January 8, 2004, by Teaching at Nottingham

How do you keep your audience’s attention?

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Mary: “I think this is a really important point. You said “how do you keep the audience’s attention for 50 minutes?”, I think you’ll be lucky if you keep them for about 10-12 minutes before people start to have microsleeps . They are lucky if they last that long.

“I think it’s as much about changing the pace, of what you are doing, if you have constantly got slides coming up time after time after time you will lose them. You have got the change the pace, you maybe need to stop after 5-10 minutes, do a quick recap, ask a question.

“Buzz groups – do you know about buzz groups which you can use with large group teaching where you can ask a question get them to talk to each other about it and then maybe pick on one or two of them to give you some feedback. You can do that with large groups if they are in a tiered lecture theatre they can turn round and talk to the people behind them so you can get a group of about 6 people working together.

“I am quite keen on posing a question, getting them on their own to think about it and then discuss that with their next door neighbour and then with group so you can actually structure quite a lot of content around that. Then look at how you get feedback, obviously with a large group you can’t get feedback from all of the groups, they know after a while that you are bound to pick on somebody, then they hopefully will work on the principle that it might be me today and I’ll actually have to do some of that work.

“I think you can break lecture theatres up into large groups if you think about it in advance of how you are actually going to do that. It’s not ideal, but certainly with some of the rooms we have to deal with you have to do it and it does work.”

Audience:  “I think the thing we were talking about was being able to get interaction between the students so that you can gauge how understanding is going and whether they are happy with things.”

Mary: “I think one of the things you have to be careful of with large group teaching, if you are breaking it down into groups, is it takes time. If you have an hours lecture and you are planning on having them breaking into groups then you have to allow for that to take place within that hour otherwise you run out of time.”

Wyn : “Coming back to that retaining interest, I have used 2 techniques with this. One is to be perfectly honest with them and say “look this stuff is relatively dry, unfortuately we have got to go through it, the best means of doing this is through the lecture process but just bear with it, there are reasons for doing this”.

“Again it comes back to providing a context for what you are doing and that might mean you build an algebraic model and ok that takes time but you have got to go through it, fine, at least they know that you appreciate it is dull but alright let’s go through it.

“The other is this is a difficult one but it is a technique I have used more over the years, is to use some humour where possible. Now that is difficult when you are going through a dry theory I know, but there are ways in which you can do it. I have a colleague who has now retired, he would literally write things into his lecture notes that were humourous.

“That is taking it to the n’th degree, but it did break up the atmosphere and I think if you break the atmosphere to some extent, make a change catch their attention then it does help them to refocus and carry on.

“So there are ways in which you can do that, but again that is difficult to do. It is difficult to go into your first lecture, a group of 200 and then make a joke, it is going to kill you, don’t try it! But don’t do what I did and that was trip down the stairs.”

Chris: “I think this comes back to performance question, it’s almost back to Aristotle with emotional arts and performance and you do have to separate the content from the delivery of the content and I think you can plan a set piece of a lecture, something that changes the pace, changes the use of AV, changes maybe just the tone of it.

“If you have an audience which you take through an emotional range you will have a good interaction. If you can take them from something serious to something funny and back again, the arc of going through that will take them through the human attention span issue and will take you through it.

“It think any type of lecture, whether it is stats or anything at all may not appear amazingly important you can separate out entirely the experience of the lecture, from the content of the lecture and I think you can plan that.

“You can actually do that very early on. I remember my very first lecture, which is always a wonderful experience isn’t it? I actually did that, I thought about where I was going to be in the room, and how I was going to take the different emotion arts and it worked. It was a terrifying thing to do.

“You have to remember that what students have got you there for is because you are an expert in your area not because of the subject. People can go to any university and get the material or they can look in books.

“People come to Nottingham , as many of my colleagues have said, to absorb the academics, they come to have the experts themselves, and therefore showing that you are someone worth listening to is at least as important as actually the content of the lecture itself.

“Because the content is not just about the lecture its about the literature and everything around that, but they have to have a faith in you to deliver that and you have got to show that you are an individual who is worth listening to. If they think you are worth listening to one week they will come back and listen the next week.

Mary: “I think there is another point to add onto that, and I take on board everything you say , but it is also about helping the students to learn. If you are wanting them to learn then you have got to think about how you structure that session so that they have got opportunities for them to either rehearse, or for you to give them some reinforcement about where you have got to.

“So if it is a really dry lecture and you have structured it you start maybe 10-15 minutes and then somehow or other you have an activity, even if it’s you just saying “Ok, I want to just go over what we have already said, these are the key points”. Or have a handout or something so they can actually look at it, read it, or something. Sorry am I going over?”

Wyn: “One of the key skills of large group lectures is time management of course!”

Christopher Barnatt
Nottingham University Business School
Mary Chapple
School of Nursing, Midwifery & Physiotherapy
Wyn Morgan
School of Economics

Extracts from a panel discussion on large group teaching at the January 2004 PGCHE
This video was originally published as part of PESL’s Teaching at Nottingham collection.

Posted in Lectures