With the expansion in higher education lectures remain the primary way much university teaching is delivered as they are a particularly effective way of reaching large groups of students. However, one of the key issues when teaching large groups is maintaining student engagement, connecting with your students and promoting active learning. Evidence shows that attention span can decline after just 10 to 15 minutes of listening and so in order to maximise learning, even the most traditional of lectures should really try to build in some form of interactivity.
The benefits of maintaining student engagement in lectures is that your students will be likely to learn more. There are many myths around what are called ‘learning styles’ but the evidence is clear that we remember far more of what we see and hear, and even more if we see, hear and do something. This is what is commonly referred to as ‘active learning’ and helps to build what Marton and Säljö (1976) call deep rather than surface learning. Active learning or Problem based learning also encourage students to take ownership of their own learning and have ‘agency’. Learning in higher education is at least as much about what the student puts into their learning, as what the lecturer delivers to them.
Marton, F., and R. Säljö. (1976). On qualitative differences in learning – Outcome and process.British Journal of Educational Psychology. 46, no. 1: 4–11.
Some lecturers choose to vary the content they are delivering, so breaking up a lecture using visuals or showing a short clip from a video. It’s also important to consider how you use presentation software such as PowerPoint. We have all been in the lecture where someone literally reads from a bulleted list of text, and know how uninspiring that is. However there are a number of simple techniques you can use, even in a large lecture, to help maintain student engagement. Some of these involve technology, but many of them require nothing more than a bit of planning. These include:
⦿ Varying the pace of your lecture, using an image or a short video to illustrate what you are saying, or a clip from a TV or radio programme taken from Box of Broadcasts.
⦿ Ask questions of students to assess understanding using a show of hands
⦿ Plan small group or pair work discussions to take part within your lecture
⦿ Using voting systems or free polling software to build interactivity and questions into your lecture
⦿ Using social media creatively (such as having a hashtag for your course) so that students can ask questions or make observations in real time. Obviously as the tutor you will probably need to respond to these afterwards!
LSE100 is the main example of large lectures (delivered in the Peacock theatre which seats up to 600) where they have tried to maintain student engagement using the voting systems. Polling is also used in the largest economics lectures (For example EC201).
In some Media and Communications courses they use a course hashtag to encourage students to engage with the course content either during or between the lectures.
James Abdey in the Department of Statistics is one of the LSE innovators and you can read more about his efforts to engage students in large classes with his showmanship, use of music and ‘inspirational’ teaching.
⦿ Phil Race has written widely on the topic of student engagement in large groups and has many resources available for free from his website: https://phil-race.co.uk/downloads/ we would also recommend his book, The Lecturer’s Toolkit: https://phil-race.co.uk/4th-edition-lecturers-toolkit/ .
⦿ HEA Guide to Active Learning: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/active-learning.pdf
⦿ Sheffield University Guide to teaching large groups: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/lets/toolkit/teaching/largegroup
⦿ Daniel J. Exeter , Shanthi Ameratunga , Matiu Ratima , Susan Morton, Martin Dickson , Dennis Hsu & Rod Jackson (2010) Student engagement in very large classes: the teachers’ perspective, Studies in Higher Education, 35:7, 761-775, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075070903545058