Kick-start learning by giving students a lecture ‘trailer’

Nicholas Morton is road-testing some unusual ways to get, and keep, students’ attention

September 3, 2015
Elly Walton illustration (3 September 2015)
Source: Elly Walton

You can picture the scene. It’s a nine o’clock Monday morning lecture – hooray! You’ve got about 200 first-year undergraduates in a lecture theatre, and most of them, except for the handful of eager beavers in the front row, were probably lying drowsily in bed as little as 13 minutes ago; some of them have actually brought their breakfast into the room. This is not a propitious beginning for an inspiring learning experience. How do you grab their attention and get them fully engaged?

Most classroom-themed films normally depict a plucky, streetwise teacher who sassily grabs their students’ attention by clawing the nearest blackboard, creating an ear-rending noise. But we don’t have blackboards any more, and I wouldn’t want to try it with an interactive whiteboard – I might upset IT.

At secondary school, I had a woodwork teacher who used to start each lesson by repeatedly bashing a workbench with a metal pole. Or you could just start waving and shouting: “Will you all be quiet?! The lecture is starting! Put that phone away!”

The effect, in all three cases, is the same. The students will probably grace you with their attention, but make no mistake – you haven’t inspired them, you’ve simply compelled them to be silent.

So is there a better alternative? Over the past few years, I’ve been trying a few new ideas that have worked remarkably well. My first involved playing stirring classical music so loudly that it was simply too noisy for the students to keep talking as they filed in. I also like to think that classical music engenders a reflective mood that is highly desirable for a lecture audience – I particularly recommend Elgar’s Nimrod. Just as importantly, the moment you turn the music off, it provides an instant signal that the lecture is going to start and the room nearly always falls magically silent.

My next cunning ploy was to combine the music with a rolling presentation on the screen, which I put up before the students entered the room. On each of the slides, which changed every five seconds, I included photographs of places, landscapes or buildings pertinent to the lecture, and a map showing their location. This allowed me, as a historian of the Crusades, to get the students engaging with the subject material from the very moment they entered the room. It could work with other subjects, too; the images could be of anything, from battle sites to mathematical formulae, and are very quick and easy to prepare.

As a result of these experiences, I have reached the conclusion that this “coming-into-the-room time” at the start of a lecture is an absolutely essential element in an inspiring lecture. Students should enter the room and think: “Wow!” More recently, I’ve been thinking about ways to take this to the next level by using video clips. I’ve started to create a series of clips, which are very easily mounted on YouTube, including photos and short videos of some of the places to be discussed. I’ve also provided a voice-over for the clip giving background information. Again, the idea is to inspire the students by guiding them through the places that I want to discuss in the lecture. I trialled this during the past academic year and students liked it – not least because the clips broke up their normal diet of academic articles and book chapters. I see it as an element of “flipped learning” without going the whole hog – and it is perhaps a good place to start if you are thinking about going further down that road.

My latest idea is to create a series of one-minute “lecture trailers” – these rapidly show the students some of the places to be discussed and ask challenging questions. So, for a lecture on the First Crusade, I might show them some of the key battle sites and ask – in the video – “How did the First Crusade change relations between Western Europe and the Islamic world?” or “How did the Crusaders succeed in crossing thousands of miles of enemy territory before seizing and holding Jerusalem?” I’m not offering the students a replacement for the lecture, or an excuse for not attending (“I watched the video on YouTube, so I’ve already got the key messages”). Rather, I’m attempting to get them excited about what is to come.

In various conversations I’ve had in recent years with specialists in teaching and learning, people have questioned the value of lectures as a teaching vehicle. Phrases such as “death by PowerPoint” tend to crop up, along with questions about the amount of information that students really retain. But, for me, lectures are absolutely vital. From my own experience as an undergraduate, I know that they can be eye-openingly, life-changingly wonderful. And, from my own experience as a teacher, I know that if you grab students’ interest from the second they enter the lecture theatre, you have a chance of making them feel that way, too.

Nicholas Morton is a senior lecturer in history at Nottingham Trent University.


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Reader's comments (1)

This works really well, even on the other side of the very acoustically-porous divider, where my class are trying to lip read my lecture.