How to turn thrifty lectures into rich jazz recitals

September 21, 2001

That shifty-looking lecturer in front of a large audience of students is just bursting to improvise and entertain, says John Shaw.

What can we do to rescue the lecture? The lecture is an uneasy compromise between two models - one to deliver course content, the other to encourage students to learn. The content-delivery model puts the lecturer centre stage with the student as passive recipient. The active-learning model puts the student at the centre with the lecturer as facilitator.

The problems with the former are familiar. Lectures for content should have been made obsolete by Caxton's printing press, let alone the internet. What is not fully recognised is the ambivalent position of the lecture in active learning. Put simply, if active learning is the only useful part of the higher education experience, then the large lecture, no matter how many ingenious and participative exercises are worked in, can be viewed only as a tutorial with too many students in it, ie a cost-cutting device.

Little surprise then if our lecturers have a slightly shifty, embarrassed look about them when they are called on to deliver such lectures. But students still seem to attend lectures in large numbers. What is it that attracts them?

My contention is that there is something unique, useful and relevant in the lecture and we need to identify this and fashion an approach that can use these qualities to engage the interest of the students.

Lectures started as a way of communicating information because books were scarce but quickly developed into grand occasions when star performers showed off their erudition and enthused the students with the subject.

This aspect of "performing" is out of favour because it implies the performer's self-obsession and the audience's passivity, but it has a lot to commend it. Students should be allowed to enjoy the sense of occasion that a lecture provides and to be entertained by a good lecture. Research consistently shows that students rate highly staff who show enthusiasm for the subject - and where better to show this than in the lecture? The only problem is preventing the student being totally passive in the face of "the performance".

A lecture is like a jazz performance in which the musician's improvisation can thrill. Here are two quotes from John Coltrane, one of the most important and thoughtful of jazz improvisers: "It seems to me that the audience, in listening, is in an act of participation, you know. And when you know that somebody is maybe moved the same way you are, it's just like having another member of the group" and "Whatever African music may or may not be, one thing about it is that it communicates. It is for this reason that we do not have performers and listeners, but performers and participants."

Jazz performers seek to combine the interest and excitement of a good performance with the involvement of the audience. When you attend such a performance, you are conscious that the course of this music is not pre-determined, that the audience's response and the chemistry between performer and audience will have a significant effect on the finished product. But you also realise that beneath the improvisation, there is a clear structure, which makes the experience coherent and understandable. If we apply these ideas to a lecture, we will:

* Prepare a lecture that can go down a number of alternative pathways - instead of rigidly sticking to Powerpoint presentations

* Be prepared to invite questions, comments, even heckling, and change course in response

* Try taking in that morning's newspaper and respond to a headline or article

* Watch the students carefully for any sign of interest or despair and respond to it

* Have a clear idea of the broad area of learning objectives you want to achieve.

Just as the jazz improviser states the theme at the beginning, explores its chords, produces alternative melodies and returns to it at the end, thus giving a more profound understanding of the theme, so the lecturer structures his or her performance to the same end. This approach does not demand revolutionary change, only small adjustments. For example, one morning I was lecturing to about 100 students with little enthusiasm. As I put up a complex diagram on the overhead projector, I noticed a student collapse in despair. I said: "Is it that bad? OK take five minutes' break and we'll try it again." The result was laughter and much higher levels of involvement.

If students are going to use the internet, we have to investigate what makes us still relevant and necessary for their learning. The answer is not meticulously planned lectures that centre on delivering information. The more content that can be delivered by technology, the more we have to emphasise our role as the humanity in the machine - motivating, enthusing, leading by example. If we seek to copy the robotic perfection of internet presentation, we suggest we can be replaced by that machine.

Showing that we are willing to take risks in a clearly defined structure is an attempt to re-define lectures as an arena in which lecturers are allowed to perform on condition they show themselves sensitive to student participation. It should also make them special and worth attending for the students. It allows staff to reclaim lectures as something to be proud of, instead of having to view them as a cost-cutting exercise and an embarrassment.

John Shaw is principal lecturer in learning development, business studies, London Guildhall University.

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