Making HPSR lectures unmissable
It is the beginning of a new (academic) year - a time of reflection, fresh resolutions and renewed energy – and therefore a good time to ask yourself: “Will my lectures be unmissable this year?” If the traditional transmit-and-receive model, where experts are seen as simply passing facts on to students, is out of date, then what can we do to better engage students and enhance their attention and learning? This blog draws on teaching research to highlight some of the answers to this question.
In their research on this subject, Revell & Wainwright (2009) highlight three key characteristics of good lectures.
Passion and enthusiasm
The first is the lecturer’s passion, enthusiasm and ability to bring the subject to life. This is about inspiring students and generating excitement about the subject, developing a rapport with students, being approachable to make it easier for them to ask and answer questions, delivering content at an appropriate pace, and livening up the material by using anecdotes or real-life stories.
However, despite its importance, the “magic” of the lecturer has clear limits, as research has shown that students’ attention level drops after about 20 minutes, even if the lecture is very interesting.
“The prevailing wisdom amongst pedagogic scholars now is that students do not actively listen very much at all in formal lectures, unless they are broken up with multiple rest periods and activities that help to lift attention levels back up again” (Revell & Wainwright, 2009: 210).
Good lectures are therefore also characterized by a good dose of student participation and interaction.
Revell & Wainwright’s research participants felt that good lectures carved out time for discussions and group activities. The format of these breaks – buzz groups, brainstorming, debates, role plays, or presentations – was less important than the fact that they got the students engaged and thinking for themselves.
Participation was seen as a way of combatting declining attention levels over the progression of the lecture, supporting the internalization of the course content and the communication thereof to others, and stimulating the desire to learn more, especially when students received encouraging feedback on their questions and reflections.
The importance of “interactive windows” also emerged in the work of Huxham (2005), in which interaction was the most highly-rated aspect of lectures in student evaluations and students tended to provide better answers to class tests and exam questions with respect to topics covered during “interactive windows”.
Huxham noted some of the objections to “interactive windows” - a loss of teaching time, reduction in content, the less accurate transmission of information, a loss of control by lecturers, and some students’ preferences for traditional lectures – but concluded that the cost of incorporating “interactive windows” in lectures was likely small and that the potential disadvantages could be mitigated by the general popularity of interaction and its positive effect on learning by enhancing recall and understanding.
The third characteristic of a good lecture is a clear structure. A good structure provides signposts that help students to navigate what can feel like an overload of information. Following the signposts helps them to prioritize “digestible” chunks of information that they can then connect up to see the big picture of the course and the ways in which different aspects of the material are connected.
One way of getting across the structure of a course or lecture is to give students handouts of the PowerPoint slides, with the bullet points serving to suggest key pieces of information and clarifying the structure of the information.
In Revell & Wainwright’s study, lecturers were concerned that giving too much structure would amount to the spoon-feeding of students and that students would become over-reliant on PowerPoint handouts for notes and revision. Some have therefore experimented with leaving gaps in the handouts so that students must continue to pay attention in order to fill in the gaps for themselves.
In practice, it is clearly difficult to make one’s lectures completely unmissable. Students might, for example, pursue tactical attendance by attending only those lectures they think will help them to pass tests or distractions such as part-time jobs or family commitments might interfere. While it cannot address all concerns, research such as the above is nevertheless valuable.
On the one hand, it can guide and inspire researchers and educators who are open to reflecting on their courses and interested in improving their teaching. There is always something to learn and improve on. For one thing, I am very interested in experimenting with hand-outs that have gaps for students to complete themselves.
On the other, it also has broader relevance for the field of Health Policy and Systems Research, for example the work by Health Systems Global’s thematic working group on teaching and learning to develop a set of core competencies for HPSR. Such discussions should focus on the HPSR-specific knowledge and skills that educators should have and that students should be taught.
However, thinking around the teaching knowledge and skills of HPSR researchers and educators should be part of this picture. In themselves, sound teaching practices transmit important values to students and role-model important behaviours, but without them it would also be impossible to effectively communicate the HPSR-specific knowledge and skills.
Here’s to continuing improvement in teaching practice and many unmissable HPSR lectures in 2018!
Ermin Erasmus, CHEPSAA coordinator