Get your students active. It’ll take the pressure off you and they’ll learn more!

Adam Longcroft

Category: Anglia Learning & Teaching

5 September 2017

I suspect we’ve all done it at some stage or other. Faced with the challenge of juggling lots of competing deadline and tasks, it’s all too easy to allow other responsibilities to crowd out the time needed for the effective planning of teaching.

Before you know it, the day (or more) you had set aside to plan the session you’ll be teaching later in the week/next week/next month is reduced to a fraction of this, and tough decisions then have to be made about how to manage the session in question. Given this, it’s also all too easy to adopt what, for many of us, is actually sometimes the least taxing pedagogical approach – the old fashioned lecture. Whilst I recognise that not all colleagues find lecturing a comfortable experience, for many it is both familiar and easy. It’s a pedagogical comfort zone. Something to which we can retreat when the occasion calls for it.

Except, of course, that this is a trap of our own making. The occasion in question rarely calls for a lecture. This is just a pedagogical 'cop-out'. It’s all about us and not about the students. Some students – and it is a fair point to make – actually arrive at university expecting to be lectured at. This is what they’ve seen on TV, films and the internet. It’s what they often experience at Open Days. Or it’s what they’ve heard from friends and family. So, the lecture is also a pedagogical comfort zone for many students. It’s familiar to them, requires little from them, and is even something they can opt-out of entirely often without anyone noticing their absence (I know some universities have rigorous attendance monitoring systems even in lectures, but this isn’t the case everywhere). So, both parties can enjoy a comfortable hour together. The lecturer is doing what comes easily. The students can be passive. Little is asked of them and, in most cases, little deep learning is achieved.

The problem, of course, is that this scenario isn’t really in anyone’s best interests. Because both parties should be primarily concerned not about what is being taught, but about what is being learned. Academics love their subject. We want everyone else – and especially our students – to love it too. That’s one of the reasons we choose to teach. We also want our students to learn as much about the subject as possible, so they can perform well in their assessments, gain a good degree, and succeed in securing a great graduate job and an exciting professional career. Students want the same thing. The problem is that the ‘transmission’ mode of teaching is one of the least effective in terms of building deep and lasting learning. By allowing ourselves to fall into the trap of relying on information transmission (i.e. via the traditional lecture), we may not achieve our own objectives, but also those of our students. It’s a bit like giving a car to a student and pointing them in the direction of the promised land, but failing to equip it with an engine and wheels. The vehicle just ain’t going to get them there.

So, faced with 200+ students in the lecture hall, what should we do? My advice is simple but requires a mental shift on the part of the lecturer. Look upon your role not as that of a lecturer, but as a facilitator of learning. In fact, forget that you are a lecturer altogether. The title is both unhelpful and misleading. We are teachers first and foremost. We teach in higher education rather than in school settings, but we share common goals with our colleagues working with younger children – to employ pedagogical strategies that build strong engagement and profound learning. Our primary role is not to lecture at our students. We should use the precious – indeed, increasingly precious – contact time that we have with them to create learning experiences that help them to construct their own meanings and their own learning and to become effective independent, reflective learners.

If the university or college you work for allocates you lecture slots and puts you in lecture theatres, don’t allow this to undermine or influence your own pedagogy. You are the expert. It’s why your university or college employed you. It’s up to you to choose how you use the precious time with your students to develop their learning and skills. But you may also wish to discuss this with your students – involve them in thinking about how the impact of contact time can be maximised. It’s their degree after all. It’s their learning that’s at stake.

Just as important as the principle of adopting the identity of facilitator rather than lecturer, is that of ‘agency’. Students must become active agents in their own learning and personal, professional development. Why not negotiate aspects of pedagogy with them, right at the outset and afterwards? Not only will this build mutual trust, it’ll also help to build a culture of ‘partnership’ working, and ensure that they feel empowered and consulted. Crucially, it’ll help to build their pedagogical literacy; their understanding of why certain pedagogies are more effective than others.

Finally, my last tip would be to place the emphasis on active learning strategies. Not only does this address the issue of student agency discussed above, it embodies a pedagogical approach that is focused on what and how students will learn rather than what you want to teach. Think about how you can maximise the value of the contact time you have with your students and develop strategies that engage them as active participants in their own learning, and that of their peers. Perhaps a flipped approach might be more appropriate to a traditional lecture? This enables students to engage with learning materials prior to lectures and enables you to engage them in a dialogue in the subsequent face-to-face session. Consider the technological tools that can help you to build this active engagement. Using TurningPoint, Poll Everywhere or Kahoot (and similar software) can help to gain an insight into students’ level of understanding in real time. Involve them in active learning, and capture qualitative feedback. By being active agents in their own education, they will also learn to take responsibility for their learning – something they will need to do in their professional careers. If you must lecture, keep these to short 15-20 minute blocks, interspersed with more activity-focused learning episodes. Even old-fashioned lecture theatres can be used very effectively to engage students in active learning, so if faced with this kind of space to teach in, think about how to use it in innovative ways to build agency via active learning.

Resources: Check out Sharon Cox’s HEA guide to Active Learning.

This blog was original published on SEDA. Read the original.


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