Lecture Theatre Habits

Last week I attended Anniversary Day at the Royal Society, during which there was a discussion meeting for Fellows, as well as the President’s Annual Address given in an open forum. This venerable body is 351 years old now, and Anniversary Day always falls on November 30th. The discussion was held in the Society’s Wellcome Lecture Theatre, a large room and as the number of fellows present by no means filled it up  we distributed  ourselves all around the place – except near the front. FRS’s are no different from any other group of people populating a lecture theatre; the students we teach will recognize that habit of lurking near the back, the feeling that there one is out of the line of sight of the lecturer but somehow the front rows are dangerous and one is in danger of being noticed.  For myself,  I tend to leave the students to skulk where they feel most comfortable, but not so Paul Nurse (as President) who beckoned us all to move to the front – which we dutifully did.

Crowding round the back of the room is only one of many bad habits that students tend to exhibit in the lecture theatre, not all of which I think could have been seen last week amongst the fellowship. Some of these traits I find more disconcerting than others.  I am not sure if there are cultural differences in behaviour between the humanities and the sciences, or even between different strands of science but some, such as the tendency to avoid the front few rows, I am sure are the same everywhere and whatever the subject.  Likewise, the habit of coming in late I’m sure is ubiquitous. I suppose one could shut the door on the dot of the hour and exclude everyone else, but that seems a bit harsh, particularly for the 9 o’clock slot.  I know there are those who choose to humiliate latecomers by drawing the rest of the class’s attention to them, or insisting they must come and sit right at the front, but humiliation is not necessarily a good way of encouraging either a love for the subject or the act of learning, so I have never resorted to such tactics.

There is the habit of reading a book that I have encountered, both before and – sad to say – during a lecture I have been giving. Not very flattering to a lecturer to find a student prefers someone else’s written word to the pearls of wisdom they are uttering.  Again I can imagine ways of humiliating the perpetrator, marching up to them and flinging the book to the floor, but that would strike me as merely histrionic. If a student is too engrossed in someone else’s text, be it Wittgenstein or Barbara Cartland, ultimately it is their choice – and their course work which is likely to suffer. Turning to sins of concupiscence, there are those who persist in snogging throughout a lecture, though thoughtfully those guilty of this have, in my experience, located themselves to the side and back so it isn’t too intrusive. It does seem unnecessary and I am pretty sure there was none of this going on at the Royal Society last week. Commoner than this is the frequent occurrence of drowsiness exhibited by students. One year I had one particular student who did sit at the front, right in front of me, but then dropped off half way through each lecture. I asked them what was going on and it transpired each day they got up early to go rowing (this is Cambridge after all, and someone has to do the rowing), and exhaustion just caught up with them before the end of each lecture. At least that was an honest answer by someone who wanted to engage and learn, but just didn’t have the stamina to do it.

Despite the lack of attention that some students may endow upon their lecturers, it doesn’t stop them voicing an opinion when it comes to the end of term. This may be physically demonstrated or through the medium of the student questionnaires. When I gave my very first undergraduate lecture I had received precisely zero training in the art. It was before even I was a lecturer, but still a mere Royal Society University Research Fellow standing in for a staff member who had left at relatively short notice. The lecture theatre technician greeted me with words of ‘encouragement’, telling me how at the end of the previous course the lecturer (who was a senior professor and therefore presumably pretty experienced) had been subjected to assault by more than 100 paper darts but that that was regarded as pretty unusual and he doubted I would match that.  Indeed, this is a record I have yet to get close to.

Some students see the course questionnaires as a way to get their own back on a lecture course they may have hated, or simply failed to understand, by answering the questions with vitriol or what they perceive as wit. One freeform answer stands out in my mind about my lecturing style some years ago. Or rather, it was not about my lecturing style but my clothes style, the comment being ‘Where does she get her clothes from, the Oxfam shop?’ Even if true, this was hardly relevant to my ability to put ideas across. I would like to think my sartorial style is less likely to provoke comment now, but I suspect those were the days when my clothes were subject to regular bouts of baby vomit or mashed-up food casually flicked in my direction by a child learning to wield a spoon for the first time. I am spared those indignities now, and maybe my clothes are the better for it.

