Still standing on the table: The New Lecturer's Workshop, part deux

Benjamin H. Mitra-Kahn
City University, London
benjamin@mitrakahn.com
Published April 2009

Six months ago I attended the New Lecturers Workshop where I discovered that it wasn't just for new lecturers (as I wrote then), but something worth attending for anyone who is teaching economics at university. After the workshop I found myself carrying a deck of cards to classes, thinking in terms of games, and once even standing on the desk, but was that just a bit of post-partum optimism on my part? In retrospect, did my weekend in the outskirts of Bristol change my teaching methods and did it improve student attendance, interest and understanding? This retrospective is an evaluation of what has changed, and its effects.

Before my last lecture of the spring semester, I was given my student evaluation results. I know they filled them in after a two hour lecture on national accounting, having just been given their first compulsory reading, and a coursework topic. So I justifiably expected a couple of low scores to hit my average, and some obligatory moaning from my undergrads.

It was the best feedback I have had in my three years of teaching at university. Yes, there is room for improvement, there's a lot to consider, but when 100+ undergraduates seem to agree that the lectures are more exciting, more interesting, and makes them want to study and attend, then something must be going in the right direction. Oh, and I was back on the desk again in the last lecture.

Surprisingly, I had more or less full attendance for all my lectures (given on Tuesdays from 4-6pm in a room that stubbornly refused to be air-conditioned, thereby successfully simulating a combination of Delhi in July and a sauna). They even came for the associated classes which started at 9am. There was more than 80% attendance for all the classes and lectures. Close to 100 students. And they all worked. That last point surprised me even more than their showing up so early in the morning.

A lot of this came about as a result of the workshop. I want to talk a bit further about the two things which changed the most in my teaching as a result of the workshop and the further reading I undertook. The first revolves around decks of cards with group-work, and the second about tone, tempo and style changes.

A deck of cards and group-work

When I teach a class these days I always carry a deck of normal playing cards. This allows me to quickly and easily split a class of 20-100 students into groups of 3-5 without having to plan or memorize who is in what group. I simply walk up the aisle, hand out a card to each row, and as a result I can have two groups (red and black) or four groups (hearts, spades, diamonds & clubs) in less than a minute. If anyone is late there's a card on the front row which they will be in. This means I can immediately assign different groups with different tasks, without having to remind the students which group they are in - very useful for a 9am class.

Group work is great because it allows conversation in class, and often students who understand a problem can explain it to their class-mates better than we can. It's an age barrier: accept it and use it, I say. The problem with group-work is unnecessary noise and little effort. But there is an easy way of avoiding this downside. I find that the key to making the students work in class is to call them randomly - no volunteerism here - one by one, to the whiteboard and have them give their answer in front of the class. Yes, some students are shy; yes, some of them resist; but that is not my problem and they will do it. I make sure to call quite a few of them from different groups, to each answer part of the same question. Eventually they will all come to the front, and after a couple of classes their confidence improves. It helps to know who is on the right track, and call the shy ones when you know their answers will be spot on; or the cocky ones, when their answers are a bit weak. A white board marker is a great leveller.

I try to organise my workshops around problem sets, where each problem should take about 10 minutes. Then a good way of making sure the students are quiet while their peers are talking is to have the 'red' groups do half the questions and the 'black' groups do the other half. Then promise not to post solutions on the web, and keep that promise. (Ignore the inevitable complaint from the student who feels it is his God-given right to have answers on-line, or delivered by post to his bed-side). I make the question sheets available on-line and bring a pile in hard-copy, and then they have to work out (and present) half the answers in class, while the other half is presented by their colleagues. Also, the expectation of being called to the white board works really well as an added incentive for them to be quiet when other students are talking, on top of their need to copy down the correct answers.

