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Sustaining student interest and learning through interactive lectures

К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2006

Автор: Нурбаева Ж.

The Webster Dictionary gives a most succinct definition of interaction as “action on each other, reciprocal action or effect.” In a language-learning context, however, interaction is understood primarily as communication of thoughts, ideas, and emotions expressed in the target language between two or more people, resulting in a reciprocal effect on each other. (Brown, 2001).

Although there have been many articles and books written about interactive language classrooms and the communicative approach to teaching a foreign language, the focus of this paper is applying interaction principles to a lecture, not an English conversation class. For the last three years I have been involved in teacher education at the Kazak-American Free University (KAFU), and I have experienced first-hand the challenge of sustaining graduate student interest during our late night classes. It is my hope that the ideas expressed here will be valuable not only to language teachers, but anyone who is struggling with keeping large groups of students agape with an 80-minute lecture.

Traditionally we view lectures as informative talks before a class of students, prepared by the lecturer beforehand. Most University lectures last from 80 to 100 minutes and are frequently “stacked up,” so our students may end up with three or four of them back to back. Considering the fact that this “lecture marathon” could be a more than daunting task for any auditory student, an exceptionally unstimulating chore for all the visual students, and a mission impossible for anyone with a kinesthetic learning preference, breaking up the lectures and using the breaks to their full potential seems to be the only way out. This combination of lecture (teacher monolog) and breaks (teacher-student and student-student dialog) will serve as our premise of what an interactive lecture should be like. We will draw on the observations and experience of our American colleagues at KAFU, lectures given by local faculty who have been trained in Western Universities, and ESL/EFL research in sparking and sustaining student motivation.

Daniel Ballast (2004) in his article “Comparing Kazakstan and American Teaching Methods” makes a contrastive analysis of approaches to teaching in Kazakhstan and the USA. Based on his observations over a decade of teaching in Ust-Kamenogorsk, he describes a typical lecture by a Kazakhstan lecturer as a process of “transferring the notes of the lecturer to the students through the students’ dictation while the lecture is read.” On the other hand, American teachers would “often make use of visual aids, handouts and other means so that information can be imparted both orally and visually.” American teachers would try to sustain the audience’s interest and “draw the students into conversation and even debate” (Ballast, 2004).

To be interactive, a lecture should not take the form of expressing only one person’s (the teacher or textbook author) ideas and thoughts, but resemble a dialog where sharing of ideas is possible and thus a “reciprocal” effect is achieved. Hence, there will always be an element of surprise, no matter how well prepared a lecturer may be: student responses may stimulate a digression in the lecture or provide direction for subsequent lectures. On the other hand, students may not be responsive on that particular day and be unwilling to “reciprocate,” thus inducing the teacher to improvise and the fill the gaps in the lesson plan. This calls for a certain degree of uncertainty tolerance, creativity and adaptability on the part of the teacher.

In her article “Multi-purpose Lecture Breaks” Cynthia Desrochers (1999) suggests breaking lectures every 20 minutes or so, and identifies four types of lecture breaks:

- Break-in at the beginning of the class session, which allows you to assess students’ understanding of a homework assignment or the previously covered material;

- Break-up at points in each class session when student interest starts to wane;

- Break-through as students dwell on new concepts and construct connecting bridges between prior “knowledge” and what they are learning today;

- Break-down at various points in your lecture when you check for student comprehension.

This article will offer a range of techniques (lecture breaks) that will correspond to all four of these types.

You Asked A Question

During my first lecture, I often ask my students to write one or two questions they wish to be answered by this new course. The questions are written on index cards, submitted, categorized and intertwined into the content of my subsequent lectures. As I come to a point in my presentation where a student- generated question may be answered, I stop, take the right index card and read the question out loud. The student attention is regained; they become perked up and eager to listen. Students feel as valuable contributors to the course and their motivation to study increases as they await answers to their questions. I borrowed this technique from my professor at Wheaton College Graduate School, Dr. Andrew Hill.

