In May 2017, I visited Legoland® in Denmark. I arrived at the front gates just before the park opened and children were running around and playing outside the entrance. Five minutes before opening, a princess in a pink gown and several official looking staff appeared on the other side of a metal barrier and there was a palpable sense of excitement amongst the children. They were jumping up and down, couldn’t keep still, and they moved closer to the entrance. As the metal barrier started to rise at opening time, children were ducking underneath to try to get into the park faster.
I reflected on what should be a similar scene at 08:55 on a Monday morning outside most lecture theatres in universities around the world. I think it is fair to say that it is less common to see students demonstrating palpable excitement to enter the room. Why are students less excited by the learning experiences we offer? I think there are five key factors to the appeal of Legoland®: 1) I think children expect Legoland® to be fun; 2) Lego is a creative toy; 3) Legoland® offers a sense of the unexpected; 4) There is an opportunity to participate and interact. They get to do stuff; 5) Legoland® is designed with a specific audience in mind. Legoland® is tailor-made to appeal to children of specific ages, with different Lego ranges and themes targeted at particular groups.
Students may not always be so excited that they cannot wait to get through the door of the lecture theatre, but there are some lecturers who make their teaching engaging as well as intellectually stimulating and relevant. There is evidence that many students appreciate and benefit from interactive lectures (Huxham, 2005; Revell and Wainwright, 2009). Other lecturers are using electronic voting systems (Bates, Howie & Murphy, 2006), social media (Ross, 2016) and ‘technology enhanced active learning spaces’ (Roger, Ney & Liote, 2016) to enhance the level of engagement in the subject and to promote paired and small group working in large classes.
Dr Julie Williamson in Computing Science at the University of Glasgow teaches a software testing lecture to approximately 90 students. She spends fifteen minutes setting the scene, and then asks the students to form groups of five (in a lecture theatre with fixed seating this means some students turn around to speak to those in the row behind). She gives the students 20 minutes and sets up a real life scenario with a software problem that is designed with the students’ future careers in mind. She asks the students to identify where the specific problems arose and what their solutions would be. After 10 minutes of group working, in an unexpected announcement, she warns the students that the Director of the company has found out about the problems and wants to be briefed in 5 minutes. This changes the pace of the group work and focuses the students on clearly interacting to finalise their identified problems and solutions. She then asks for two students from each group to come to the front of the classroom (36 students). She then randomly selects three pairs asking to hear their identified problems and solutions. She asks the other groups if they have any alternative solutions they wish to add. The students return to their seats, she ties up any unfinished issues before completing the lecture by covering further relevant material. The room is energetic and the students are focused and engaged.
This example is only one illustration of what is possible in lectures, to try to make learning engaging and exciting. Many staff at the University of Edinburgh are already adopting highly engaging approaches to lectures, but can we try to transform all lectures to make them unmissable?
Bates, S.P., Howie, K. & Murphy, A. St J. (2006) The use of electronic voting systems in large group lectures: challenges and opportunities. New Directions 2 (Dec) 1-8.
Huxham, M. (2005) Learning in lectures: do ‘interactive windows’ help? Active Learning in Higher Education 6 (1) 17-31.
Revell, A. & Wainwright, E (2009) What makes lectures ‘unmissable’? Insights into teaching excellence and active learning. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 33 (2) 209-223.
Roger, K., Ney, S & Liote, L. (2016) Teaching spaces design and development at LSE: an evaluation of impact on teaching and learning. London: The London School of Economics and Political Science.
Ross, E. (2016) Eight smart ways to use social media in universities. The Guardian Higher Education Network, 20 January.
This blog is an adapted extract from an invited opinion piece to be published in the Journal of Danish University Education in March 2018.