The New Lecturers Workshop: A win-win situation for economists

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Benjamin H. Mitra-Kahn
City University, London
benjamin@mitrakahn.com
Published November 2008

At around one o'clock on an otherwise anonymous Tuesday in academia I received an e-mail announcing that this weekend there would be a free two-day residential workshop in Bristol for new lecturers in economics on effective teaching methods. The e-mail said that there were still a few places left and one could easily register. It has now been two weeks since that weekend and I cannot for the life of me understand why there were extra places? Those two days were arguably the most rewarding workshop days I have attended on teaching and on economics - and I have been to quite a few of these things, as I am sure we all have...

To provide some personal background, this is now my third year of lecturing and teaching economics to undergraduates, and I must admit that I thoroughly enjoy this aspect of my academic life. Building on that enthusiasm I had already attended a series of workshops and lectures and spent considerable time reading about teaching techniques, presentation skills and similar topics.

It is with this background that I arrived at the workshop. Having been an early morning for most attendees (a 6am start from London for myself) we all registered by 11.30 and filed into a seminar room in the best of student manners: unorganized, chatty, yawning with a cup of coffee in hand and bunching into cliques with our recently acquired friends. We all took out our provided pads and pencils, preparing mentally for the next seven hours of note-taking and hushed silence in a darkened room illuminated only by the gleam of the overhead projector.

Lights, Camera, Action

And that's where all the expectations went wrong. The lights came on, the slides never materialised beyond the title page and we were being shuffled around to the question: 'so how can one break up cliques in a classroom easily?'. As it turned out, we were not here to be lectured at in the traditional sense, but rather to be shown another way of doing things.

The first talk started by asking our opinion on what made a bad lecture(r), and these were then typed into a PowerPoint sheet - there and then - meaning that we were providing the input for the slide, which was later disseminated on-line. The first talk on keeping student attention and interest commenced, and for the next hour or so, we were given a talk that utilized pictures, videos, blank screens (press B when the PowerPoint slideshow is running) which drew the eye back to the presenter, as well as on-the-spot exercises all centred on the topic of the talk, effectively showing how people perceive instruction, and what students feel like when being lectured to.

What was so good was that the workshop was not just offering tips & tricks for young lecturers, but provided a two day effort focussing on the whole range of the teaching process, suitable for lecturers at any stage in their career, from curriculum creation through to electronic resources and delivery methods, showing how the whole process can be geared towards maximum impact on students.

Doing something makes you remember it

We have all read or heard the jargon relating to how lectures can be better; use active learning over passive learning, interactive not reactive, learning through peer-to-peer interaction (a fancy term for group work), not losing students to their 10 minute attention span by changing the tempo and so on. But how can this be done within the time we have to prepare classes and impart the core of our courses and critical skills and maintaining the respect of x hundred students, without looking like a drunk crazy person?

Solving that conundrum seemed the premise of the workshop, and it was clear that this would not be two days of long power-point presentations explaining good teaching theory, but they would practice what they preached and use the techniques on us, to show us and make us part of good practice. Regarding method alone, the two days could probably have been on any topic under the sun, as it was the method of teaching they were selling - and sell it they did.

So just as in every class of mathematics, econometrics, macro and microeconomics I have ever taught, I stress to the students that they can't just read the textbook and look at the slides; they have to do the problems - and practice doing them - for it to stick. It never struck me that this applies to the teaching method as well, and it really helps to see how it can be done, and be part of that classroom, rather than just reading about it, or watching it on a quick video.

This workshop shows how lectures and seminars can become better - without mentioning too many buzzwords, and focussing on the student learning experience. More than that it does it in a way that one can see practically both how such lectures can be run, and how students react. Be it through games, pictures, video, sound or a blank background, this provides a great guideline to how lectures and the process of educating can be much more efficient in passing on the material and at the same time be more enjoyable to the lecturer. Moreover, once I had been through those two days, it very quickly enters into your mind: 'How can I teach better / more comprehensible / more enjoyable classes?' I will have to let you know how I get on, but I can tell you that I have started taking a deck of cards to class, and I seem to be standing on the table every once in a while. That's new.

There is something very refreshing about the New Lecturers Workshop, and partly that is because it isn't just for new lecturers. This is also a chance to meet other young (career-wise) economists, a place to interact outside of the usual conference settings and a good way to network across the country. On top of that, it's free for the attendee, it's free for the department and hopefully it will be good for my students. That seems like a win-win situation to me.

Next: Still standing on the table