On lecturers questioning their audience

In my last post, I discussed the way in-class voting allows students to participate in lectures. Commenting on that post, my friend Paul expressed discomfort at the idea of a lecturer imposing participation on unwilling audience members. I’ve been thinking about this on and off all week. The idea I’ve reached is that lecture participation can only be understood if we keep in mind the effect it has on the relationship between speaker and audience.

I’m not officially studying anything these days, but on Wednesday I went along to a philosophy/psychology lecture put on by the department where I work. Professor Shaun Gallagher from the University of Memphis was talking about his research into the feelings of awe and wonder that astronauts experience when they’re in outer space. In particular, he wanted to compare astronauts’ brain activity with the way they described their feelings afterwards. As it’s difficult to attach brain scanning equipment to astronauts who are actually going into space, Gallagher’s team created simulated environments and ran the experiments on student volunteers instead. The volunteers sat with electrodes stuck to their heads and watched a seven-minute film which started on Earth and slowly zoomed out, eventually showing the planet as a cloudy blue bauble suspended in space. Despite it being a simulation, the student volunteers reported a lot of the same feelings that astronauts have: awe, wonder, a feeling of the Earth’s fragile beauty, and so on.

I’d run similar experiments back in my days as an RE teacher, though without the brain scanning equipment unfortunately. In my classes, I turned the lights off and showed the video below, which starts off on the Earth and zooms out to show the entirety of the known universe. This had slightly different effects to Gallagher’s study; along with the feelings of awe and wonder, one or two students reported somewhat nihilistic feelings. “If we’re so small, like, what’s the point of anything?” said one.

Anyway. The important thing was that Prof Gallagher talking for an hour was an enlightening, educational experience. I covered four pages of A4 with notes, and didn’t feel the need to participate once; indeed, he didn’t ask us to participate, although there was a Q+A at the end. The simple reason for this was that the lecture was for an audience of academics and postgrad students (and me). That’s to say, we were an audience of peers rather than an audience of students. If he had started to quiz us on the content of the lecture, it would have felt like an inappropriate shift of the relationship from peer-peer to teacher-pupil.

This leads us to something I missed from my last post, which dealt with two problems:

(1) Traditional lectures lack audience participation

(2) Traditional lectures lack real-time formative assessment

Getting the audience to vote on the answers to multiple choice questions solves both of these problems: the audience gets to participate and the lecturer has an idea if the audience are keeping up. But I didn’t account for the impact real-time formative assessment (peppering your talk with quiz-like questions) has on the dynamic between speaker and audience. This is a shame, because investigating this gets us into some really interesting territory.

At secondary school, a teacher quizzing students relentlessly is completely expected. It’s good for the students, who have to process and verbalise their ideas, and it’s good for the teacher, who gets feedback on whether the students are keeping up. The dynamic is clearly teacher-pupil as opposed to peer-peer. All well and good.

At university, undergraduates exist in more of a grey area. On the one hand, they have joined an academic community of peers; but on the other hand, they typically lack the skills to adequately participate in that community. One of the goals of a traditional undergraduate degree is to equip the students with these skills, while at the same time starting to treat them as members of the community. Lectures exist as both a way to teach, and as a way to model how knowledge is shared in the academic community. University lecturers are therefore playing the teacher side of a teacher-pupil relationship, in which the “pupils” are also starting to think of themselves as peers.

The trouble is, there are problems when you serve these two masters at the same time. In good teaching, you have a dialogue where the more experienced, more knowledgeable teacher probes or fills in the gaps for the less experienced, less knowledgeable pupil. Formative assessment is how teachers identify those gaps. But in the usual process of sharing academic knowledge peer-peer (see the example of Shaun Gallagher above), formative assessment is weird and uncalled for.

Bringing quiz questions into the lecture theatre à la Eric Mazur clearly indicates which master the lecturer is choosing to serve. The purpose of these lectures is explicitly to teach. The teacher can say, “You are not my equals, and I therefore have the right – nay, duty – to point out gaps in your knowledge”. I’d guess that students fresh out of sixth form would have no problem with this, but postgraduates would probably feel a bit patronised. In any case, it’s clearly not a part of the traditional lecture, which tells but doesn’t assess.

Before we can decide how to use voting equipment in a lecture theatre, we need to answer this question: at what stage does formative assessment start to become inappropriate in a lecture theatre? Where’s the line between Eric Mazur rightly quizzing his undergraduates and Shaun Gallagher rightly treating his audience as equals? Is it somewhere around the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate, or should it be earlier?

Right now, I’m unsure what the answer to that is. Wherever that line is, it will be a broad one; ceremonies and qualifications aside, earning the right to be treated as an equal within academia is a long, slow process.

Image credit

Lecture hall by uniinnsbruk


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