Time for a whole cohort lecture!

Okay, I confess I have actually lost all track of time and I have no idea whether I am actually coming or going at the moment. I think last week was meant to be a professional waffle, but I sat down to write it and it just wasn’t coming together so I confess I cheated – I just put a whole load of Wilson Waffling Live videos together and claimed it was a waffle – cheeky I know – or could I just label it as innovative? Talking of being innovative, I read an article this week which I wanted to focus my waffle on. It’s title was quite bold stating – “Shouldn’t lectures be obsolete by now?”. Now before you all grab your pitchforks and placards and cheer with excitement and intrepidation, I want to stand in the corner of whole cohort lectures for a while and dodge the flying missiles and provide you with some benefits.

When I first made the brave move to higher education I did wonder several times whether I had made the right decision. In fact, I often still do wonder if I have made the right decision! I moved from teaching a small group of children every day, to engaging with several groups of students on several modules across several year groups. In primary school I was teaching across the curriculum but in small doses while now I was teaching primary science, primary mathematics, primary computing and even professional studies. Sessions, as they were now called, moved from being one hour max to two or even three hours and suddenly I was teaching on modules such as creativity and contemporary issues. However, as well as working with seminar groups and workshops I was also plunged into the realm of whole cohort lectures. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these, basically it is when you get all the students within a year group, in our case about 150-170 students, put them in a huge lecture theatre, stand at the front and talk to them. To be honest, I was never keen on these. I felt that they were so alien to my usual way of teaching and I struggled to engage and teach such a large group of learners in one go. I once voiced my dislike to a learned Dean and Professor within the faculty and he listened carefully and then made a statement to me which made me think. The statement was quite simple – “… it is interesting how a comedian, singer or public speaker can stand at the front of a crowd of people in a packed auditorium or stadium and keep the whole crowd engaged”. That got me pondering and so I started to change the way and purpose of my whole cohort lectures.

  • Content is important – When ever I am designing a session within my modules I ask myself three basic questions, what do I want to students to learn in the session, why do I want them to learn this and what is the best way for them to engage it. Although the final question is very subjective, I do incorporate a range of different options so that hopefully I will be able to be inclusive. Sometimes, there is the need to communicate information and, working with five groups of students, it is important that each and every group receives the same information. Examples of these sort of sessions include the introduction to the module and assignment briefing. For these situations, I would always choose a whole cohort lecture approach. Although I am communicating information, it does not mean there is no interaction with the learners (see the following point) but essential the information is the same to all learners. We do, as the original article suggests, use a lot of workshops and seminar teaching. Although these really increase the opportunity for discussion and engagement, they can also be complimented by whole cohort inputs. Within the first ‘lecture’ all the theories, regulations and current thinking can be communicated to everyone with the follow up sessions focusing on the discussion and critical engagement. Yes, this could be done using a flipped classroom approach away from the ‘classroom’ although I think there is something more engaging and inclusive by providing the same information to everyone and also, maybe, the thoughts of the initial tutor which students can then engage with hence promoting discussion in the workshops.

  • Lectures does not mean no interaction – I wanted to use the mathematical sign for this bullet point but I couldn’t actually find one so I had to write it out in full hand. Many people might think or believe that because you have a 150 students in one place that the amount of interaction/discussion is limited. Although this is probably less than in a smaller group situation and the opportunity for the tutor to interrogate (can I use that word without sounding too harsh) and challenge the students’ thinking is reduced it does not mean that discussion and interaction should be avoided. Students can still talk to people around them or reflect and make notes in preparation for the subsequent seminar. For example – write down your thoughts about this point in preparation for the seminar or, listen to these three points, which do you agree with and does the rest of the lecture change your mind/thoughts at all. Technology also plays an important role in promoting interaction within the lectures – as long as you don’t subscribe to the archaic rule of no mobile devices out within the lecture theatre. Padlet allows the students to post comments and links onto a virtual wall throughout the lecture or at designated times which can then be used as a discussion point either at the end of the lecture or within the workshops. In a similar way simple voting apps, such as e-clicker can be used to gather a quick poll about things live! Asking questions can often be difficult within whole cohort lectures, unless you have a second person with a roaming mic at your disposal. But fear not – technology can yet again come to your aid here! In our whole cohort mathematics assignment briefings towards the end of the session we open Socrative and the students post their questions directly to the app. I then collect these and then ask them to the second tutor who answers them LIVE! We have found that it not only is more effective way of asking and answering questions in this situation but it often means that more questions are asked and it builds confidence since they can ask questions in groups or they can see that the question they wanted to be answered was actually in a lot of people’s minds!

  • Keeping them engaged – I have a very short attention span. I am very much aware of this and acknowledge it and often make people aware. It’s not that I start to misbehave after a few minutes, it is more that after like half an hour I want to have a walk around or check something or change what I am doing. Although I am working on it, it does makes meetings difficult and I always watch films at home so I can have several breaks – the wonder of the pause button! If you wanted me to sit through a whole cohort lecture for an hour or even longer, I would be very hard pressed to maintain my concentration for that period of time. I think because I find this difficult I try to adapt my own lectures in order to accommodate learners which might have a similar issue. This refers back to the initial point of the learned Dean of Faculty. So what have I done? Well within some lectures I might just have a ‘quiz’. This might sound slightly primary schoolish, but with subject knowledge being an important aspect of primary education (see Carter review) it seems a good opportunity to add a question every few slides. This can also be used as consolidation from previous learning and, if you want to be really popular, why not include questions about #GBBO and #Imacelebrity. Yes I know it might not actually be related to the topic you are teaching but I always think every subject could do with a bit of light relief every few slides. I’ve done a similar idea but creating something as the session progresses – this might be a visual representation of the theories being covered or even a mind map of the assignment briefing. And, if you want to go full out, then why not think of an innovate way to communicate the information. For example, when I had to talk about learning theories associated with how children learn in science, I arranged for Professor Warwick Shaw to be Skyped into the lecture. Although this in itself might have been a great idea – imagine the reaction from the students when they saw it was me dressed up on Youtube and I continued to have a conversation with myself via the video. Just one warning – be prepared for a paparazzi style of camera flashes!

  • I would never suggest that all teaching and learning should be done via large lectures or even all via small group teaching. Every teaching and learning approach has both its advantages and disadvantages and it is our job as practitioners is to recognise these and use them to support learning. So should lectures be obsolete? Well, in my humble minion opinion, nope. I do think it is possible to teach effectively in these situations and also engage the learners. Maybe what should be obsolete is the inability of practitioners to be committed to teaching and learning and to engage with a range of strategies to address both engagement and needs of learners – ooops did I say that out loud? I have completely changed my view about lectures since that statement was presented to me all those years ago. Hopefully my approach is beneficial to the learners and that they learn, engage and remember the content. Plus, it is probably the only opportunity I will get ever get to have a snippet of fame as I bask in those camera flashes.

    I look forward to hearing your comments and ideas, please add them in the comments below or send them to me via Twitter(@iwilsonysj), Facebook, Google+ or email.

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    Have fun and I’ll catch you later and, until then, consider yourself waffled!