How to: Stop class canoodling

May 11, 2001

If you want to hold students' attention, get them involved in planning their studies, says Deborah Lee.

Sleeping, watching portable televisions, conducting mobile telephone conversations, reading newspapers, listening to music, having pizza delivered, kissing passionately... These may just seem to be a few extracurricular student activities, yet research from the United States has revealed that they are occurring in university classrooms - particularly in large classes, where anonymity inspires students to behaviour they would not dream of exhibiting in small ones.

To start to explore student misbehaviour in the United Kingdom, I conducted a small-scale qualitative interview study of academics at a range of post-1992 universities. My respondents recalled instances of students giggling, chatting, gazing out of the window, "doing something else so it's clear they think you're a waste of time". Not surprisingly, academics have reported feeling demeaned and disheartened. So, how might pedagogy prevent such problems?

One response is to entertain students. But if you spend too many hours creating a spectacle rather than focusing on research and publication, the job centre may start to beckon. This raises the question of why contemporary academics should care whether or not a student's attention is engaged.

In The McDonaldization Thesis , George Ritzer says that we can conceptualise the present-day university as a means of education consumption, one that allows students to consume education services and eventually to obtain important "goods" - degrees and credentials. This is problematic given the increasing cost of higher education. Commentators have warned that students might expect refunds for inadequate or inaccurately advertised courses.

If students are dissatisfied, academics can expect complaints. As one of my interviewees remarked: "They're not students, but clients, they're aware of their rights. I think complaints are increasing. There's a culture of whingeing."

Academics need to discover the expectations of students at the start of modules to prevent problems later. The academics I interviewed were seeking to attract and hold student interest, yet no one mentioned involving students in the processes of deciding course content and delivery.

Last semester, I asked a final-year undergraduate sociology group what they would like to learn and how they would like to learn. I was worried they might say: "Don't you know what/how to teach?". Yet everyone engaged meaningfully with the questions asked, even if their response was merely:

"I'm looking forward to the topics in the handbook." A variety of extra topics was proposed. Several of these complemented existing ones, so I was able to agree to include them straightaway. The students also said that they wanted interactive lectures and favoured small group discussions.

So how did the students feel when confronted with these unexpected questions? At the end of the semester, 53 students completed module evaluations.

My first question was: "Think back to week one, when you were asked for your views concerning module content and delivery. How did you feel about being asked these questions?" Forty-five students answered this question. Forty-one said that they had liked being asked. Replies included: "I think this was a good start. I felt I had contributed to my learning - if you learn what you want, inevitably you will work better"; "I felt that our views were important and our opinions and suggestions useful for us all to be successful"; "I was honoured that a lecturer was bothered about what we thought."

Three students did not express a strong opinion. Only one student objected - "Seemed as though the module was underprepared. Devalued the course handbook" - demonstrating the efficacy of this approach to learning and teaching.

Module evaluations are packed with positive feedback as a result of student involvement.

Baroness Blackstone, minister for education and employment, has proposed that students should be asked to assess teaching quality. I would recommend that academics consider student involvement in course-related decisions. This does not mean we have to give students exactly what they want, it just means getting students on our side.

Deborah Lee is a sociology lecturer in the School of Education and Social Science, University of Derby. Her interviewees work in humanities and social science departments at post-1992 UK universities.

Getting a hostile reception

Joy , a new lecturer in a post-1992 university politics department, says: "I was delivering a formal lecture (to a big group of third-years), expecting students to make notes, anticipating that we would explore areas of interest in a seminar afterwards. Yet I was increasingly aware of discontent. People weren't making notes, the atmosphere was tense. Then, a student began shouting, quite aggressively: 'You're not doing it right! Haven't you got any OHPs? Where are your handouts?' "Afterwards, I discussed what had happened with a colleague. Apparently, my predecessor always gave interactive lectures with props. The next week I used the props. The students stopped complaining. At the end of the course, students explained how much they learned from the interactive sessions - indeed, the subsequent examination results were very pleasing."

Miles , who works in an English literature department, was a skilled teacher when appointed to a senior lectureship at a post-1992 university.

However, he immediately encountered students misbehaving: "My idea that the students would be sufficiently inspired by my lecture to go to the library to prepare for the seminar was fundamentally flawed. And, if they had not been to the library then their contribution to the seminar was somewhat muted. They sat there, regardless of the carefully crafted nature of my questions, immovable, recalcitrant and hostile. I asked if there was something wrong. They said they didn't like the seminar, they would prefer less formality - perhaps small-group work. I didn't want to introduce substantial small-group work, because I can't guide their learning in such a context.

"Nowadays, I generally teach relaxed two-hour sessions where students have opportunities to make contributions... and I don't do seminars at all."

All names are pseudonyms.

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