It is unfortunately the case that we can’t all be charismatic lecturers who hold the whole class in thrall all the time. Maybe  if we were the lecture theatres would be empty at the back not the front. We rely on honest answers from the students in order to help us improve our act. But, facetious answers from students who have slept, snogged or read throughout my lectures are unlikely to be very helpful to me – or to them and their successors.

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15 Responses to Lecture Theatre Habits

  1. Steve Caplan says:


    It seems that student behavior it reproducible on this side of the pond. I too, scratch my head in wonder sometimes. I think it’s fair to say that i have been ranked as an “energetic” lecturer, usually pretty good at engaging and making eye contact, changing the tone of my voice and throwing in humorous anecdotes and stories to keep things interesting. And yet… Even in a class of graduate students there are always a few dozing. One year I tried the old embarrassment technique, and with a straight face suggested that perhaps several students should bring pillows so that they don’t get sore necks.

    I think that there is a real problem in today’s lectures that students, even at the graduate level receive such organized “handout notes” and don’t feel it necessary to write much, which used to help me engage as a student and make sure I understood by the necessity to summarize (and being in Israel, simultaneously translate to English as the lecture went on). And if this isn’t enough, we have every lecture audio/videotaped, along with the lecturers scribbling on the handouts on the “SmartBoard,” and many students choose not to come to class–especially when close to exam time, or if they are tired, hungry, irritable, edgy, unfocused, or just plain lazy.

    These traits that you note are all symptoms of a lack of professionalism, which I fear has become part of system. While a student certainly deserves a set of rights, students, and particularly those doing advanced degrees, need to exhibit the same professionalism that actors, musicians and even athletes all exhibit in their chosen careers.

  2. Sarah Bridle says:

    Hi Athene,
    Another amusing and thought provoking post, thank you.

    Any thoughts on these techniques to keep students awake:
    * asking a yes/no question requiring understanding of lecture content with “hands-up for yes”, “hands-up for no”
    * asking an easy question and picking a random student from the register for the answer

    I tried them in a small class and found it fun, but not sure how it would translate to larger classes.

  3. Owen says:

    I’ve been told by some sleepy students that knitting makes it hard to nod off.

  4. Chloe Agg says:

    Hi Athene,

    They all sound the same as when I was at uni…except the snogging. None of that was going on since I was the only girl and was determined to learn!
    I have to say that much of it (again, except the snogging) can also apply to meetings in some workplaces – I’ve certainly spotted the odd doze happening now & again. One thing that can make a massive difference to that is often the ventilation. You could be the most engaging, exciting lecturer in the world, with the most dedicated learners, but if there isn’t enough fresh air in the room you’ll still get sleepy heads. I always open windows or jam doors open or switch on the air-con (if it provides fresh air, not just cooling) at the start of meetings these days and have a much more alert team/audience.


  5. Matt Wall says:

    The worst student behaviour I ever heard of was a complaint that was made in my old department. This was recently after registers were introduced to keep track of which students were attending and which weren’t. One student lodged a complaint through the student representative at the departmental board meeting, that some of her colleagues were bringing pillows and blankets to early lectures so that they could sleep in more comfort. Un-be-lievable.

  6. For me, it comes down to this question: do I want the classroom to be where students gather information with learning occurring later as they do homework and study, or do I want students to be learning right there in the classroom?

    If the former, then I don’t think it matters too much if they sleep, snog or skip. They’ll get the notes online or from friends. As Steve C hints at above, let’s just record the lecture and let them watch it on their own time.

    As you can probably tell by now, this is not my teaching philosophy.

    Rather, I believe it’s possible for students to learn new concepts in the classroom. Learning requires engagement, though, and not just paying attention because the instructor is a good speaker. Students need cognitive engagement – they have to be thinking, hard, about the concepts.

    At the University of British Columbia, we’re having great success using peer instruction with clickers. When done well, and it does take training and practice for the instructor and the students, students don’t sleep or Facebook because they’re too busy discussing and wrestling with the concepts. The end-of-term evaluations are full of comments from students praising our use of clickers: not only did it keep them active in class, but they help students learn by continually probing and reinforcing understanding.

