Watch the students

By Marcus Wilson 10/04/2013

This week I sat in on a lecture given by a junior colleague of mine. Partly this was so I could offer him some guidance, but partly so I could see how someone else approaches the the teaching of physics and engineering material. It was enlightening experience for me. One thing I did was to watch the students. There were a lot of different things going on, suggesting that while the lecturer was talking students were engaged in range of tasks – such as detailed concentration, helping others to understand what was being said, checking emails, discussing their recently returned test scripts, or plain daydreaming.

 My assumption is that this probably is a fairly standard range of activities for students in a lecture. Which, most likely, would include my lectures. How would I know what’s going on with my students? One immediate way that springs to mind is to get a colleague to come in and watch the students, rather than me. Another is to get a camera on them. In many of our lecture theatres we have cameras that are often used to capture the ‘lecture’ so students can review it afterwards, and sometimes used so that the teacher can review how they performed. But better might be to turn the camera around and film the students (with their permission, obviously).

Although, having said that, what would a ‘good’ range of reactions from students look like? Talking to one’s neighbour isn’t necessarily a bad reflection on what the teacher is doing. And avid concentration might be a sign of lack of clarity from the teacher. One thing that is clear is that knowing when you’re teaching something well and when you are not is pretty difficult at the time. I can think of times when I thought I’d had the students attention throughout, presented something clearly just as I would have liked, and then found when the students were assessed on it that they hadn’t got it at all. Equally, there are other times that I’ve felt I’ve given a really bad lecture but the students have grasped the material in it. Tricky stuff.

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