February 21, 2007, by Teaching at Nottingham

Questions and activities in lectures

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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: “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 questions 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 for getting them to stump up something.

“You will normally find someone in the class who is prepared to give an answer.”

Kate: “One other thing I really noticed in your lecture was set in the little activity or the task 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: “It is something that I am doing more, especially in courses where, 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, again, a good technique for getting them to do something different.”


Ed: “At this point I will keep the diagram that is on there on here as well, but you have got to do something in your groups. Groups you can form of any size, so long as you can see and hear each other.

“I want you to make a list, because it’s fairly logical, of all the things you would need to know if you were actually modelling a plume.

“What are the factors which affect that kind of formation? It’s fairly logical, so nominate a scribe, get a piece of paper and write down the things that are going to affect the formation of that plume.”

Low level noise as students work in groups.

Ed: “Give me your lists then, let’s have a look. 

“Wind speed, wind direction, weather conditions, stack geometry, composition, fair doos.”


Ed: “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 reasons before you try it.

“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.”

Ed Lester
Department of Chemical & Environmental Engineering

Ed is teaching engineering students on a module about environmental protection (H8BENP Environmental Protection, Level B). Produced February 2007.
This video was originally published as part of PESL’s Teaching at Nottingham collection.

Posted in LecturesTeaching