduce role-playing in the form of a consultation, interview or negotiation.

There are also larger-scale activities that involve the students in some pre-lecture preparation - for example, a presentation to the group or a debate. If the "lecture" slot is two or three hours long then the student groups may be asked to research a topic in the library or on the internet during a break or halfway through.

Interaction between lecturer and students is often difficult to develop in large classes. Students may be reluctant to ask or answer questions for fear of looking foolish or "swotty".

However, there are several things that the lecturer wishing to encourage such exchanges can do to make them more likely.

Give the students "thinking time" when you put a question, ask them to compare their thoughts with their neighbour before answering and sensitively handle all their inputs will help.

Encouraging an atmosphere in which students are expected to contribute is also important, even if this is simply by asking the students to vote on a subject by raising a hand or pressing a button on keypads provided in the lecture room. More anonymous forms of interaction may also help to foster this attitude - the lecturer could pass pieces of paper/OHP acetate among the students and ask them to write down their answers or questions on them. The lecturer can then select and display a range of the responses for further discussion.

Finally, the lecture may be over but there are still ways that the lecturer can foster active learning at a distance.

Surprisingly, "homework" questions or calculations are often popular with students and multiple-choice questions can be easily marked automatically or self (or peer) assessed by the students at the beginning of the next lecture.

Lecture courses may also be accompanied by a course website or an email network, providing an electronic forum for students to ask follow-up questions or take self-assessment tests.

It is not proposed that all these suggestions should be incorporated into every lecture, but rather that they be used as and when they are appropriate to add variety and spice up the lectures and to raise student interest, motivation and enjoyment.

Kate Exley is working as an independent consultant (and mother of three) while taking a career break from the training and staff development unit at the University of Nottingham.


"What can I usefully do with 160 students in a tiered room on a Friday afternoon? It says Lecture on the timetable."

"The TQA (teaching quality assessment) report criticised some of the teaching in my department. It said the students were often too passive, especially in the big classes."

"We lost one-hour teaching slots when the curriculum was modularised last year. We now have to lecture for two or even three hours at a time. I have to give the students a break in the middle."

"I used to give three introductory lectures to the whole class.

The feedback shows that I am boring half the class who have covered this stuff at A level and I am losing the other half who haven't come across it before at all."

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