Before I first began lecturing I formally observed two sessions with the intention of laying down the foundations for my own practice. Whilst observation notes are at the extremities of subjectivity, I still consider them to be a good starting point. It was the first time I attended lectures with the aim to learn about the faciliation, and not the material.
In this summary of the observations, sessions will be referred to as A and B. Session A was a third year module in the discipline of American Studies. B was a session from a first year module outside my discipline, in Digital Media Design. I chose to observe this session to get a better understanding of practice in other departments. Most especially since – as we will go on to see – it took a different format to that of session A. Additionally, it gave me an insight into the approach taken at different levels of study.
The first thing to note is the timing and intital set-up. In both sessions the lecturer arrived before the majority of the students, greeting them as they prepared the presentation. I learnt that this pre-lecture conversation is important to the navigation of the session to follow. Particularly in the instance of session A, as it relaxed the students and gave an insight into the progress of other modules, specifically that of their dissertation.
There were two main areas that emerged as intrinsic to good facilitation during the sessions. The first was the use of the room to engage and create discussion; the second was the effects of applying a good questioning technique. Both work together to provide a strong learning environment, allowing the facilitator to transition between groups and discussions with ease. In reference to pedagogical literature, Ann Gravells determines the significance of room layout. It is, ‘[…] an important influence upon the way your session progresses and how you and your learners can communicate’ (Gravells 2008, 54-5). On a practical level, this is of course dependent on the allocation of rooms which may be outside the control of the facilitator.
Session A took an impactful and interesting approach to room layout. It built upon Gravells’s recommended ‘cabaret’ style (Fig. 3), whereupon students are evenly spread around horizontal tables that face the lecturer who is isolated at the front. The room layout changed during the session. This shift did not create disruption, but excitement and engagement. It was facilitated by an emphasis on discussion. The students were asked to debate a question on their individual tables and then asked to ‘join the front table’ once answers and notes had been written. This positively changed not only the physical layout, but the dynamics within the room.
Moreover, it allowed a better facilitation of discussion, which – as I have learnt from the beginning – is one of the pillars of good practice. Embedded within this is the importance of questioning technique. Stephen Rowland offers a good summary for this, ‘Lecturers who have the skills to facilitate their students’ questioning and can handle the uncertainties of group dynamics are at an advantage’ (Rowland 2000, 23). In session B however, the lecturer predominantly left the students to be the questioners. Whilst this is a good approach in terms of empowering the students and encouraging engagement, there was no real provoking of questions. This meant that closed questions asked by the students remained closed. This is contrasted to session A’s facilitator who took the role of mediator, and steered the discussion. In part this was a result of difference in what Geoffrey Squires terms as, ‘educational rewards’. They can be evidenced in the way contributions are responded to in the session – encouraged, commended, and not rejected – and should be embedded within the teacher-student relationship (Squires 2003b, 55).
Neglecting to reward the students can result in disruption, which was evidenced in session B. Here, the nature of the session left students to ‘discuss’ their peers’ presentations. This gave allotted time for discussion that could not be regulated by the facilitator. Whilst handling a large group can be difficult – especially if conversations start to go off-topic – group dynamics can be handled with the use of extended, focused questioning and enquiry, pushed using materials such as flip-chart paper, pens, etc., and encouraged with body language, and gestures.
The observations were a worthwhile experience, and I encourage all fledling lecturers to give it a try. Reflecting upon the practice of others will help reflect upon yours.
Gravells, Ann. 2008. Preparing to teach in the lifelong learning sector. 3rd ed. Exeter: Learning Matters.
Rowland, Stephen. 2000. The enquiring university teacher. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education : Open University Press.
Squires, Geoffrey. 2003a. Trouble-shooting your teaching : a step-by-step guide to analysing and improving your practice. London ; Sterling, VA: Kogan Page.