Lecturing for active learning

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It is well understood that students lose concentration after 15-20 minutes of listening and taking notes, and hence their capacity to learn diminishes rapidly. In order to increase their concentration it is essential to introduce a change of activity. This is even possible lecturing to large classes and the following suggestions are made:

  • Get students to discuss issues in pairs for a specified number of minutes. In large groups have a signal which indicates that you wish the students’ attention to revert to you (e.g. a particular noise).
  • Give the students a question with a number of alternative answers. Ask them singly on in pairs to select the right answer. You can them get them to volunteer their explanations. If you are in a very large class where you feel this is not possible you could ask for a show of hands on each answer, i.e. a “straw poll”.
  • Give the students a mini case study, or practical problem to try to solve on their own, or in pairs. Then talk through your solution, asking them to note as you go through how different their answer is to yours, and why.
  • Ask students to think of examples of a particular point, and to contribute these orally, or they could write them on an overhead and pass them to the front of the class for display. You can take a selection of answers; you don’t need to address every student, but try to make sure that it isn’t always the same student’s contributions.
  • Stop and ask the students questions, and seek answers. Don’t be “frightened” by the silence into answering them yourself too quickly, give the students some time. You could also ask the students if they have any questions.
  • Use “check questions” which assess the students’ understanding, and the alignment between their ideas and yours (whilst still allowing for their creativity and any positive divergence of views). These questions can take different forms for example “either/or” questions, or negative questioning, where you give the wrong answer to a particular problem and ask the student to determine if it is right or wrong, and why they consider this to be the case.
  • Build in a quiz for students to take. This is especially useful at the beginning or at the end of a lecture. An online tool like Poll Everywhere could be used to collect answers in real time.
  • Use an online tool such as Padlet to collect questions or feedback and display it on the projection screen. For example, students could post the highlights from a group discussion.
  • Simply give the students a quiet break to do nothing but reflect on what you have been saying. This can be very refreshing, both for students and lecturer.
  • Have the students to write a brief review of their learning/understanding, in stages and/or at the end.

When giving students a change of activity of this nature always explain exactly what you want the students to do, tell them how long they have, and be clear on how you will indicate the end point of any discussion time. Gibbs (1992) and Bligh (2000) have some very good suggestions on such changes of activity.

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