    If you and your students are finding lectures boring, I highly recommend checking out peer instruction. Derek Bruff’s (@derekbruff) blog is a great place to start.


  7. I don’t know about the need for pillows and blankets, lecture theatres these days are much more likely to have well-upholstered seats to encourage slumber, than the wooden benches that used to be so common (although the lecture theatre I currently teach in still has these).

    Sarah, I’ve certainly tried the first trick when lecturing to smallish 3rd and 4th year classes, but not sure that I could carry that off with 300+ 1st years. The dynamic is totally different.

    Chloe, You’re making a fundamental assumption about the snogging being heterosexual! I’ve seen same sex snogging too in my lectures, although only once I think.

    Owen, if students were taking notes they might manage to stay awake even without the knitting. That is a skill that seems rapidly to be dying out. I agree with Steve that providing too extensive handouts is counter to concentration, but that seems a battle largely lost I’m afraid. I held out a long time against giving complete handouts, but students do expect it now because it has become the norm and they are inexperienced in longhand note-taking (maybe they’d do better with laptops, I’m not sure).

    Peter, not tried clickers but they sound an interesting idea. I’m not sure if this then becomes competitive for scores, like a pub quiz?

    • Chloe Agg says:

      Hi Athene,

      I thought carefully about whether to elaborate and cover same-sex-snogging…decided in the end to gloss over/naively ignore the somewhat homophobic bunch that the majority of male mechanical engineers are. Any snoggers would have had to be very brave folk to try it around my engineering university peers unfortunately (or fortunately from a learning perspective). All the sadder that this was the case in Brighton of all places!


      • Grant says:

        I remember one computer science lecturer giving his opening first-year undergraduate lecture. At one point he pointed out that he could see everything from where he stood so that students should leave the groping, etc., for someplace else!

        (Before you ask: we had a very mixed-sex class for computer science, even in the 1980s.)

    • Sarah Bridle says:

      Thanks Athene – interesting.

  8. I do a lot of my lecturing to groups of 200 or more, sometimes as many as 300+ (mainly because I do a lot of 1st yr teaching or teaching to big groups of medical / dental / pharmacy / nursing students).

    As I said on Twitter, after 25 years in the biz I have got to the point of not worrying too much if some students doze/read/text, provided they do it quietly and unobtrusively. I usually tell them at the start of my first lecture of a series that some of us are here to learn, and that for those that aren’t, or are undecided, they can either leave or stay – but if they stay I expect them to be quiet and not disturb the learners. If there is talking, or too much restive rustling, then I usually stop and tell the rustlers to shut up or leave. If it keeps happening I tell the other students that, if I were them, I might be tempted to phone-photograph the idiots that are wasting our time and them rat them out to the Year Lead or Dean of Students. So far that has always done the trick.

    There is no doubt that big group lectures are more of a performance than a final yr lecture to 30 people, so a bit of added theatricality is useful… but actually I don’t think I change my basic style, especially since microphones make the acoustics much easier than was the case years back.

    I do tend to stop and ask questions, sometimes rhetorical, both in the large and the small lectures – but one of the things I have learned over the years is not to be too upset or put off if no-one gives an answer.

  9. Just read this (and Peter Newbury’s comment) not five minutes after an email encouraging us to use our clicker system at Bristol. I’ll definitely check our @derekbruff and might even check out the clickers….

  10. Owen says:

    It probably shows my age that I didn’t realise nobody took notes any more. Even when there were pre-prepared lecture notes (which were rare) they were very much the bare bones and there was the expectation that you’d write down a lot or possibly all of what the lecturer said. But this was an Arts subject and over fifteen years ago…

    It’s interesting though: what is (supposedly) the point of a lecture if everything is in the lecture notes? Assuming students have a free choice about what to do between nine and ten on a weekday morning, why should they go to a lecture rather than having a lie in? What do/should they get from the lecture that they wouldn’t just get from reading the notes?

    • Erika Cule says:

      Owen: Most of my lecture material was available online, with references for further reading. Indeed some students routinely did not attend lectures – I have no idea whether or not this has any relation to their eventual grates.

