Why live lecturing benefits from ‘fear’

English literature scholar and teacher Eileen Pollard reveals ways to engage students in lectures

December 4, 2014

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An English literature scholar is making it her mission to remind the sector about the importance of recapturing the “live” qualities of the lecture to keep students engaged.

Eileen Pollard, an associate lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, told Times Higher Education that doing a postgraduate certificate in higher education – which she is still in the process of completing – allowed her to reflect on her own teaching and to “question my own inhibitions” in conducting lectures, which she believes are still “utterly relied upon” in universities.

“There is a tension between teachers [thinking] the lecture is outmoded and that often students are bored, and [the fact] that the students can be extremely rigid about what they feel constitutes a lecture,” she said. “You’re thinking all the time, ‘I need to make this interesting for this diverse student body’ [which] at the same time is quite fixed in its idea about lecturing and doesn’t want it to [change] too much.”

Dr Pollard has discovered that while teachers saw the lecture as a starting place for the process of thinking about a topic, students felt that it was a point of “crystallising knowledge” – something you could “package up and take away”.

However, she believes learning is “more messy, experiential and uncertain” and not something you can “carry out of the room”.

Therefore, she is sceptical about the scope for making lectures more like TED talks that are later viewed online. “The problem with putting material online is that just because you get a certain number of hits for a video, it doesn’t mean that it equates to engagement,” she said.

“In a lecture you have people in real time, real space and you can gauge the level of their engagement. Even though people love to do things online, and social media [are] a big part of their existence, we still like to go to things, sit next to others and experience a one-off event.”

Her interaction with people from different disciplines on her postgraduate teaching course has brought new ideas for enhancing engagement in lectures. “One of my friends took in some air horns just to change the environment in the room,” she said.

“Engagement is something everyone has to deal with, no matter what you’re teaching. You’re basically trying to convey information and you have a certain number of tools available. Meeting other people makes you aware of more tools.”

Dr Pollard also realised that the arrangement of students in the room was vitally important to engagement. “One of my own inhibitions was that I didn’t want to move anyone about in a lecture; I felt they had a right to sit wherever they wanted. The minute I started moving them forward, it changed the dynamic in a very positive way,” she said.

Her best advice to ensure good teaching throughout a career is: never lose “the fear” of giving a live lecture. “You must be alive to the fact that you have no idea who is in the room and how they might react. And the way to keep alive as a lecturer is to never lose that fear.”


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