Seminars checked on size

March 28, 1997

MANY students are too terrified to participate in seminar groups larger than 12, according to Warwick University research on teaching in higher education.

Teaching methods at the university's institute of education, where the research is being carried out, have already been overhauled in a bid to counter students' fears.

The findings will be published next year, but early analysis reveals that a significant proportion of students find large groups traumatic and intimidating.

Linda Evans, co-director of Warwick's teacher development research and dissemination unit, said she had adapted her own teaching technique. "I was surprised to find just how stressful contributing to seminar discussions could be," she said.

Dr Evans now divides large groups in to smaller ones taught for shorter periods but given activities to carry on in their own time. The change has been very successful, according to students.

A sample of second-year students and their tutors on four different degree courses at an un-named research-oriented university were asked about their perceptions of teaching.

Group size was frequently mentioned by students, most of whom considered 12 to be a good size for teaching purposes. Lectures were generally considered valuable as long as they contained certain key components; namely structure, coherence, relevance and clarity. However, there were criticisms.

"One physics student suggested that because of what he perceived as the course's emphasis on rote learning and regurgitation of information at the expense of understanding, it would be conceivable for non-physics specialists to pass a physics exam, having digested the appropriate information," Dr Evans said.

Students liked "big name" lecturers who were regarded as experts in the field. They were impressed, for example, by lecturers who had written books. But the education students particularly valued practical experience.

The lecturers were quizzed about job satisfaction and their attitudes towards competing demands of teaching, administrative and research responsibilities. Dr Evans said she was surprised by how many respondents valued their teaching as highly as their research role.

But some said students' expectations of lecturers were too high. A law tutor with experience of teaching on the continent, said: "The system is entirely different . . . the students are more independent and they do not have this expectation that lecturers hold them by the hand."

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