Michael Seery's suggestions for busy lecturers

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I spend a lot of time thinking about teaching chemistry. It is, after all, my job. This means you can often find me diving into educational literature or keeping up-to-date with the many education blogs and tweeters. But I have to admit, I find it all too easy to lose sight of those who don’t do the same. 

Most chemistry lecturers are immersed in the research literature of their own discipline – in the same way I immerse myself in education literature – and simply don’t have time to read beyond that. 

If a colleague asks me for advice on how they could improve their next lecture course, I have to remind myself that preaching about generating active learning environments or flipping 360 might not be constructive. This isn’t because they don’t want to do the best for their students, but because, as I’m speaking, they will be wondering where they are going to fit all of this development work into their overflowing schedule.

So, with that in mind, here’s what I would suggest to a busy lecturer who wants to get the most out of their next course. 

1. Formalise out-of-lecture learning

Much of our focus on lecture delivery is on the lecture itself. We spend a lot of time developing content, discussion points for the lecture, and prompts for student thought. But in assembling lecture notes, we use various resources to build a coherent lecture. 

We could give these as a bibliography at the end, but why not turn this on its head? Assign students some specific reading to do in advance, or interact with some online resource or simulation. This should have a particular, specified purpose. 

You can then build the lecture on this. This work needs to be integrated into the lecture, or there is no value to it, and students won’t do it. A lecture could start off with a discussion on some of the key concepts based on this pre-lecture work. Or in large classes, you could survey the room. 

The aim is that students begin to think about your content prior to the lecture. 

2. Re-think tutorial work

Tutorials are an opportunity for students to engage with the material in a small group setting. Many tutorials simply consist of book-work exam-type questions, and involve a face-off between student and lecturer: who will speak first?! 

Tutorials built around group work have benefits as they involve students explaining things in more detail, modelling concepts and elaborating understanding. This doesn’t happen naturally and needs preparation. 

Tutorial sheets could have three components. Worked examples covering some book-work questions with some-follow up questions to make sure students know the formal approaches before they come to the tutorial. Then in-class questions that build on the pre-tutorial work. Finally, the tutorial sheet should have a list of post-tutorial questions that students can complete in their own time. You might post a list of answers at a particular time after the tutorial so that this material can be used for exam preparation.

The assumption from the start is that students complete the first two parts in groups – having a sheet with just too much for one student to do on their own means you can begin to foster group work. 

3. Request a peer-observation

Ask a colleague to sit in on one of your lectures. This can be a great way of getting out of a rut – it’s amazing how a different perspective can help.

You might give some prompts for what you would like feedback on. A Likert-type scale response can help you can get around the generic ‘that was great!’ from a well-meaning colleague. But their response is only half the value. 

Knowing that someone else is present means that you can’t help but reflect on the lecture in much more detail than you might otherwise. This can often highlight parts of the lecture time that you might want to address. And if you do, well there is a colleague down the corridor who might have an idea…

These are the ideas I’d suggest to any lecturer – but I’d love to hear more. What advice would you offer?

Michael Seery is a reader in chemistry education at the University of Edinburgh

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