Rethinking the lecture in order to engage students in active learning and discussion

Dr James Stach, Senior Lecturer

School of Natural and Environmental Sciences

Science, Agriculture and Engineering

What did you do?

The third-year/MSc module BIO3030/BIO8041 asks students to watch recorded online lectures and complete further reading – both so that they take responsibility for their own learning and so that they can make better use of timetabled slots to interact with the module leader, pose questions to increase their comprehension, and challenge themselves to think critically.

Who is involved?

Dr. Jem Stach teaches approximately fifty students per year in a module that is a mix of third-year undergraduates and MSc students.

How do you do it?

The module has always focused on a series of research interests, teaching students to appreciate the science involved in particular discoveries or experiments and providing whatever fundamentals they needed to understand it.

Originally, the module consisted of twelve lectures that each used an admirable research paper, or a research problem addressed in a novel way, to convey the science behind the work. To encourage discussion and active learning, the module leader would ask questions in lecture – something to which the students always responded positively – but there was never enough time to let the students carefully answer and think through the material.

Last year, in an effort to put the onus on the students to prepare on their own rather than assume that coming to lecture is enough to learn the material for the exam, the format was altered. Students are now provided with a USB stick that has all recorded lectures (recorded from the last year in the old format), and further reading is supplied on Blackboard. The first timetabled lecture explains the course format and philosophy and lets students know that they are responsible for watching the online lectures and completing the reading before coming to class to ask questions and discuss the material.

If students are resistant and do not prepare in advance, the module leader explains that using the timetabled slot for a lecture is in fact a wasted opportunity for them; rather than learning passively, they could be challenging what they learned on their own and asking questions about any concepts that they did not understand. The timetabled lecture time now consists of students asking questions, challenging the material that they have read, and/or bringing in outside research that they feel is compelling and related to the topic. The module leader also poses questions that ask students to think carefully about how well they understand the material presented , contributes anonymous questions posed on the course blog, and prepares an update on relevant current research.

The format of the session varies week by week, both because it can take students a while to trust one another and to confidently ask questions, but also because of the varying difficulty levels of the material covered. The session can consist primarily of working through difficult material, guided by student questions, or, if the students already comprehend the material quite well, asking them to apply it to more current research practices.

The module leader recognises that preparation for these sessions is in many ways more challenging than preparing for a lecture (especially if it is a lecture that has been given multiple times). He preps an update on current research to challenge students to comprehend the material (5-6 slides) and tries to think of questions that target learning objectives and address the further reading. In addition to advance preparation, however, the module leader must be prepared to think on his feet, address student questions in novel ways (particularly if a specific topic is providing troublesome), and admit when he needs to go back and research the answer to a question after a student has asked it. Currently, the lectures on the USB stick are recordings of live lectures given in the previous module format. The module leader is considering how new material might be added and how lectures that are less successful might be improved. An additional lecture could be timetabled to cover new material (the lecture of which would then be added to the next year’s USB stick), or a talk at a research event could be similarly recorded and then made available to students.

Why do you do it?

Dr. Jem Stach increasingly believed that lectures are a passive way of learning, emphasising memorisation rather than active learning and comprehension, and that they encourage students to think that coming to lecture is enough to succeed in a module. Lecturers too often feel obliged to be entertaining or to move quickly to keep students’ attention, and they teach to the middle rather than provide assistance to struggling students or engage intellectually with those at the top.

The objective in changing the module was to create an environment in which students are encouraged to speak out, push themselves, and take ownership of their learning. In addition, the goal was to de-emphasise rote learning and “facts” and to put debate and controversy back into science. See the following site for further information on this teaching philosophy and for a talk that inspired Dr. Stach to change the module format:

Does it work?

Student satisfaction ratings of the module have improved, and they are more active in expressing their appreciation of the learning format. Students also learn from each other and use the challenging questions asked by top students to rethink their own approach to the material. Moreover, the module provides increased interaction with academic staff and enhances the use of research-led teaching. The new format also helps students to recognise that ReCAP and Blackboard are not only revision tools (useful as a way to reiterate lecture), but that they can more productively be used by students to prepare questions for further discussion of the material.

The updated format also has benefits for the module leader: a sustained connection to research in teaching, since current research can be brought into the discussions with students, and a means of discovering what information needs to be taught more clearly (if students have numerous questions in the same area).

Contact Details

Dr James Stach, Senior Lecturer


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