Homework Check

Suggested by Desrochers (1999), this technique is a brilliant idea of how to focus student attention, especially if they have just arrived from another lecture. Before the lecture, write two questions from homework readings on the board. Ask students to fold a sheet of paper and answer each question twice. One half is given to the professor, the other is kept for self and peer correction. Choose questions that are not too “wordy” and require a short answer as well. For instance, based on the assigned article about pronunciation syllabus design for the English Phonology class, the teacher may ask the following questions: “What does the author define as the zoom principle?” and “What are some ways to collect student speech samples?” After the students have submitted their written answers, they discuss the questions together for a few minutes. These checks aware the lecturer to the level of student preparation and allow the students to double-check their learning. The questions and answers then may be used as a platform for the new material.

K-W-L Reading Strategy

This is another lecture break suggested by Desrochers (1999). Either individually or in groups, asks your students to predict their absorption of a topic before studying it:

K: List what you already know about this topic,

W: List what you want to know about this topic, and

L: List what has been learned about the topic after the lecture.

Next, check L and K to see of what they knew what accurate. This is a useful strategy borrowed from teaching reading and is best used with topics that students may have dealt with before but still could have trouble with. A good example may be a lecture on grammar tests as part of our EFL assessment class. All the students in my grad class are already teaching University level classes and know (or think they know) what a grammar test is. Yet, I believe they can still learn a lot from this lecture, and this technique could be a useful tool in motivating them to stay interested in the seemingly trite topic.

Warming-up: Brainstorming

Write the theme of your lecture on the board and ask the class to break into groups of four and create a bank of ideas. For example, in my EFL Methodology class we were talking about Top Ten Requirements for Good Language Teachers and Good Language Learners. In groups, students brainstormed and then created two “portraits” (teacher and learner), which were re-visited after the lecture to see if any changes had to be made. This activity allows activating the student schemata and building ties between what they already know or think they know and the new material of the lecture.

Elaboration: A Real Life Example

I found this technique excellent in reinforcing learning. After explaining a concept or classification, ask students to share a real-life example illustrating the topic of the lecture. After hearing about various types of tests in our EFL Assessment class, the students had to reflect on their own experience as test-takers and share it with a partner. This can also be done in a whole-class discussion.

Since many of the graduate students have had some cross-cultural experience whether living/working in the US or interacting with our foreign faculty at KAFU, I often ask for their input after lecturing about a particular aspect of intercultural communication. My students have richly contributed to my lectures on building blocks of culture (concept of self, time, locus of control, etc.) and cross-cultural conflict.

Drawing

Stop your lecture in 20-30 minutes and ask your students to draw a diagram, a chart, or a web or even a picture to summarize what they have learned. This could be an exciting activity for your visual and spatial learners, and it may create an absolute boredom for other types, but encourage them to rise up to the challenge. For example a student drew a picture of three figures: a child, a teenager and an adult and made three spider webs to determine various approaches in teaching across ages.

A Short Debate

After having covered some of the material in your lecture, pose a dilemma or a statement and divide the class into two teams. The teams will have to list costs/benefits or pros/cons and provide adequate support for their position. Example: after hearing a lecture on the concept of time as a building block of culture in our Cross-cultural Communication class, students are debating whether or not Kazakhstan (a process-oriented, polychronic society) should adopt some of the Western values (result orientation, monochronism) in its attempt to enter the global business arena.

Another example of a debate starter could be the question stated in the EFL Phonology class: Should a separate class be devoted to pronunciation teaching?

Send-A-Problem

This technique is suggested by Desrochers (1999). Ask students to form groups of four. On a card, each student writes a question on one side and the answer on the other. Next, as a group, they check all cards for accuracy. Then, the group’s four cards are sent to the next group to be answered orally. This can continue for a few rounds. If questions are confusing, the groups may send a “diplomat” to the table of origin for clarification. Ultimately, all cards are submitted to the teacher for assessment.

