In this post, Holly Barsham, a fourth year Social Anthropology and Politics student, shares her reflections on attending lectures, and describes how a few small actions can make lectures feel innovative and engaging to students…
I still remember walking into my first University lecture three years ago. In that moment, questions like where to sit, whether I should talk to my neighbour, whether I should take notes on my laptop or by hand, and whether I was brave enough to answer any questions, seemed somehow significant. Now I am better at dealing with these day-to-day worries, and I have experienced a wide range of lectures. The best lectures inspired me to pursue a dissertation on that very topic, while the worst sent me to sleep (a lecturer read off a 27-page script). However, innovative and engaging teaching does not need to entail ground-breaking, jaw-dropping or captivating ‘new’ teaching methods at all. Innovation exists in small actions. In line with the principle that “Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten” (Skinner), I offer some reflections about how teaching in lectures can feel innovative every day for students…
This may seem obvious but, for me, lectures become much more productive and useful learning environments when ‘content’ is not the only form of knowledge conveyed. What I mean by this is that in any student body, there is a wide diversity in the extent of pre-possessed understanding in a subject matter. It is for this reason that students want to understand how lecturers have come to their conclusions, laying out their train of thought and giving room for students to question them along the way. Lectures should teach students the tools to deepen their individual studies, and these sorts of explanations make it easier to take more than just the lecture slides from a lecture.
As an extension of my previous point, I always find it more fascinating when lecturers share some titbits of information about their research or background during the lecture (this is significantly better than simply making all students buy their book!). In large, introductory, undergraduate courses this is particularly important because we want to know how lecturers went from being an undergraduate to teaching undergraduates. I like to be able to understand a concept or theory’s impact at the most local of levels; it helps me visualise how a subject theory can have actual impact in the world. But I am equally sure that the most enjoyable lectures for all students contain more than just information that they could have read. Furthermore, it’s these added anecdotes or titbits that lecturers share that could be just the thing that gives a student that ‘light bulb’ moment, forming an idea which could change how they view their subject.
Learning, at least from what I’ve been told so far, is a process of listening, reflecting, interpreting and arguing. I have found that the first practice is emphasised in lectures, and the latter in tutorials, but I believe that university should teach us to apply all these skills simultaneously. Although there is an obvious pressure for lecturers to teach a large breadth of material, listening is only valuable insofar as it is ‘active’ (I cite again the example of a 27-page lecture script…). I have found this to be achieved in a number of ways, for example, leaving space for a discussion during a lecture using ‘think, pair, share’ sort of exercises, or by encouraging students to carry their lecture learning into a tutorial, such as asking students to write down a question to take to a tutorial, or write key points to a proposed mock question.
My favourite course so far at university was a fieldwork/trip based course about collaborative conversation projects led by indigenous groups local to the city, taken during my time in the US. Second to this, the second year Ethnography: theory and practice course, also involving community-based research, was highly influential in my learning because it taught me skills that I would need later on in my degree. Highlighting these courses is not to say that all courses should be structured like this; I am aware that this would be near impossible. However, noting my social anthropology bias, there is high value in encouraging students to not only amass knowledge in their disciplines but also dissect how they are forming and processing opinions about it. These are the true tools most students will take forward to life beyond university.
Lectures offer a unique learning experience where the expertise of someone’s whose career has been defined by ‘creating knowledge’ can be leveraged to challenge students’ critical thinking skills. In a system of low contact hours, playing around with small innovations to make lectures more memorable will add untold value to any student experience.