January 31, 2007, by Teaching at Nottingham
In conversation with Lord Dearing Award Winners: Ed Lester, Chemical, Environmental and Mining Engineering
Kate: “Can I ask you about asking the students questions in lectures, why do you do it and what do you think are the benefits?”
Ed Lester: “Probably because the attention span of the average person is in the order of minutes. You have got to do anything you can to get them to think for themselves.
“The risk is that if you ask them a question and there is total silence, do you accept that they are not going to think for themselves or do you try and encourage them and I think there are techniques to getting them to stump up something.
“You will normally find someone in the class who is prepared to give an answer. Sometimes it’s the same person, but if you are engaging the class then the chances are they will be prepared to make suggestions.
“I think the most important thing is that they have got to believe you are not going to embarrass them if they are wrong, and students worrying about what happens if they say something wrong is probably one of the biggest reasons for not suggesting things. If they don’t like you either, then that’s another reason, so you have got to overcome all those things before you try it.”
Kate: “What have you found works to help establish that rapport?”
Ed: “If you are giving a lecture at 9.00am on any given morning, particularly Thursday or Friday I think you have just got to be realistic about what they are going to be like, you have got to have a light atmosphere, you can make the lectures as enjoyable as possible.
“It’s not that you always succeed in doing that, but you just have to do whatever is appropriate on the day to get the class to relax and to be able to join in.”
Kate: “Using handouts in your lectures, I notice that you had left gaps and were providing information and also diagrams. What is your approach to using these gapped handouts?”
Ed: “It’s an evolved state really, I used to have no notes at all, and they used to have to write everything. This was the style I was given when I became a lecturer.
“When I took over a module I was given a set of notes and the style was at the time that you write out these notes, so your notes become their notes and unfortunately that process is rather inefficient and avoids passing through the mind of either if you are not careful.
“The fact that I give notes with gaps in is really so that they have something to do, it’s as basic as that. They have got to have something to do, if they just sit there and listen to you, especially in a subject like engineering it’s not really sufficient. I think they have to be doing something.
“Again it gets down to attention span. If peoples attention span is 7 minutes long, which is apparently what it is, then you have to do something to get them to think and to move and participate.”
Kate: “At the end of the lecture you were talking about the relationship of what you were talking about to some of your own research and some of your own ideas.
“How do you try and link your research with the teaching that you do?”
Ed: “Normally we are lecturing in courses where we do research, on the whole we do. In engineering particularly we have a real problem in recruiting engineers to do PhD’s and getting a good one is even harder.
“So it’s part of my philosophy, that wherever possible we talk about research in the lectures, because we are not telling them to become a PhD student or anything like that, but if I have a meeting the following day or that afternoon with a company and we are talking about research, and it relates to what we are doing then I will tell them about this meeting and what we are hoping for, and then the next time we have a lecture they might ask “how did you get on?” And you are generally just promoting the idea to students who may or may not decide that research is a possibility.
“There is nothing worse than students saying in their 4th year that they are going for interviews with companies, and they have never thought about research, and they have never had it presented to them. It’s a mistake which, really, is easy to address.”
Kate: “The last thing I wanted to ask you about was the demonstrations and bringing that into a classroom. What are the pros and cons of doing something like that in terms of for the student and for the lecturer?”
Ed: “The con might be that it goes wrong. There is one particular module where I sing a song, I bring my guitar in and I sing them the biochemical pathway. The con is that it goes horribly wrong and they decide that you’re an idiot and they don’t like the lecture, they don’t respect your style, they don’t participate and there is a cold silence. That is the possible problem.
“The benefit is that everybody is going to remember from this demonstration certain fundamentals and the fact that the course has a specific element in it about this, and the exam will have a question in it as well. I would like to think that when they take the exam they will be able to remember certain important features that they had demonstrated.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t look very good either but it does demonstrate certain principles and they will remember it too.”
Kate: “One other thing I really noticed in your lecture was set in the little activity or the task that you ask groups to go away and talk about a particular point. Could you describe how you’ve came to use that kind of activity in your lecture?”
Ed: “Again, it is something that I am doing more, especially in courses like this one, its environmental protection, it’s for engineers, and the concern of environmental protection is not first on their agenda.
“So if it is something where we want their opinion, and I would love to know what their opinion is on say environmental protection, do they thinks it’s important at all? Then you will get a very good snapshot of the opinion if you split them into groups and they make a list and then you take the papers you read them, you can find out whether they actually care about the subject.
“You might suspect that they do or don’t, but if you ask them and they write it down, you have it for certain. It’s also a good technique for getting them to do something different.
“A 50 minute lecture with nothing but talking from the front, nothing but writing, is a very long time and I think anything you can do to mix it up and get them think a bit and discuss something is a good thing.
“I guess the only down side really is that they won’t take it seriously, and they will just be talking about something completely different from your lecture, but on the whole that doesn’t tend to happen. If you stage it right, it tends to be successful.”
Kate: “Do you find in terms of your own work load, doing things like the demonstration and thinking through activities for your students, does it add greatly to your own workload in terms of preparation?”
Ed: “Well, in this particular case it was a bit of a challenge, it didn’t take a horrendous amount of time, but it did take a bit of effort to actually go and get the equipment and I think any lecturer in this university, or any other one, wants to do a good job.
“There can’t be anyone who wants to give a bad lecture but I think there is always the pressure between the time that you want to spend doing your research and the time you want to spend doing your teaching.
“Obviously you could spend all your time doing either, you could ignore one for the other, but in this case you have to weigh up what is the value of going the extra mile. I am obviously very keen on doing that I think if you can get the students to appreciate what you have done, and they will understand and their depth of learning is greater then it’s worth it.
“I think that is also borne out in the SET* forms when they are assessed, students will give a higher mark, or a higher grade to a lecturer that they know has gone the extra mile.”
*SET is short for Student Evaluation of Teaching