University classes can be interesting, exciting and revelatory. However, they can also be mind-numbingly dull and feel irrelevant. Boredom during classes is not only common but also detrimental to learning and academic success. Three-quarters of students have coped with boredom by daydreaming instead of paying attention at some point. Others chat (50%), text (45%) or even stop coming to class. When this happens, academic performance is severely impacted. Of course, some of the blame for this must go to the students themselves. University students are old enough to take responsibility for their own performance. However, it’s also true that classes can become harder than they have to be due to factors related to content delivery and teaching style. This is unsurprising: professors usually have less pedagogical training than primary and secondary school teachers, which can lead to a lack of skills they need to communicate their knowledge well.
First of all, some professors have poor presentation skills. We’ve all had teachers go on and on in a monotone drone, or teachers who speed ahead, breathlessly talking at what feels like 10,000 words a minute. Either way, students’ eyes glaze over and the lesson goes in one ear and out the other. Presentation skills aren’t just limited to lesson delivery, sometimes the use of slides can be unengaging. Examples of this practice include making slides that are walls of text, especially if the teacher reads off them. As some commentators have pointed out this decreases audience engagement, as it prevents lecturers from making eye contact. It feels like the lecturer isn’t even talking to you anymore but to their beloved slides. Personally, I’ve also found text-heavy slides to be distracting in and of themselves. Even if the professor is doing a good job at communicating the content verbally, I’m often tempted to mentally check out and read the slide instead.
A second key issue is structuring lessons poorly. This not only leads to boredom and disengagement but also confusion. Some teachers don’t clarify which points are important, creating two interconnected problems. Firstly, students taking notes in class don’t know what to prioritise. Most students take notes by summarising key points rather than writing everything the teacher says. This is not a poor strategy, but something that has been recommended by universities such as LSE. However, if students don’t know what the key points are, this strategy becomes nearly useless. This leads to our second problem: unclear, incomplete notes are less useful when it comes to revision for exams. This is particularly problematic for lectures which aren’t recorded. The information the students missed is therefore difficult to learn later, leading to problems when the topic unexpectedly pops up in the final.
Fortunately, these problems can be solved. Professors can be taught basic presentation skills fairly easily. Many universities already offer presentation skills courses to students which could be tweaked and repurposed to teach professors. For example, IE offers classes on presentation skills to some students, while some clubs, such as the debate club, already offer coaching sessions. Tapping into these existing resources to ensure that teachers are able to deliver more engaging lectures could go a long way towards improving the student experience. Alternatively, there are numerous free online courses on the matter, and even basic tips could vastly improve the effectiveness of the worst-performing lecturers. For example, some classes could become much better structured and clearer just by telling professors to provide a brief overview of topics covered at the beginning and end of sessions.
Going further by teaching pedagogical best practices/new research along with presentation skills could have even more of an impact on the student experience. Currently, most of our classes are structured as lectures. However, some studies have found that the traditional lecture format might be less effective than other formats, especially those centred on active learning. For instance, one study found that students who learned only through “stand-and-deliver” lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail. Other research suggests that this format is also more boring than other styles of teaching, with more than half of students finding lectures boring. Lectures can still be helpful for going through dense, difficult material and are even the preferred format of a minority of students. Still, including more active learning could help increase student engagement.
Nobody can deny that university professors are good academics or experienced professionals. However, even leading experts in a field can make poor teachers if they don’t know how to convey their detailed knowledge in a clear and engaging way. Professors who aren’t good at speaking in public, don’t know how to make engaging slides, and don’t know how to provide structure to classes can negatively affect students’ educational outcomes by increasing boredom, disengagement and confusion. Luckily, this problem is easily solved” presentation skills can be taught. Many universities such as IE have even created such courses for students, which could easily be repurposed to teach professors. Finally, sharing new pedagogical methods and research with professors has the potential to make classes more engaging and improve academic performance and student satisfaction.
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