Video Clips

I often use movie clips in the Cross-Cultural Communication class to illustrate how two cultures are interacting. Thus, after explaining the concept of power distance, I play a short clip from Anna and the King with the sound off. The scene is when a British woman appears at the royal court and requests (or rather demands) an audience the King of Siam breaking all sorts of protocol rules in the meantime. The students observe the behavior, make predictions and then we re-watch the episode with the sound on.

Short clips from The Merchant of Venice may serve as examples of the English language before the Great Vowel Shift in the lectures on the History of the English Language or be used as a supplemental material during lectures on Shakespearean plays as part of the English Literature class.

Peer Teaching Sessions

Prior to the lecture the instructor assigns home readings to a group of students and asks them to do a 10 or 20-minute section of the lecture presenting their findings. Every lecture or every other lecture, depending on the length of a course and its goals, two or three students are involved in such peer teaching. The presenting students read the assigned article, prepare a mini-lecture and open a Q&A session afterwards. Throughout the course, all students will have participated in these group projects and presentations. I came up with this technique in my Teaching EFL Reading and Writing Class with English teachers. We had four peer teaching sessions during our ten-week course. First of all, it allowed to lessen the amount of assigned readings per individual student: of the four assigned readings, each student scrupulously studied only one assigned to his or her group and then listened to a gist of the remaining three articles through peer presentations. Second, I was building on the fact that these were teachers and giving them the floor, I not only put them in their natural situation, but also trained them on-the-job how to give interactive lectures. Finally, this gave a nice break to both the professor and the audience!

Value Lines (A Movement Lecture Break)

Teaching evening classes often requires breaks involving movement. Students are tired after a long working day, and they need to stretch and move around. Desrochers (1999) suggest asking them to line up according to how strongly they agree or disagree on a controversial topic. Next ask the students on the extreme ends of this “value line” to explain their points of view to the whole class. After listening to them, ask the students to rearrange if any changes of opinion have occurred. This technique can be widely used as a lecture break in the Cross-cultural Communication class where values are often considered and studied. However, any lecturer who teaches the theory of the language (Linguistics, Phonology, Grammar, Stylistics, Lexicology, etc.) may also employ it asking students to “vote” for or against a particular school’s teaching.

Guest Speakers

Just like with peer teaching sessions, inviting a guest speaker for part of the lecture may prove a great way to reclaim student attention and increase learning. Guest speakers may be present for the entire period of class before they are asked to speak; they may speak at the beginning of the class, or they may be a surprise and “suddenly” appear at the request of the instructor. The teacher should clearly explain his or her expectations and give a time limit if necessary beforehand. The guest should know the place and value of his contribution to the course. I have acted both as a guest speaker and a “hostess.” In the first case I was invited to a lecture on Cross-cultural Communication to talk about contextualization and how the same idea or message may take different shapes in various cultures. The second time I invited a native speaker to share about the most common English mistakes he observed Russian-speaking students make. Both time I noticed a significant boost in student interest.

Pick the False Fact

Desrochers (1999) believes that the famous game “Truth, truth and a lie” or “Family Fibs” can be adapted for a late-night class towards the end of the semester. Ask your students to review their notes and write three “facts.” However, only two of these facts should actually be true. In pairs, groups of four or the whole class, students try to pick the false fact.

The aim of this paper was to identify issues in teaching through a lecture and determine ways of sustaining student interest level through a set of interactive lecture breaks.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Webster’s New World Dictionary. 1986. Second Edition. New York: Simon and Schuster

2. Brown H. Douglas. 2001. Teaching By Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. Second Edition. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education

3. Cynthia Desrochers. 1999. Multi-purpose Lecture Breaks. The Teaching Professor. Volume 13, Number 10. Reading: PA

4. Ballast, Daniel. 2004. Comparing Kazakstan and American Teaching Methods. Университеты XXI века: инновации и реформы. Сборник докладов международной научно-практической конференции. Стр. 82



К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2006


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