Saturday, November 5, 2011

Adding the spark

I stumbled upon an old article in The Guardian earlier this week, Why do 60% of students find their lectures boring?. It is based on a 2009 study of student attitudes to teaching by Dr Sandi Mann and Andrew Robinson of the University of Central Lancashire. I've written several times about the limitations of lectures and the need to spend classroom time on more interactive activities and let students access lectures on their computers or mobiles. This article breaks no new ground by criticising dull lectures but the interesting part was that students find even lab sessions uninspiring. According to the study the practical work sessions were even worse than the lectures.

"We might expect more hands-on practical sessions to be more engaging but, surprisingly, lab work and computer sessions achieved the highest boredom ratings in our study. One of the problems with lab studies is that the experiments the students conduct are often just controlled exercises where the results are already known"

The main reason for this is the fact that although the students were practising necessary skills the sessions were merely exercises following strict guidelines (ie. do it like this) and without any element of discovery and creativity. Doing is simply not enough, we need to be more engaged in the process and feel that we are discovering new skills for ourselves or in collaboration with our peers. Prescriptive workshops are similar to lectures in that they are clearly teacher-centred. The shift towards learner-centred activity is not an easy one for teachers raised on the traditional paradigm and it is all too easy to revert to old habits.

So what kinds of activities then will inspire students and pupils? How do we create engagement and enthusiasm? A superb example can be seen in an article and film on Mind/Shift, Technology Adds Spark to Science Education. The film, produced by KQED Education in conjunction with Northwestern University’s iLab, shows pupils using various laptops and tablets to perform virtual science experiments, create their own simulations and studies and interact with complex experimental equipment in labs on the other side of the world. The enthusiasm and creativity is clear and the fact that they can perfom experiments that could never be performed in the classroom (dangerous radioactivity experiments demanding extremely expensive equipment for example) adds to the interest. Instead of controlled and predictable training exercises they are interacting with the real world and with the teacher's help reflecting on their experience and learning together.

I just wish they would stop using terms like cyber-learning as if it was something just landed from outer space. It's about learning - with the tools and media available today.


  1. I'm sure this is true if you look at computer "labs" (don't know why people insist on calling them labs anyway) -- you make people sit in a hot, stuffy computer room with malfunctioning computers, trying to do things that never work -- of course it would be miles better to let them do it at home instead with the assistance of a teacher via chat, for example.

    When it comes to biochemistry & microbiology labs, however, I think you lose a lot if you replace them with computer simulations. You don't get a feeling for working in a sterile environment, you don't learn pipetting technique, etc, you don't get the exciting feeling of seeing your bacteria grow, or not grow, depending on what you do with them, from doing it on a computer. (That these labs are described as boring in this study is probably due to the fact that undergrad lab work is on a much lower level in the UK than in Sweden, more like secondary school level here.) But you could obviously cut down on some of the more repetitive exercises which are done mainly to learn the theory behind it.

  2. Thanks for the comment Christina. Noone suggests that we don't need hands-on lab sessions and can replace everything with computer simulations. Computer simulations are an excellent way of carrying out experiments that cannot be performed in the school/college lab and the key here is that the sessions must be relevant and engaging.