I usually get through 6-8 ten minute problems, by dividing the class into two, and making sure that each question is answered by a selection of students from different groups. The beauty of the card system is that if someone does not clearly display their cards to avoid presenting or working, the standard 'punishment' is that their group will definitely be called upon (maybe several times) to answer the current question. Bringing a good supply of white-board markers helped me inspire the students, as I just plonk a marker in front of the students while they are working - a silent promise that they're next. If answers are vague, I of course repeat them with a clarifying spin, agreeing with the student; when students are unsure or whisper, I encourage them to talk up with the right words; and when something goes horribly wrong, it goes horribly wrong. That's life. And that student will work like hell to avoid it happening again.

Using pictures and games during the lecture

The second major change in my teaching has been to actively deal with short attention spans. We've all been to bad lectures. Monotonous tone and tempo leads wandering minds (we've all been there), while slides filled with text and bullet points ensure that students read and do not listen. Interesting fact: It is almost impossible for the human brain to process input from both text and sound simultaneously. Fact number two: Most people read faster than they can talk. Thus, if I have a lot of text on a slide, odds are, students will read (ahead) of what I am saying, copy the relevant text and ignore the lecture - and the lecturer. This is not really the students' fault, as they are forced to ignore me: For the first minute they are reading the new slide, then they copy the relevant bits, and by the time they switch over to listening I have digressed into the deeper meaning of net national product. They've already copied the formula, so why bother listening to me? If I don't digress (on the excitement of the net national product) and click through to the next slide, the pattern is repeated. I could have saved my vocal chords and just sent them all a sheet of notes rather than giving the lecture.

Three things have helped me avoid this, namely tempo, tone and throwing out everything I know about slides. First off, tempo: I am not a stereo or DVD player where you can change the tempo by fast forwarding or adding inspirational background music. I speak at my own speed, but monotony leads to distraction so I have to change gears to keep the lecture engaging for the students. An easy way of doing this is through small illustrative games, polls and interruptions in the lecture. So, for the lecture on Financial Markets and uncertainty, I put twenty baby pictures on the board half-way through and had everyone vote for the cutest baby. Then they had to vote for the baby they thought everyone else had voted for. We had a ten minute break (2 hour lectures afford that luxury / necessity) and when they got back I had tallied the votes and asked who they thought had won the second vote. Two quick excel bar-charts then showed them how their vote had changed between their own preference and their expectation of preferences. What did this reveal about stock markets and the demand for shares? What is the morale of Keynes's 'beauty contest'? What is a rational decision as opposed to a rational expectation? The lecture came alive with student participation, the tempo automatically changed and the day's topic was suddenly a lot more concrete and directly applicable.

When it comes to tone, I am not an actor and cannot fake enthusiasm, especially when reading off bullet points and elaborating on them. So I committed two ultimate sins in my lectures and came out with students wanting more. First, I don't post my lecture notes on the web. This statement at the start of my first lecture made me hugely unpopular and clarified what a hundred different complaints moaned in unison sounds like. My second sin was that most of my slides have no text, and when they do, it is a few words in BIG letters. Rote copying is out the window, reading ahead is pointless and students can't even print them for much use. So what were the slides for?

They are the backdrop to my lecture. I unfairly use the fact that human beings are emotionally attached to images, and can associate more easily with visual stimulation, so my slides are just that: Pictures. Diagrams. Statistics. They are the visual stimuli to my talking. The slides make little sense without the context - my lecture - but once students attend the lecture, the images act as reminders and examples of what we are talking about. Approaching the slides like this allows a lot more freedom, but it also makes sense. News on TV, documentaries and professional presentations like Al Gore's environmental presentations (video links in the reference section) never use lists of their points as the visual background. They convey complex, often scientific arguments, while keeping the audience focussed on the lecture. Also, a picture of the delivery room in a Karachi slum hospital is a lot more evocative and memorable when talking of development and healthcare, than bullet-point number six: "Poor public health infrastructure". This sort of slides, incidentally, meant that not posting the lectures on-line was of little consequence.

