Parama Chaudhury: ‘In my lectures, different tasks are set every 15 minutes’

Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Economics at UCL explains how lectures can deliver for everyone in the room

The evolution of the university lecture

In a world with many big issues to address – global warming, poverty and economic instability to name but a few – universities play a fundamental role in stoking the creative fires of tomorrow’s problem solvers.

Universities so often pave the way for meetings of the mind. Creative partners such as Google founders Larry Pageand Sergey Brin, and also Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland, who launched the band Coldplay, first connected as students.

During lectures, students get the chance to discuss opposing views, challenge opinions and find like-minded peers with whom they can collaborate openly and passionately. But how can academics ensure students get maximum benefit from the experience when there are 300 or more people in the room?

A fresh approach                                                    

Any large lecture group will include a range of students with differing backgrounds, interests and motivations – those keen to contribute to discussions, take notes and ask questions, a few confused about the topic, but reluctant to seek clarification and a handful of disengaged students at the back who are at risk of dropping out.

In subjects like mine, economics, opinions and the ability to evaluate them are central to learning. But in large teaching groups, encouraging debate and giving students the chance to work together on problem-solving tasks is not always easy.

The typical stadium style seating arrangement makes it difficult for students to be heard and moving amongst your students to assess their understanding of the topic is virtually impossible.

So, I’ve changed the way I lecture to create a much more collaborative and exciting learning environment, with interesting results.

Firing students up

Students could be asked to complete a quiz on their knowledge of the recession or participate in a poll designed to prompt debate around the potential economic and social impact of Brexit

If there’s one thing I don’t want students to expect when they join my course it’s one-way conversation – me up front and them listening.

At the start of term, I might spark discussion by asking what my students think the most pressing issue is that we as economists in a particular field should be thinking about on that day. Their responses allow me to get to know them, but the task also gets them thinking like economists from day one.

In my lectures, different tasks are set every 15 minutes too, which keeps levels of engagement up and encourages collaboration. Students could be asked to complete a quiz on their knowledge of the recession or participate in a poll designed to prompt debate around the potential economic and social impact of Brexit.

As they discuss topics in a group, I can gauge students’ understanding, but importantly, the scores they are awarded in some modules go towards their final grade so there’s a real incentive to contribute fully in class.

Bringing lectures to life

Being able to ask something anonymously from a laptop at any time breaks down the fear some students have

The ability to work collaboratively is becoming an essential skill for students wanting to compete on a global scale for the best career opportunities and the lecture theatre offers a place to develop these skills.

Technology is helping in this process too.

Crucially, I’ve found that being able to ask something anonymously from a laptop at any time breaks down the fear some students have of asking ‘stupid’ questions. All students benefit from my responses, but I can also see who has asked questions and provide individual help if it’s needed.

Plan B

Naturally, it always pays to be one step ahead when integrating technology into a lecture. That’s why, on the rare occasion a student arrives without a laptop, we have processes in place to provide one.

A Wifi crash could really disrupt proceedings too, so a reliable network is important. Having said that, a confident lecturer will usually be able to implement an effective Plan B to save the day. A show of hands when asking group questions can work just as well in the short term. Students are largely forgiving of minor glitches, as they appreciate the benefits of using the technology.

Bringing people together

Research has shown that lecture attendance has a statistically significant effect on student learning. That’s why myself and colleagues like digital anthropologist and e-learning guru, Jason Norton, and his team at UCL work hard to create a dynamic and more representative environment to engage students and encourage them in to classes.

Could discussions sparked every 15 minutes, students solving problems together and a voice for the quieter individuals be the future of the university lecture?

Dr Parama Chaudhury is a principal teaching fellow and director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Economics (CTaLE) at UCL.

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