Sunday, December 16, 2007

When Students Attack

I was further reflecting on the nature of lecturing and the madness of going into a room, standing at the front, and having 20-150 people take notes on your random thoughts. It’s a strange business, and can be a very stressful one. Jerry Seinfeld remarked that most of us fear public speaking almost as much or maybe more than death, if we are at a funeral, most of us would prefer to be in the casket rather than delivering the eulogy. While this may be a bit extreme, there is an element of truth to it.

After thousands of years of evolution when we are in stressful situations our bodies are geared to either 'fight or flight', when we have to speak in public, epinephrine (or adrenaline) and norepinephrine (or noradrenaline) goes coursing through our bodies - way more than we need, but we can neither run away or fight, so instead we have to somehow harness all that energy into our performance. This is often difficult to do, I know some lecturers whose hands sweat and their mouth goes dry before a lecture, others get shaking knees and their voices begin to quaver. This is because their hearts are racing and they are preparing for a fight.

In this heightened state there is a natural fear of attack, and that fear will manifest itself in many ways; in terms of the fear of making mistakes in your lecture or losing your place, or that the students won't like you or they won't 'get' what you're trying to say. There is also the fear of physical attack, irrational but always present; at best the attack may be something tame like a pee shooter attack (like in the Marx Brothers film "Horse Feathers"), or at worst it could be a fatal attack as was the case for Cassian of Imola. He was a teacher whose students bound him to a stake and tortured him to death by stabbing him with their pointed iron styli. There are in fact many such historical cases of students killing their teachers, and no doubt somewhere in our collective unconsciousness every lecturer remembers such events just before they are about to begin to speak.

So the next time you are sitting in a lecture, have a bit of sympathy for your poor lecturer, they are fighting thousands of years of evolution to get their point across to you :-)

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Teacher's Toolkit

Following on from the previous post regarding the nature of teaching, I thought I'd follow it up with a post on a few tools that I think it is important for every teacher/lecturer to have to help them do their job.

A Reflective Journal

I think it is vital that a lecturer reflects on their lecturing. I have an A4 hardback notebook divided up into sections for my seperate courses. Each section contains printouts of slides for each lecture, as well as attendance sheets, handouts, labs, etc. associated with that lecture. Afer each lecture I spend five minutes writing down the key points of lecture, also I note any errors in slides and handouts. I sometimes take note of tricky issues that I need to rethink the way that I've taught and finally if a student proposes a good example or view it is usually worth noting.

If you really want to get into this you can include the following questions after each lecture

  • What did I do best?

  • What should I avoid?

  • What surprised me?

  • What were the good student questions?

  • What couldn’t the students answer?

Stopwatch and Hotel Reception Bell

I like to do timed exercises, they can be a lot of fun, and help breaks the class up into sections for the students and gives them time to reflect, e.g. after twenty minutes in the class say "Spend two minutes reflecting on what you think would be important to know for exams in this subject". To help get the students' attention back after such an exercise I have a reception bell that I give a few rings.

Sometimes when I ask students a question I use my reception bell to signal a correct or wrong answer, I do "ding-dong" for a wrong answer, and "ding-ding-ding-ding-dong" for a correct answer. I think it's better than having to say "No, no, no" all the time.

A Book of Short Stories

I always bring a collection of short stories into my classes, sometimes if the mood takes me I begin class by reading out a short story - this has a number of benefits; it gives me the chance to warm up my voice, it gives the students time to get tuned to my voice, also it gets them relaxed and ready to learn. I usually have some O. Henry's stories with me.


Even if you have all of your presentations in powerpoint and you don't have any need for markers, it is worth your while having a few (of different colours) just in case you want to elobrate on a point or sketch something out.

A Large Deck of Cards

Since I am a computer science lecturer, I use a large deck of cards when teaching topics such as Sorting, Seaching, Linked Lists, and Statistics.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Why Lecture?

Since a lot of my research is related to education, I often find myself presenting or teaching to fellow lecturers, and I often reflect on the real benefit of lecturing. Lecturing is a fairly difficult task, public-speaking is said to be one of the most stressful things you can do, and a lecturer or teacher has to do that every day, so what are the benefits to lecturing?

I've put together a list of possible reasons as to why we lecture and some suggestions to help these work more effectively.

1. To enthuse students
One very effective way to do this is when a lecturer puts themselves in the student's shoes, and considers what it is like to encounter the teaching material for the first time (although it may be the hundredth time for the lecturer) and is open to new suggestions and approaches by the students.

2. To give students the information that they need
It is important to remember that handouts can give 10 times more material than just direct chalk-and-talk, but so a mixed approach works best (but make sure handouts have lots of free space for note taking).

3. To cover the syllabus
To cover it in a meaningful manner give the students time to reflect and revise. So stop teaching for the last couple of weeks and get students to reflect and revise.

4. To give the student group a sense of identity
By getting the students to do group work and group assessments, they will form teams and groups.

5. Because it’s cost-effective to teach large groups
And this can still work for the teacher, so instead of throwing out questions to students (as some may be intimidated) ask students to spend the next 3 minutes writing down the three most important ideas we’ve been talking about, and spend a minute comparing their answers to their neighbours and look for 5 volunteers. Also rather than getting the students to ask questions; at end of class get the students to write down their questions on slips of paper and answer these at start of next class or on-line using a discussion board.

6. To help map curriculum
The lecturer must signpost the course. Show the students the syllabus, including the learning outcomes. Number the topics instead of bulletpointing them.

7. To see how the students are doing
This is the easiest and most fun part, look at their faces, see if they are learning. Also handout your slides, with the first slide having questions about the previous lecture - spend 5 minutes of lecture getting the students to answer.

8. To change student beliefs
By sharing your experience, and adding in expert views with existing theories and other students' ideas you can change their beliefs. Also make the student’s learning active, when students apply their ideas, it becomes their knowledge.

9. To help students learn
For a few minutes ask the students to reflect on HOW they are learning. Share with others their approaches, their triumphs and disasters. Also stop the class for a few minutes and discuss their note-making techniques. Or ask the students to write down 3 things they don’t yet know about a topic and want to learn, and amalgamate these lists and hand to the lecturer.

10. To help students figure out what the lecturer is going to ask in the exam
Students need to be more strategic about assessment, it is an intelligent response to their situation. But you just need to help them figure out your culture of assessment, but not every little facet of it.