Monday, February 18, 2008

I Am The Entertainer

Not just an awesome song by Billy Joel. A colleague of mine in another department regards himself to be in the entertainment industry, as he feels he has to fight an ever-intensifying battle for the students' attention. As a lecturer, the growing expectations and delusions that everything should be available online limits the headcount during standard lectures. This is in itself a double-edged sword; if you're a half-way decent lecturer, the students will figure out that what you offer during the lectures far exceeds the learning outcome from simply reading the slides + the curriculum. However, if you suck at teaching (like if all you do is read verbatim what's on your slides), odds are overwhelmingly in favor of the students being satisfied with downloading your slides if they're available, which means fewer asses in the seats. Still; this does not mean that there is a 1:1 correlation between the percentage of your class that shows up for your lectures and how good a teacher you are, but headcount is an indicator. If the drop-off rates after your first two-three lectures is 90% each and every semester, you might want to rethink what you're doing.

If you can somehow trick/cajole/convince/lure/threaten/oppress your students into showing up for your lectures, then there are several new diversions to overcome in your battle for the students' attention. Like cell phones, or even worse; the people who bring their laptops and either surf the web, chat or do their email instead of following your lecture. Unlimited, campuswide wireless internet access does indeed have it's downsides, and I'm betting dollars to donuts that the proponents never thought of half the problems this service actually constitutes in institutes of higher learning. Still; if you know what you're doing and the students have a sense that you're providing a service which aids their learning beyond what they can expect to get merely from self-study, the students will probably pay attention to whatever the hell you're droning on about.

But for how long will students continuously pay attention? According to one of the especially synaptically challenged "teachers" I had the massive misfortune of sitting through many a lecture from during my mandatory - you bet your ass mandatory - pedagogic course, 15 minutes of standard uni-directional lecturing (i.e. either from PP slides to an audience or from a blackboard to an audience) is the maximum amount of time you can count on the students paying any attention to what you're saying and/or doing. After 15 minutes, you've got to break up the lecture completely, either with a class discussion, or some group work, or with showing a video or Riverdancing or what have you. The more astute readers will at this point in time wonder what research or at least reasoning lies behind the quite firm statement that 15 minutes is the upper limit for student attention, irregardless of what the course or topic for that particular lecture happens to be. When asked this question, the pedagogic teacher started off at a brisk pace by mentioning non-descript "studies". Then, when we pointed out that we'd like to have some references, the instructor started handwaving, before she broke down and admitted that it was based on her own personal experience. From giving the pedagogic course to faculty members over the last two semesters. Teh kicker: She presented this information to us in a two-hour black print on white background, all bullet points PowerPoint lecture.

The basic premise might hold water though, as you should try to break up the stream of information with some meta-talk, some class discussions, or the occasional joke. I've come to terms with the fact that not all of my students understand my jokes and puns. The reason (beside the fact that a fraction of my jokes probably suck and tank on their own merit) is that they don't understand everything I say. It just so happens that I lecture in English, and apparently I'm using some words and expressions not common outside of the US and even the Southern states. So; occasionally this is me:'s a fine line, I tells ya


Anders said...

Personally, I think you do way too little riverdance in your classes. Break it down to 15 minutes lecturing and 2 minutes riverdance. Remember to wear your tap-dance shoes.

Wilhelm said...

...that would get the students' attention; I'll grant you that