Getting the class ready and prepared

A slightly different one this time. Colleagues (around the world) often remark on the problems of getting students to prepare for class. To be frank, it’s not hard to work out why: the lecturer’s holding a class and can’t chuck everyone out and you probably get asked a question, or if you do, then you can wing it, etc., etc.

Here’s something that has worked for me and do fit into the whole notion of active learning. At the start of the semester, I get a pile of lolly sticks or sticks for mixing hot drinks from the refectory/canteen. On each one, I write the name of a student in the class. Then each week, I tell the students that I will randomly select two sticks the following week, and those people will each present a short (5 minute) presentation on the topic that I’m about to give them. The following week, I check at the start of the class that everyone has their notes: anyone who does not, gets to spend the class visiting the library, to then return just before the end of class to present what they’ve found. Then during the class, where the topic fits in, I pick a stick (or ask a student to pick one, just to show it’s totally random).

This has been an excellent way of focusing minds on some key points of the class; ensuring that everyone has some knowledge of the subject material coming into the class (so I can focus on further development); producing a set of revision materials for students to use in assessment; and generally helping students to avoid falling into the all-too-common trap of thinking that education is a passive exercise.

Naturally, students do have doubts about this. Mainly, they dislike having to do work that might not be used (I’ve had cases of students begging to be allowed to present), although they do come to understand the benefits listed above. They’re also not keen on the unevenness of it all: some people presented several times, others not at all. This is actually a key point: instead of only hearing from the prepared (and typically stronger) students, this methods makes sure you’re hearing from a more representative cross-section of the group, so you can pick up on any misunderstandings that might otherwise get missed. And it helps you to avoid accusations of favouritism.

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