Encourage discussion and debate in class

Education, Teaching

I’m currently taking some teacher training courses and we were asked to think about and evaluate different teaching methods.

I thought I would think back and compare the different teaching methods I have come across as a student, so I started thinking about my experiences; they cover three different universities and two countries, and so many years I don’t care to mention.

I gained my first degree, a BA degree, in UCL (University College London), and spent three years in London studying linguistics. We had large lecture groups, but these were then divided up into smaller groups of 6 to 8 students that would meet up with a teacher once a week in addition to the lecture. The smaller group meetings were discussion groups, and I found them very useful. We would go over the assignment and discuss any issues: this facilitated understanding and learning. There was no sense of urgency; rather, I felt that learning was at the heart of it. In addition to this, the teachers were also easily available, even offered you a cup of tea when you went to see them (a nice little touch, I think, makes the student feel welcome). They took the time to get to know you; the interaction was casual and supportive. I know this is partly a wider cultural issue, but there is something here the teachers in Finland could learn from…Course work was based on essays, for which we read academic articles (not books) and learned analytical thinking. We learned to write and argue. I small groups, we learned to discuss things.

This having been said, the culture shock I experienced when I took up my MA studies at the Helsinki University in Finland is easy to understand: there was far, far less teacher-student interaction, personal guidance or one-on-one instruction. Instead, we had huge mass lectures and a book exam at the end of it. Not facilitating learning, but knowing by heart, only to be forgotten once the exam is over. I got the sense of efficiency (not good!), that the students were hurried along and pushed out of the university. There seemed (and still seems) to be no interest in the time spent while at university, from the teaching point of view, or from the government point of view, or judging from the general discourse. It was all about calculating study points and hurrying up to get a job. The time at uni was (and this is still the case in the current climate…even more so, I’d say) seen as a necessary evil on the road to getting a job, to becoming a taxpayer. This is not irrelevant: how does learning take place under this kind of atmosphere? When learning itself is not valued, but seen as instrumental?

Now at Aalto University, and I have only ever been a doctoral student or a teacher here, the teaching has also been somewhat different. The courses I have taken are doctoral courses, usually quite small, and have the possibility for more interaction. The course I teach ended up having more students than originally planned. We had planned for small groups and interactive group work, but having so many students the timetable didn’t allow as much of this as we wanted, and it ended up difficult to manage. However, we did emphasise practical work (creating blogs, tweeting, drawing up marketing campaigns, for example) along with academic writing. We also had the student present their work in groups, something they all seemed to enjoy. Yet, there wasn’t as much interaction as there could be: this is partly due to the fact that the students are not used to it. Ask them a question in class, and most of them remain silent. We had hoped for more lively discussions. Perhaps with the help of this pedagogical course and the fresh ideas it offers us we will be able to manage small group discussions by allocating more time for it, possibly by reducing lecturing time. There are many ways to learn.

All in all, in my opinion the amount and quality of interaction matters, be it between students and teachers, or among students. Discussing issues and newly learned things, debating and arguing about them in a social, communal setting facilitates learning and increases understanding. Reading a book at home alone in preparation for a book exam is a practice I wish would be abandoned at universities.