      I went to lectures not to learn in the lectures per se but to get a sense of what it was we needed to know. A sense of which points are important is something I got from a lecture that is more difficult to assess by looking at the notes. I also made the effort to attend to structure my studies, and to see other students – not that a lecture is a social event in itself but it was helpful to have sat through the lecture with other students so we could discuss the material together after.

      There were a handful of lectures that I deliberately decided not to attend because the lecturer was so unhelpful in conveying the material that I honestly felt better off studying on my own, but these were the exception.

  11. Gaz says:

    As a recent physics graduate, in fact from Cambridge though I didn’t take any of your courses Athene so I couldn’t possibly give any feedback on your particular lecturing style, let me offer a contrarian viewpoint to most on this topic. I very much agree with Owen’s latest post.

    I just did a quick amazon search of “Quantum Mechanics” and found at least half a dozen books with decent reviews. If you go to your local university library there will be several to choose from. In this day and age, if you want to learn quantum mechanics you can simply sit in front of a book (or several, preferably) for a month solid and get a pretty decent understanding of the topic. Similarly, a quick google will give you millions of links to potential learning resources.

    Why is a lecture course necessarily better than just reading a book or looking on the internet? In my experience the vast majority of material taught in lecture courses is introductory – why is one lecturer’s introduction better than many other similar ones? It is arrogant to believe that students NEED to attend lectures – to believe that what a particular lecturer might say is indispensable to mastery of the subject or good exam grades.

    But the major flaw of the lecture-centric model for me is the fact that by its nature it tries to cater for more than one student at a time. It is utterly inflexible. Anyone who has ever done any personal tutoring will know that one-on-one teaching allows you to adapt your teaching based on the student’s immediate feedback. This ability is lost in a lecture theatre.

    Consequently, your exposition of a particular topic may be too fast for one person, too slow for another. Too in-depth for one person, not in-depth enough for someone else. By trying to cater to everybody it caters to no-one. And this is why lectures do not work. For me, I oscillated between being utterly lost, completely bored, lost in minutiae or feeling unsatisfied and hungry for more. Eventually I realised the problem wasn’t with me, but with the broken model of “lectures” and so for the last couple of years of my degree I stopped attending them altogether.

    Every lecturer on this thread has had problems at one point or another with keeping the class engaged. Extrapolating from my previous experience, I would guess that every lecturer on Earth has also experienced this problem at some point. There have also been several generations of student passing through said lecturer’s classes. So what conclusions are we to draw from this?

    1) The lecturer is not doing a good enough job engaging students and keeping them interested.

    2) The students are more interested in rowing, snogging etc. and it’s their fault.

    Almost all discussions on the topic of lecturing address the above two categories. It seems that everybody misses the third possibility – that this abstract model of “lecturing” and “lectures” is broken. It’s unfit for purpose and outdated. There are far better ways of delivering learning in the modern age.

    Learning needs to be as individualised as practically possible, allowing students to be in control of their own learning. This does not mean one-to-one tuition, rather it means students should at least be free to choose when they’d like to do their learning, and via which medium they’d like to do it in.

    There should be a range of different options for students to choose from. Not least some decent type-set notes and a recommended reading list. If one wishes to push the boat out a little – how about videoing lectures and uploading them? This allows someone to view the material at a time that suits them, rather than forcing them to be somewhere they don’t want to be (e.g. rowers at 9am) – which immediately hampers the learning experience. Perhaps even podcasts or Khan Academy style tutorials could be beneficial?

    The point is that most lecturers don’t even consider these options, instead sticking to the same method that people used 100 years ago (at least). Technology has changed, it’s time for academics to embrace it and revolutionise the way we teach students at university.

    Eventually we could turn lectures into e.g. a 1-hour long Q&A session, which would be infinitely more beneficial to each individual student than e.g. regurgitating the solution of the Schrodinger equation which can be found in hundreds of different places. In short, lectures in their current form provide absolutely no value-added and are simply a way of informing the students of what’s examinable. I think we can (and should, given £9k fees) do much better than this.

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