Teaching at scale: Improving student engagement through Quectures

iStock [kubkoo]
iStock [kubkoo]
Teaching at scale poses specific challenges. How do we maintain student engagement in that seemingly anonymous sea of students in the large lecture hall, and how can the same strategy do so for each individual with different backgrounds and needs? Having just completed a secondment with the Institute for Academic Development evaluating the new ‘quecture’ approach to the flipped classroom, over two full teaching cycles, I am starting to believe that I might have something. In a blog written this time last year I explained my reasoning thus:

“Thinking is not driven by answers but by questions. Answers signal a full stop to thought.” Foundation for Critical Thinking

In the face of this apparent truth, it is alarming to consider the 50 minute monologue delivery of facts that often constitutes the traditional science lecture. If one accepts the premise of the quote, it seems that this cherished teaching style is ideally situated to simply shutting down thought. It is reassuring, therefore, to note the current widespread interest in active learning methods in STEM Higher Education.

Quectures are flipped lectures with two design alterations that aim to encourage students to construct their own learning dependent on personal learning position, during lectures and to encourage behavioural and attitudinal change in the responsibility for learning (thus improving engagement).

First, the knowledge content is divided between provision before and during the lecture, reducing the task of preparation and allowing for the introduction of more difficult concepts during traditional lecturing. Second, (and crucially) students are invited to formulate and discuss their own questions relevant to each learning objective, by being asked to “think, type, then talk” at set points during the lecture. This mimics the peer instruction technique yet, using a text entry personal response system, allows for discussion and re-visiting of the students’ own questions during and between lectures.

As noted in my original blog, the perennial problem of disengagement really did turn out to be an issue before I had even begun. Second year second semester (or the ‘sophomore slump’ as it is often termed) is a notorious time for losing momentum with ones studies. Forming your own questions is not light work, and to then have to discuss them with your peers is challenging to say the least. However, for those that did venture their own questions (and it was a three figure number), I see tantalising hints of learning gains on concept tests, improved essay scores and boosted course marks, albeit modest. There are also glowing recommendations from students such as:

“Really liked this mode of learning, this made sure that I’m keeping up with the lecture content while encouraging me to pose my questions, instead of taking in information passively and catching up before the exam”.

But the thing that really gets me excited is the feedback survey completed by students one year after the strategy. In this random survey of students, unselected for being engagers, there was a luke-warm attitude when remembering quectures with only one quarter expressing a desire to ever do it again. However, this disgruntled bunch unequivocally acknowledged that the quecture made them ‘feel more part of the lecture’ and said they felt students were more responsible for their own learning during quectures, unlike traditional lectures where the learning process was driven by the lecturer.

Perhaps it’s a case of not liking what’s good for us: some of us may not like broccoli but there is certainly iron in it! I love it myself.

Next steps

Find out more about teaching strategies for large classes in these Teaching Matters blogs:

Quectures: Teaching through questions

A manifesto for learning and teaching in large classes from the Experienced Teachers’ Network

Making large groups like small groups

Heather McQueen

Heather McQueen is a Senior Lecturer in Molecular Genetics and Associate Director of Teaching in the School of Biological Sciences. As well as 20 years of laboratory based research into genome organisation and epigenetics in higher vertebrates, Heather has led a variety of pedagogical and public engagement projects including investigations of online collaborative learning using “Peerwise”, of student attitudes to plagiarism and study use of Facebook, and the “Gene Jury” project for school pupils. Heather was a finalist for the HE UK Bioscience teacher of the year 2014 and received an honourable mention in the 2015 Turnitin Global Innovation awards. Heather has recently completed a secondment to the Institute for Academic Development, conducting a two-year project on flipped learning.

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