Students as lecturers

Helene Tyrrell, School of Law

The spring of 2018 was an unusual period in the life of the law school. Here, as in most departments, classrooms were left empty and lecturers relocated themselves to picket lines. My own teaching timetable at that time would have placed me in our lecture theatre, delivering first year lectures on a compulsory module. The timing of the strike meant a number of these would be lost and while I didn’t want to dilute the impact of the strike, I did decide to run an experiment: I offered one of the affected lectures up to the students. As usual, I had uploaded the lecture slides (on non-strike days) in advance of the lecture and I followed that up with an e-mail:

“… while I will not be delivering the lecture, the lecture theatre will still be scheduled for our use. So my offer is this: If any of you (or indeed all of you) would like to run the lecture for yourselves, with the notes that I have given you, you are welcome to give this a go! Recap will still be recording for the time, so if anyone is willing to take up this offer then I will offer to listen to the recap recording when I am back at work and to give you feedback on what you discuss. … Recap starts at 09:05!”

This did nothing to help most of the cohort but seven students did turn up at 9am to take up the offer. These students not only presented the slides and notes but also paused now and then to reflect on what was being said and to draw links with what they already knew. Listening to the ReCap recording was overwhelming. And it was too good to mark down as a ‘one-off’.

Of course, the conditions around this particular lecture could not be reproduced every lecture but there was surely something to learn from this that we could take forward and apply more broadly. Shelves of higher education literature groan under the weight of publications bemoaning the traditional ‘sage on the stage’ lecture as an enforcement of passive learning; perhaps we had stumbled upon one solution?

With the support of our Head of School and some willingness on the part of the students, we had a meeting to discuss it. What came out was that the students had been aching for opportunities to practice the skill of presenting on topics during their learning (rather than merely at the stage of assessment). And so a project was born.

The main innovation, of course, was to explore the potential for student presentation elements in large (lectures) group teaching. It felt important to keep students involved in the project and so I sought funding to pay the students to collaborate with me on this over a longer period. We applied for the Education Development Fund (titling the project ‘Student-led teaching: enhancing participation and communication skills among undergraduate law students’) and were delighted when it came though.

The first of the ‘student lectures’ took place in February 2019. There were some important differences to that first lecture in March 2018, mainly that the entire cohort was present in the lectures (i.e. the lecturing students are standing in front of around 250 peers) and that I gave up a segment of a lecture to this activity rather than the entire slot. Of course there were reasons for these choices which I am happy to talk further about but I will keep to the headlines for now.

Our initial impression is that the lectures were well received. Worries about other students rejecting the authority of their peers as lecturers turned out to be unfounded and the students that delivered the lecture segments reported a range of benefits, including but not limited to: deeper engagement with the subject; satisfaction at having been able to break down a topic to peers; confidence from stepping out of the comfort zone; discovering a new learning technique (“helped me understand that teaching something is one of the best ways of learning something”).

In the mean-time, the original student lecturers have just completed their second year of undergraduate study during which some have expanded on their own presentation skills by delivering a paper on the project at the Association of Law Teachers Annual Conference in April 2019. The project continues into another academic year and we look forward to delivering a more complete report of our findings at the Teaching and Learning Conference in April 2020. In the mean-time, if anyone is interested in talking to me / us about the project, please get in touch!

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