Teaching by Walking Around

I’m a lecturer but I wish I was called something else. I could use the term “academic” but that seems like a word you use only within the academic environment, and, these days, the word “academic” tends to be view as synonymous with “useless” or “pointless”. The thing is, the job of a lecturer involves a lot more than lecturing. In fact, lecturing takes up a tiny proportion of our total working time. It’s just as well, really, because lecturing is uniquely demanding in my experience. On rare occasions, I’ve had to give four lectures in a row (to the same class) and by the end of the last lecture, I’ve been bordering on the incoherent. The students have been bordering on the comatose. I don’t know how secondary school teachers do it.

One of the many non-lecturing roles that a lecturer takes on is that of what you might call “laboratory teacher”. If you work in a science or engineering department, much of the teaching you do takes place in laboratories. I like to call this “teaching by walking around”. A typical day in the lab might start at 10am and end at 5pm with an hour for lunch. It’s very time consuming and there is a school of taught in universities that laboratory teaching is somehow “low level” and lecturers would be better advised to spend more of their time doing something more productive – like raising money for research.

But it we are to continue to believe that the key role of universities is to educate, then the downgrading of laboratory teaching is a really big mistake. Teaching by walking around is the best way to get to know your students, not just as human beings but as learners. Until you work with students, one on one, and observe them as they work in real time, you have very little understanding* of where they’re ‘at’, what their strengths are, and what their weaknesses are. This kind of knowledge is invaluable when you are writing your lecture notes or delivering your lectures. One of the key skills you need as a teacher or lecturer is to pitch appropriate material at the correct level. There is a sort of Goldilocks zone where you achieve maximum engagement. If the material is too easy, students become bored; if it’s too hard, they switch off and even give up. It’s like jigsaws: a hundred-piece jigsaw is not going to stimulate an adult; but neither is a thousand-piece jigsaw of a bowl of Brussels sprouts.

Often when I’m teaching by walking around, I stumble into situations that are hugely revealing: like the time I observed one of my students doing calculations on his phone and typing the answers into Excel. When I saw this I was annoyed, not with the student but with myself; with ourselves. We had bought into the myth of the current generation of students being “digital natives” – a well-debunked concept by now – and here was a student who had no idea how to use a spreadsheet. We were failing her.

Of course, the best thing about teaching by walking around is that you get to chat with students. You get to hear about their part-time jobs, their commute, their work placement experiences, and you get important feedback from them on the programme on which they’re studying. Those little chats are worth far more than any SSOT (Student Survey of Teaching).

In the future, demographic pressures will drive a movement to reduce the number of costly laboratory modules that we provide. Virtual labs, that can be delivered online, at little cost, will become increasingly common and, in some cases, justifiably so. But something valuable will be lost in the process.


*Of course, marking assessments gives you similar feedback.

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