Beware of hidden messages

I remember when I was an undergraduate I had a lecturer in chemistry who was really scary. She used to get us “engaged” by asking questions around the room. We had a sheet with 50 questions and she would go around the room, systematically, asking one question to each student. I spent the whole lecture working out which question would be mine and try to work out the answer before she pounced on me. I never learned a thing about Chemistry in that class!

I had another physiology lecturer who used to write across the blackboard (analogue chalky version not digital VLE) as fast as he could and it was all you could do to keep pace as you struggled to copy everything down. One day someone asked a question, and it completely stumped him. He seemed temporarily paralysed as his flow had been broken. This was before the days of ‘student voice’ or NSS. In those days no one really complained, though we may make comment to other academics who we trusted. The response was, “But he is very clever“. One of my peers replied “Clearly not quite clever enough to teach us though“. We all assumed he was very shy and couldn’t cope with the direct conversation and explanation that we all craved.

I remember others who actually talked to us, rather than at us. I remember their names, and what they taught. They were great, because they were interested. Not just in the science, but also in scientists (students). They were the ones who wanted you to have a positive emotional response to the lectures. Curiously, they taught the courses that I also did best in.

Hobson and Morrison-Saunders (2013) make the clear statement: “Teachers matter.” And invite the reader to think of a teacher who influenced your learning, and listen to the flurry of affectionate and powerful memories of a person who shaped that person’s thinking?

Now-a-days students rarely watch as a lecturer writes pages and pages of notes on the board. Because of PowerPoint, lecturers can do all that before they enter the room. Now the teacher just has to read out the bullet points (I don’t mean it). Whilst it doesn’t have to be like that, it is known to happen from time to time in lecture theatres across the globe: notes being transferred from blackboard to student notebook, without inconveniencing the student brain at all. If you Google “PowerPoint” one of the most common phrases that comes up is, “Death by PowerPoint”. Or a particularly colorful phrase that appealed to me was, “… all interest was quickly shot down in a hail of bullet points.” We have to remember that PowerPoint is only there to support our teaching, not replace it.

When conducting some focus group interviews with undergraduates a few years ago, one of them made the bold statement, “I think teachers at university use PowerPoint so much because they don’t really know what they are doing or what they are teaching. They hide behind a wall of content ensuring that we don’t have time to ask any awkward questions”. We have to ensure that we don’t send unintended messages to our students or lead them into believing we are hiding behind the PowerPoint slides.

Perceived barriers between teachers and students need to be addressed by the most simple of means – talk to them.

Further reading:

Hobson, J. and Morrison-Saunders, A. (2013) reframing teaching relationships: from student-centred to subject-centred learning. Teaching in Higher Education, 18(7): 773 – 783.

Kinchin, I.M., Chadha, D. & Kokotailo, P. (2008) Using PowerPoint as a lens to focus on linearity in teaching. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 32(4): 333 – 346.

Rowe, A.D., Fitness, J. & Wood, L.N. (2013): University student and lecturer perceptions of positive emotions in learning, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, DOI: 10.1080/09518398.2013.847506



One thought on “Beware of hidden messages

  1. Anesa

    Interesting – I think the student’s last statement you quote might be accurate. I remember when I was doing a lecture a few years ago which I had no clue about (as we all do!) – I just stuffed it full of content and hoped the hour passed quickly enough with me talking about the content and hence won’t have any space for the students to ask questions. I won’t recommend it but it worked 🙂



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