5.2 Active things to do in lectures

Active things to do in lectures

  • Feedback via smartphones (or, decreasingly by dedicated personal response systems – clickers). Ask a question at least once every 15 minutes. If you don’t have the technology (phones or clickers) ask for a show of fingers (‘raise 1 finger for answer 1’ etc) or issue four coloured cards which can be raised. You can assess very quickly from the front of the class roughly how many of each response you have. You must of course be prepared to change what you say from this point on, to address the current state of understanding of the class;
  • Exit questions – close the lecture with one or more questions to be done before the students leave the room;
  • End of lecture summary – in the last 3 minutes of the class get the students to write down what they have learned during the class;
  • Mud cards – issue post-it notes and ask the students to write down the one point they least understood and stick it on the door on the way out;
  • Beauty cards – issue post-it notes and ask the students to write down the topic they feel they best understood and stick it on the door on the way out;
  • Mini-tests – set a question for solo or group response at several points within the lecture. Use clickers if you have them;
  • Recitations – set learning tasks for each member of a group, which he later has to explain to the remainder of the group. This could be done between two 15 minute ‘lectured’ sessions;
  • Buzz groups or pauses for discussion – two minutes of reflective activity every ten or fifteen minutes keeps the students alert;
  • Calculations – in a numerical subject, set a calculation every 15 minutes – to be completed alone or in groups;.
  • Make jokes (careful, no sarcasm!);
  • Do demonstrations or play videos – but not for long. These should be designed to illustrate something which cannot be otherwise experienced by the student, and to provide a break and a change, not to replace the lecture;
  • Run a ‘guided’ lecture (see Bonwell and Eison, 1991, p 13) in which you define the objectives of the class, speak for no more than 25 minutes, without the students taking any notes, and then use the remainder of the time for the students to recall the subject matter and re-construct it for themselves;
  • Ask questions, but then always pause for several seconds; most of us jump in too quickly to ‘help’ or answer the question ourselves.

Note that although most of these techniques are only used by a minority of engineering lecturers, they are more common in school classrooms. One could argue that teaching at school level has been professionalised much sooner than university teaching.

There is no reason why you should not insist on the completion of some work before a class is started. This tends to be applied to tutorial sessions, but can equally be applied to lectures. Try setting a question at the end of each class (in person or on your VLE) and insisting that it be answered before the next class begins. Anyone failing to answer when called upon is asked to leave the class. Tough, but  effective. Why should you waste your time on students who do not wish to learn?  Surely, if you were a student in humanities you would not consider attending a class on Shakespeare’s Hamlet without having first read the play.

Finally, you might – I regret to have to say – meet the issue of classroom control. This is likely to be more of a problem with large classes where you cannot easily look every student in the eye. It is also a natural consequence of active learning techniques that there will at times be a buzz of discussion in the class. Your problem then is to bring the class back to quiet attention at the chosen moment. It can be genuinely difficult to make yourself heard, particularly if, like me, you try to avoid using a microphone. One tip, which I have personally found to be very effective, is to use a referee’s whistle to signal the end of a discussion period.

A question: What attitudes and approaches characterise a good engineer?

If you want to encourage deep learning (e.g. understanding of principles which can be applied elsewhere) you probably want to consider other teaching methods which are more effective for this purpose than the lecture, so read on:  (but first please add a comment)

One Response to “5.2 Active things to do in lectures”

  1. Peter Goodhew

    Everywhere I mention clickers (above and elsewhere) I now recognize that mobile phone technology is likely to take over (e.g. using Poll Everywhere). This is a good development because it means that you can assume that you have a personal response system available in every class, without requiring prior arrangement.

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