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Study guides and ‘entertainment’

I had a conversation over the weekend with a singer, and we were talking about parallels between the entertainment business and teaching.

Her job is to get out on a stage and make people look at her and listen to her. In the days when I was doing actual lecturing, I’d walk into a lecture hall and there might be 300 students – criminology is a popular subject – waiting to be intormed, but also expecting in some measure to be entertained. Otherwise their attention would wander, they’d whisper to each other or fall asleep, or whatever. And yes, I was once a student and I did that too… The most important theoretical revelations and research findings will bypass students unless they’re presented in a way that grabs their attention.

Face-to-face with students as a lecturer, you develop tricks to keep people’s attention.  The usual strategies, or my usual strategies anyway, included the classic formula of ‘say what you’re going to say; say it; then summarise it’ which simultaneously allowed me to keep a fast pace because my audience knew where the lecture was going; liberal use of overhead projection, including humorous material such as cartoons as well as charts, graphs and ‘academic’ stuff; involving students with opinion polls based on a show of hands, etc., and using topical real-world illustrations (for example, in lectures on white collar crime I had actual examples of letter fraud emails I’d received).

The purpose of the ‘performance’ was to make what I’d taught memorable, because students would tag the content to a phrase, a joke, an image, an illustration – something, at any rate, that would stick in their memory and trigger that academic content when they thought about it. It’s almost parallel, when I think about it, to the way any professional entertainer (a standup comedian?) operates, and with some elements of the kinds of techniques you might expect in hypnotherapy, or in some forms of counselling. A strange mix, but there you go.

However, in distance learning things are a little different.

Distance learning can be delivered in a variety of ways: printed or downloadable study guides, email support, audio and video, phone conversations, Skype tutorials and seminars. But whatever the methods, there isn’t the same level of immediacy, the same sense of ‘teaching as performance’, the ability to engage with a student ‘audience’ in quite the same way.

The result is that students need to be ‘entertained’ in a rather different way. This is, frankly, hard. Writing a study guide is simply not the same as writing an academic text. Arguably it’s a little like writing a textbook, though a study guide will typically discuss and direct students to textbook readings, perhaps ask them to compare accounts in different textbooks, and it will be more focussed on the specific demands of a particular course or module. It’s also somewhat like writing popular journalism, in that it needs to have the readability that good journalists accomplish, though it may also try to tell a more complex story than a lot of journalism does.

I don’t have any world-shattering revelations about the art or science of writing study guides. They have to follow what we think are established patterns of learning (PQ4R, for example). They need to be structured in terms of the classic overview/body content/summary format that allows readers to navigate easily through written work. But that said, it’s often useful to try to engage students with:

  • The use of ‘lighter’ moments with some wit and humour.
  • The use of relevant examples and illustrations – often with links to stable URLs that will allow students to go off and explore in useful directions. Preferably some of these are to video or audio content.
  • Content that puts the reader ‘into the situation’, understanding more of the emotions and motives that might be present in the situation or context they’re studying.
  • The use of some more light-hearted examples – again, plenty of content available on the web (though check for permissions and rights to include them, or just cite URLs!)
  • Challenges – not necessarily formal ‘exercises’ or ‘activities’ but for example posing questions in different ways and looking at what assumptions and values might be behind different ways of asking questions.

The key things, though, will be:

  • clarity of writing;
  • the ability to give readers mental images that should stay with them over time and be attached to particular pieces of knowledge, argument or critical ability; and
  • the ability to make students interested enough in what they’re reading that they want to find out more, to go beyond the confines of the study guide and explore independently.

The more I get involved in distance learning, the more I consider it a technical speciality in its own right, and an arcane art!

This is, I guess, a fairly general post and I might add some more thoughts when I’ve cogitated more…

 

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  1. January 18, 2011 at 12:49 am

    Now this is one I have thought about. After noting some rude behavior in the classroom, I can up with this hypothesis: People spend hours and hours watching television, all the while knowing that they can not be seen by the actors. I think they transfer this mindset to the classroom. The whole set-up of the classroom is so stage-like.

    For years, when I was looking at my teachers, it never occurred to me that they could see me too. Dumb, but there it is.

    I doubt that your students are bored. They are just reacting—or I should say not reacting—in the same hypnotic, slack-jawed, deadpan, non-participatory way they watch television. Does that make sense?

  2. January 18, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    It does make sense. What they’re expecting, I guess, is to be informed but also entertained, which can increase their attentiveness and participation. The thing I was trying to work out in the blog is how to transfer that ‘entertainment’ bit, which I’d hope increases learning, to the distance learning situation.

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