Archive for August, 2011

My colleague Rob Jackson made an interesting point in his blog about how people might use breaks within lectures to help students concentrate.

When I was a new lecturer I went on a course in which we took turns giving a short sample of our lecturing, and the other group members commented on our style. I was really shocked that some of the lecturers thought it was quite normal to come along with a script and simply sit down, eyes glued to the paper, and read aloud what they had written. If that is your idea of a lecture then give up: post your script online for them to read, or post an audio file of your reading. For me, the lecture is not mainly about information delivery. Information can be delivered quite effectively in other ways, but where large numbers of students want face-to-face access to the individual expertise of a small number of teaching staff, the lecture remains an effective way of teaching… if you are careful with it! Some of my colleagues have argued that lecturing is not an appropriate teaching tool in 21st-century education, but I think it depends on what your lecture is trying to achieve, and exactly how you organise it to achieve that goal. For me, the lecture is primarily about route laying, signposting, and motivation. Certainly there is some information content in my lectures, but the real aim is to show students the learning territory that lies open to them and to motivate them to want to go and explore that territory. The lecture is a facilitating tool, not a content holder.

There are probably lots of different ways of doing this, depending on your own course context and teaching style, but for me it has been effective to use a sort of blended learning approach in which the lecture is the glue holding together a range of other media. For example, a lecture might have strong online backup including a short topic summary and readings from both undergraduate textbooks and advanced research sources, so I can be sure that students have access to the core content even if I don’t go through all of it in detail in the lecture. Students would be encouraged to do pre-reading for the lecture (not just post-reading) so that they come along already clued up (and perhaps even with questions) rather than turning up saying “what are we doing today?” (or, worse still, if they say “what are you doing today?”). Preparation can be encouraged and enhanced by the use of resources such as YouTube mini-lectures that flag up things for students to wonder about in advance. I have done that for one module and the students did find it very helpful: it meant that they knew the key points before we started, and the lecture could operate at a higher level than if I had needed to run through the basics for 15 minutes. Also they seem more likely to watch a ten-minute video than to do ten minutes of reading! You can see an example of these pre-lecture mini-lectures on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=187HabCYZds

For courses where I’ve run strong independent prep-work like pre-videos or pre-reading, the lecture session can often be improvised in response to student questions/comments about what they have already done. It is usually easy to predict what they will want to learn more about (indeed you can steer them in a particular direction with the pre-resources that you provide), so you can still “write a lecture” in advance if you want, but then deliver it as a response to their questions following their pre-work. Alternatively you can simply give the bits of the lecture that become relevant as they ask questions about the video.

A more conventional approach that I’ve used with 1st-year students does not have the videos or such strong emphasis on pre-reading, and is a much more standard lecture format. But even if you plan to “stand and deliver” for 50 minutes, you don’t have to simply stand and deliver for 50 minutes! My approach is to break the session into manageable chunks, and to use those chunks to achieve very specific tasks.

Here’s an example breakdown of a 50-minute 1st-year lecture:

minutes 0-5: “establish a teachable moment” –  in other words, do something that puts the students into a frame of mind where they want to learn. They won’t learn just because you force information on them. They will learn if they feel the desire or need to know something. This can be achieved in different ways. One basic approach is to ask them an interesting question (interesting to them) to which they don’t know the answer or to which you show the answer is not what they always thought. Essentially you need to make sure at the start of the lecture that the students are curious to know about whatever it is you are covering.

minutes 5-20: flag up the key issues in your topic of the day. This is the “core content” section of the lecture, and needs clear signposts and subheadings so students know exactly what to go away and read up on.

minutes 20-25: short break, with a reminder that students could take this opportunity to review their notes from the previous 20 mins and identify questions they might want to ask.

minutes 25-40: present a case-study or counterpoint example (perhaps from an important research paper) that draws together key themes from the day’s topic and perhaps illustrates them in an applied context (or from a perspective that will help shed light on what you did in minutes 5-20).

minutes 40-45: time to deal with student queries and comments about what you’ve done (including opportunity for them to ask questions they thought of in the mid-lecture break), and time to reiterate your key point.

minutes 45-50: a closing activity to reinforce their learning and encourage them to do the follow-up work you may have set. One simple approach here is to give them a short self-assessed or peer-assessed mini-test on what just happened in the lecture.

Last year I set out to redesign an entire module using that kind of framework as a starting point. I didn’t really stick perfectly to the plan, but making a step in that direction was a big improvement on my previous style. If you are adopting an approach like this because you think students have short attention spans (we all have short attention spans), then you can also help by making sure you switch occasionally between different modes of presentation. For example, if your core session at minutes 5-20 is delivered by PowerPoint, then perhaps try using the whiteboard, or a box of sand, or at least a Prezi instead of a .ppt for the case study section. Or you could use a video for the opening few minutes, then talk-and-chalk for a bit before falling back into PowerPoint.

Mix it up. Stay lively.

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Despite the best efforts of curriculum builders in schools and universities Geography may soon cease to exist. Like a firework, some disciplines burst into existence, burn brightly, explode into a thousand tiny sparkles and then disappear. This may be no bad thing: there is a school of thought that knowledge should not be broken up into disciplines and that it is only natural for a discipline to have a lifespan of usefulness and then die off. Following up the research I was doing recently into the Oceanic Turn of the 18th Century I was drawn into looking at work on “predisciplinarity”, or how ideas were organised before there were actual academic disciplines. From there I got into the idea that there might be such a thing as postdisciplinarity: a stage when disciplines stop being useful and cease to exist.  Geography as a named and labelled academic discipline isn’t actually that old, although people have been doing things that we would now call Geography more or less forever. The way that Geography can interact with so many other disciplines makes it a strong candidate for breaking up into little fragments, and I even have some colleagues who treat it as nothing but a bunch of fragments now. Of course they are wrong. There is a core, a heart to Geography that makes it much more than the sum of its component parts. Even though Geography overlaps with, and uses information from, a wide range of other disciplines, you can’t take a Historian, a Meteorologist, a Sociologist and a Geologist, shove them together in a building and call them a Geography Department! The heart, the Geography, the Geographers would be missing.  It is important for Geography students to learn (and for Geography staff to remember) what that heart is. Geography may be heading in the direction of the postdisciplinary, but it would be a little premature to think it was already there. Certainly Geography is the sort of discipline that can turn down that path very easily, but I don’t think it is time yet. Geography still needs some actual Geographers. If you are teaching Geography, or if you claim to be a Geographer, just make sure you know what Geography is and that you can tell the difference between what it reaches out to and what is at its core.

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