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2.3 Activities in lectures

An hour (or even 50 minutes) is a long time to listen and concentrate. As we have seen, concentration and retention rapidly diminishes after 20 minutes. Not only should student learning be as active as possible, it should be efficient. Ideally, a student should be able to:

  • Identify main points;
  • Distinguish the important from the diversion;
  • Identify when the same point is being presented in different ways;
  • Perceive connections (e.g. between one theory or part of a theory and another);
  • Relate examples to concepts and theories;
  • Relate evidence to propositions.

These can all be aided by a careful use of activities in lectures and this section examines different types of activity that could be used. The inclusion of activities comes at the expense of time the lecturer would otherwise spend in talking to the students. The case for using activities is that the breadth and depth of students’ understanding is increased even though the sheer quantity of information covered by the lecturer is reduced.

Top Tip 6

The more active the participation of students, the longer and better will they be able to concentrate.


One of the most effective ways of making learning a more active process and helping students to check on their understanding and learn from their mistakes is to give them questions. The simplest forms include multiple-choice, true/false or listing, or doing a calculation. The questions can be displayed on a PowerPoint slide, an OHT or using a visualiser, although, as Case Study 1 illustrates, there are more sophisticated ways of doing this, for example by using an audience response system (clickers).

The questions could be at the beginning of a topic. For example, if you were about to look at monopoly, you could give the students a list of companies and ask them to identify which are monopolies. Having done this, you could then look at the difficulties of identification, when the boundaries of an industry are 'fuzzy'; the importance of market power; the measurement of market power; types of barriers to entry, etc. In each case you could use the examples from the quiz. Students would then grasp the theoretical points you were making, having first considered some examples and being able to relate your arguments to them.

Alternatively, the questions could be given at the end of a section. This could then test students' understanding. If you then asked for responses (e.g. hands up those who answered A…), this would give an indication of how well key points had been understood. Again, as Case Study 1 shows, a good way of doing this is to use an audience response system. You might also ask students to write down their answers and pass them to their neighbour to mark. When students see what their neighbour has written they can learn from each other as well as from the lecturer, especially if they are asked to spend a couple of minutes justifying their answer to their neighbour.

Top Tip 7

The use of multiple-choice or other simple response questions two or three times per lecture can help to provide a break in pace, an opportunity for reflection and reinforcement and a check on students' understanding.

Worksheet or material on the screen or board

An alternative to short questions is to give the students a problem or some data to consider. This could be on paper, with the students picking up a worksheet at the beginning of the lecture, or it could be displayed on the screen or board. It is normally a good idea for students to attempt such questions in pairs as they can learn from each other. It also makes the exercise more fun. You can then go through the question from the front.

You might also ask students to read a passage that you hand out and then to answer one or two questions on it. The passage could be from a newspaper, book, journal or magazine. It is probably best to make the questions relatively closed. For example, if the lecture focuses on exchange rates, you could give them a brief news article reporting changes in exchange rates between two or more currencies and then ask them to identify possible causes of these changes. More open-ended questions are normally best considered in seminars, where students have the opportunity to discuss their answers with the group.

Completing diagrams or proofs

Copying down mathematical arguments or diagrams can be a fairly mindless exercise. Giving students a partially complete proof or diagram and then asking them to fill in the extra material can help (as argued above), since the student has time to reflect and to focus on the key points you are attempting to convey. For example, if you were looking at income and substitution effects using indifference analysis, you could present the students with a diagram which included the indifference map and the initial budget line, and then ask them to draw the new budget line and the income and substitution effects. Presenting the students with the diagrams in this way would allow you to ensure that they could clearly distinguish between normal, inferior and Giffen goods.

You can make this process more active by stopping part way through presenting a model and getting students to fill in the next step. They can do this individually or discuss it with their neighbour. Alternatively, you can test their understanding at a particular point by asking them which way a particular curve shifts if you change a particular variable, or getting them to repeat a particular mathematical step using different numbers.

Making lists

These can be useful for getting students to think expansively or to think about policy or other implications. For example, you could ask them to identify a list of possible determinants of a shift in a curve or a list of advantages and disadvantages of a particular policy. They could do this individually or with their neighbour; or they could start by doing it individually and then compare their list with their neighbour's or get their neighbour to mark them against a list that you supply.

The hybrid between a lecture and workshop

You might restrict the formal lecture on a topic to 20 minutes and then set students some work to do, either through a worksheet or questions on the screen. The questions could be in the form of calculations or data response, preferably of the closed variety. You could go through the questions at the end, or post the answers on your Intranet. This practice is illustrated in Case Study 2. Alternatively, you might give students a set of questions on a case study or an article.

The formal lecture might be presented as a follow-up to the questions or it might be used to introduce the key ideas that will be investigated further through the questions. Either way, it is important for you to integrate the case study or article carefully with the lecture to ensure that students are getting the best from both parts.