This approach allowed me to talk much more freely about the subject, meaning I would change the tone and tenor of the lecture quite naturally, as Friedman brought on stories of the 1960s boom and monetarism, while unemployment wandered into the depression and Keynes, and you can imagine where the public health talk went.

I have included a few sample slides from one of the lectures as a PDF.

These digressions could potentially make the lecture seem unorganised and therefore confusing for the students. I worried about this and tried to find a solution. My counterweight was a two page handout for each lecture (one A4 page per hour), with the few main points I wanted to convey. A typical lecture handout would include 5-6 lines of text on an A4 page, leaving lots of space for the students to take notes either on the spot or fill it in after the lecture. This meant the students knew what the core points of the lecture were; I had a structure, and retained the freedom to lecture around it when appropriate. This also meant that students could print a dedicated hand-out for each lecture, and not a set of presentation bullet-points, which they could sit and read without my lecture. This provided both an overview of the important points of the lecture, and a study guide for afterwards. I include a page from one of my lecture hand-outs at the bottom of this paper as a sample of the handouts.

So where did it all lead me?

The Workshop changed how I teach and how I approach teaching over the last six months. I was inspired to read more widely, not necessarily about teaching, but also about presentations, about ideas and even about documentaries. Subjects which all revolve around how ideas are presented and what makes an audience (which 100 undergrads qualify as) retain information which is presented to them. This is all relevant to a lecturer, and it is also very enjoyable reading.

It has to be admitted, that teaching like this takes a bit more time than re-hashing my old bullet-pointed PowerPoint slides every three years. I have to spend some time thinking about what will illustrate the theory and the story being told in the lecture. What exercises can be done as a group and what should everyone do. What is the core of today's lecture, and if students learn only one thing today, what should it be? (That last one is courtesy of Prof. Robert Frank in the economics department at Cornell, who insists that I'm lucky if my students retain one main point from any given lecture - so I have to make sure I know what one thing I want them to know when they leave my lecture).

The rewards are surprisingly high, both for me and for my students. First off, they seem more enthusiastic in class, in the lecture and in working on their courseworks. Also, there is an efficiency point to be made here: If I give a bad lecture, meaning students could have just read the book instead, they didn't listen but simply copied my bullet-points, then a two hour lecture probably has an average 30 minutes of wasted time per student. (I am being generous to myself, as most people could probably read through my old lecture notes in 20 minutes, and complement that with the given textbook chapters which they should read regardless, making me waste a good hour and forty minutes of the students time in a two hour lecture). So my old lecture 'costs' 50 hours of wasted time if I add up my students' lost time (or 166 hours and 40 minutes if I take the less generous estimate). It doesn't take much more than 24 hours to re-build a lecture. So I can pay 24 hours of my own time for 50-166 hours of student time. Efficiency and economic theory would demand that I pay the 24 hours of time to gain 50-166 hours and thereby reduce the dead-weight loss. Of course that decision depends on your discount factor. Although once the lecture is re-built, you would still gain the 50+ hours next year, at a significantly lower time cost.

On a less spurious note, I have experienced direct benefits from teaching like this. My student evaluations have gone up significantly (and they weren't bad to start with, moving from 4.2ish to 4.8ish on a 1-5 scale). The students seem genuinely enthused and attend the lectures and workshops, regardless of the hour. Classes run well, with a lot of student participation, and I enjoy giving the lectures which have space for impromptu question and answer sessions, digressions to relevant sub-stories, and hopefully it will show on the final exams next month. Already the coursework grades had improved as compared to last year's batch.

Some further watching / reading:

Video Lectures and Talks:

Books:

Heath, Dan and Chip Heath. 2008. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck. New York, NY: Random House http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/reader/009950569X/ref=sib_dp_pt#reader-page

Reynolds, Garr. 2008. Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery. Berkeley, CA: New Rider (Pearson).

Blogs and websites:

Sample lecture slides