#15toptips for Student-Centred Teaching 2: Get your students active. It’ll take the pressure off you and they’ll learn more!

I suspect we’ve all done it at some stage or other. Faced with the challenge of juggling lots of competing deadline and tasks, it’s all too easy to allow other responsibilities to crowd-out the time needed for the effective planning of teaching. Before you know it, the day (or more) you had set aside to plan the session you will be teaching later in the week or the next week, or next month is reduced to a fraction of this, and tough decisions then have to be made about how to manage the session in question. Given this, it is also all too easy to adopt what, for many of us, is actually sometimes the least taxing pedagogical approach – the old fashioned ‘lecture’. Whilst I recognise that not all colleagues find lecturing a comfortable experience, for many it is both familiar, and easy. It’s a pedagogical comfort zone. Something to which we can retreat when the occasion calls for it.

Except, if course, that this is a trap of our own making. The ‘occasion’ in question rarely calls for a lecture. This is just a pedagogical ‘cop-out’. It’s all about us; not about the students. Some students – and it is a fair point to make – actually arrive at University expecting to be lectured at. This is what they’ve seen on TV, websites or on various social media. It’s what they often experience at Open Days. Or it’s what they’ve heard from friends and family. So the lecture is also a pedagogical comfort zone for many students. Its familiar to them, requires little from them, and is even something they can opt-out of entirely often without anyone noticing their absence (I know some Universities have rigorous attendance monitoring systems even in lectures, but this is not the case everywhere). So both parties can enjoy a comfortable hour together. The lecturer is doing what comes easily. The students can be passive – little is asked of them, and in most cases little deep learning is achieved.

The problem, of course, is that this scenario isn’t really in anyone’s best interests. Because of course both parties should be primarily concerned not about what is being taught, but about what is being learned. Academics love their subject. We want everyone else – and especially our students – to love it to. That’s one of the reasons we choose to teach. We also want our students to learn as much about the subject as possible, so they can perform well in their assessments, gain a good degree, and succeed in securing a great graduate job and an exciting professional career. Students want the same things of course. The problem is that the ‘transmission’ mode of teaching is one of the least effective in terms of building deep and lasting learning. By allowing ourselves to fall into the trap of relying on information transmission (i.e. via the traditional lecture) we risk thwarting not only our own objectives, but also those of our students. It’s a bit like giving a car to a student and pointing them on the direction of the promised land, but failing to equip it with an engine and wheels. The vehicle just ain’t going to get them there.

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So faced with the 200+ students in the lecture hall, what should we do? My advice is simple, but requires a mental shift on the part of the lecturer. Look upon your role not as that of a ‘lecturer’, but as a ‘facilitator of learning’. In fact, forget that you are a lecturer altogether. The title is both unhelpful, and misleading. We are teachers first and foremost. We teach in higher education rather than in school settings, but we share common goals with our colleagues working with younger children – to employ pedagogical strategies that build strong engagement and profound learning. Our primary role is not to lecture at our students but to use the precious – indeed, increasingly precious – contact time that we have with them to create learning experiences that help them to construct their own meanings, their own learning and to become effective independent, reflective learners.

If the university or college you work for allocates you ‘lecture slots’ and puts you in ‘lecture theatres’ don’t allow this to undermine or influence your own pedagogy. You are the expert. It’s why your university of college employed you. It’s up to you to choose how you use the precious time with your students to develop their learning and skills. But you may also wish to discuss this with your students – involve them in thinking about how the impact of contact time can be maximised. It’s their degree after all. It’s their learning that is at stake.

Just as important as the principle of adopting the identity of ‘facilitator’ rather than ‘lecturer’ is that of ‘agency’. Students must become active agents in their own learning and personal, professional development. Why not negotiate aspects of pedagogy with them, right at the outset, and thereafter? Not only will this build mutual trust, it will also help to build a culture of ‘partnership’ working, and ensure that they feel empowered and consulted. Crucially, it will help to build their pedagogical literacy – their understanding of why certain pedagogies are more effective than others.

Finally, my last tip would be to place the emphasis on active learning strategies. Not only does this address the issue of student ‘agency’ discussed above, it embodies a pedagogical approach which is focused on what and how students will learn, rather than what you want to teach. Think about how you can maximise the value of the ‘contact time’ you have with your students and develop strategies that engage them as ‘active participants’ in their own learning, and that of their peers. Perhaps a ‘flipped approach’ might be more appropriate to a traditional lecture, enabling students to engage with learning materials prior to lecture, enabling you to engage them in a dialogue in the subsequent face-to-face session? Consider the technological tools that can help you to build this active engagement. Using TurningPoint or Poll Everywhere, or Kahoot (and similar software) can help to gain an insight into students’ level of understanding in real time, involve them in active learning, and capture qualitative feedback. By being active agents in their own learning, they will also learn to take responsibility for their learning – something they will need to do in their professional careers. If you must ‘lecture’, keep these to short 15-20 minute blocks, intersperse with more activity-focused learning episodes. Even old-fashioned lecture theatres can be used very effectively to engage student in active learning, so if faced with this kind of space to teach in, think about how to use it in innovative ways to build agency via active learning..

Resources: Check out Sharon Cox’s HEA guide to Active Learning. See: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/ssg_cox_active_learning.pdf


15 Top Tips for Student-Centred Teaching

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Dr Adam Longcroft spent more than 20 years teaching undergraduate and post-graduate students at the University of East Anglia in the fields of landscape archaeology, history, education and professional studies before joining Anglia Ruskin University as the new Deputy Head of Anglia Learning & Teaching in August this year. He served as UEA’s Academic Director for Taught Programmes for 5 years – a role in which he had a major influence over the University’s approach to teaching and learning and enhancing the student experience. In his new role Adam is focused on enhancing the provision of continuing professional development for academic colleagues at ARU. Adam won an individual award for teaching excellence in history from the HEA in 2005, and is both a National Teaching Fellow (2007) and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (2015).

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One thought on “#15toptips for Student-Centred Teaching 2: Get your students active. It’ll take the pressure off you and they’ll learn more!

  1. Pingback: Keep your students active | Learning and Teaching at UCA

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