Interaction in Lectures

There’s been dismay among many students at the University of Manchester at the news that said institution is planning to keep lectures online next year. If the reason for that decision were that campuses are likely to be closed again by September then I would consider it wise, but it seems this is to be a permanent thing; see the following excerpt.

The clear assumption here is that large lectures never involve interaction. I can think of many colleagues besides myself who would object to that most strongly. Even in a big lecture hall interaction is key to the learning experience. The thing the above statement misses entirely is the extent to which the presence of an audience actually helps the lecturer to improve the learning experience for the students. It’s astonishing to me that the person quoted above seems to think interaction only happens in one direction! On the contrary, a lecture is – or should be – a shared experience between lecturer and students.

If you think about it is a very strange situation when someone stands up in front of a bunch of students and lectures at them for an hour or more. I frequently have the best part of a 100 people watching, and occasionally listening to, me drone on about something or other. What’s strange is that all those people see basically the same thing, whereas the lecturer gets to see all their different facial expressions, at least the lecturer can when the lecture is in person not online with everyone’s video muted.

I’m one of those people who finds it very difficult to give a lecture without looking at the audience, which is why I’ve found the transition to online teaching so difficult. It’s partly to try to establish some kind of rapport with them, notably in order to encourage them to answer when I ask a question or to offer questions of their own, but also to try to figure out whether anyone at all is following what I’m saying. Not all students are helpful in this regard, but some have very responsive mannerisms, nodding when they understand and frowning when they don’t. When I’m teaching a class for the first time I usually look around a lot in an attempt to identify those students who are likely to help me gauge how well things are going. Usually,  there are only a few barometers like this but I would be lost without them. Fortunately most students seem to sit in the same place in the theatre for each lecture so you can usually locate the useful ones fairly easily, with a discreet look around before you  start.

Most other students seem to have a default lecture face.  The expressions range from a perpetual scowl to a vacant smile (each of which is in its own way a bit scary). There’s the “wish I wasn’t here” face of pure boredom,  not to mention those who are fast asleep; I don’t mind them as long as they don’t snore. There’s the Bookface of someone who’s not listening but messing around on Facebook, and the inscrutable ones whose faces are masks, even when not literally wearing a mask, yielding no clues as to what, if anything, is going on behind. The brightest students often seem to belong to the last group, although I haven’t done a statistical study of this so that must be taken as purely anecdotal.

Anyway, by way of a bit of audience participation if you can be bothered, here’s a poll. If you don’t know what your own lecture face is, then you could always ask, that is if you’re one of the lucky folks who’s actually been in a lecture at all as opposed to sitting in your room watching a recording.

2 Responses to “Interaction in Lectures”

  1. I had the experience of being a student again a few years ago; while on sabbatical at Harvard, I used to sneak over to MIT twice a week to attend David Kaiser’s lectures on the history of 20th cent physics. There was a fabulous atmosphere at those lectures – about 200 in the room, but plenty of time for questions afterwards. The lectures were supported by tutorials, but I think it would be terrible for the students to lose the drama of the big lecture

  2. On the contrary, a lecture is – or should be – a shared experience between lecturer and students.

    But how often is this really true, Peter? I know we like to kid ourselves that this is what happens but how much interaction can there ever be in the traditional lecture format? I think Eric Mazur’s stance is much closer to the truth: traditional lecturing involves the transfer of the notes from the notebook of the lecturer to the notebook of the student, without going through the brain of either.

    As a means to enthuse a class then, yes, lecturing perhaps has its place. But in terms of education? There are much more effective teaching methods. What’s worse is that there’s a perception that lectures are somehow better than active learning, and this actively (ahem) works against innovation in undergraduate education. See the papers I cite in this:

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