Trying to stop lectures from being so zzzz…

Why are lectures so sleep inducing? I remember well the effort required to keep your eyelids apart after 35-40 minutes. So, now that I am the lecturer, how can I keep my students at least awake, and hopefully interested? I am not going to talk about the most obvious point, which is to be an enthusiastic and engaging lecturer. Instead, I shall briefly list the tactics I am trying this year in my lecture series, which started this week.

  1. Live polling. Each year I ask the students how many have a device (smartphone, tablet, laptop) that could connect to a website in the lecture theatre. The proportion has been growing steadily and is now around 75-80%. It will never reach 100%, but so long as there enough such that everyone is at least sitting by someone who has a device I think that is good enough. Socrative is a good, clean website that allows one to create and run quizzes and since last year they have released a newer version in beta. So, I’m going to try running a simple quiz made up of 4-6 true/false questions halfway through each lecture. I could, of course, use clickers but we only have a few sets and using the students’ own phones could be easier.
  2. Online reading lists. Who ever looked up, let alone read the papers you usually find on the lecture handouts? Part of this, I feel, is the difficulty in finding the paper on the web, especially when you’ve never done this before. So I have made a Mendeley Public Group which contains all the references from my slides. Here one can click on a link and, voila, be taken straight the paper (subject to paywalls / VPNs etc). One can also add new references, or (in the app anyway) make notes on each paper that everyone else can see. To encourage some of the students to take this up I’m running a competition to see who can improve the Public Group for this lecture series the most.
  3. Videos. So far we’ve looked at a simulation of a protein folding from Folding@home. In a coming lecture I’ve got Linus Pauling discussing how he came up with the idea for alpha helices.
  4. Stretches. These also help break up the lecture. The idea is that Just getting the students to stand up, have a stretch and sit down about halfway through will help them maintain their concentration for the full 50 minutes.

I’ll write another post after the course is finished documenting what worked (and perhaps what didn’t).

By Philip Fowler

Philip W Fowler is a computational biophysicist studying antimicrobial resistance working at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

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