Quectures: Learning by questions

A student (we shall call him Homer) emailed me a few weeks ago saying that he had not attended my lecture and was watching the video but could not make out what I had said between minutes 37 and 40. Could I please tell him?

I was perturbed for quite a few reasons, one of which was (unreasonably) my wounded pride that Homer should so unashamedly choose to miss my lecture. This, after all, had been no ordinary lecture but one of my three new and exciting “quectures” on this course.

Having flipped one lecture last year, I was left with the sense that the inverted classroom was overall a very good thing, and indeed I have written about this here.   It was a tonic for disengaged students who see lectures as places to collect notes rather than a learning opportunity, and a welcome mental workout for those already engaged.  Although the evaluation was overwhelmingly positive, a number of nagging issues remained.  First, the Swiss cheese effect (Khan et al 2015) where intense coverage in the lecture of a small number of concepts (via peer instruction) leave the students to learn much of the material unsupported, potentially leaving holes in their knowledge.  Secondly, from a student’s perspective, preparing for the lecture by covering all the material in advance is quite time-consuming (and even more-so for the lecturer who has to provide that preparation material).  A third issue (particularly relevant to Homer) is that non-attenders miss out much more than when skipping a traditional lecture.  There is no substitute for actually participating.  A fourth issue is the loss of lecturing (which I for one enjoy) whereby an academic gets to model how they address a problem or think about a concept, demonstrating how to practice the discipline. The last problem (in this now worryingly long list) is that the session still involves the lecturer deciding which aspect of the topic the student should consider, and this ignores the students’ misconceptions, prior knowledge and interests.

The “quecture” aims to address some of these issues by separating material into straightforward information that can easily be learned in advance, and more challenging concepts that are taught by short stretches of traditional lecturing.  This improves coverage, reduces preparation and allows modeling of disciplinary practices.  Each block of lecturing is immediately followed by a challenging peer instruction question (the style that is used throughout the flipped classroom) thus improving engagement and deeper learning.  The important thing about the quecture, however, is that students then compose, share and discuss their own quecture question on the sub-topic.  There were three sub-topics per lecture (based on the three lecture learning objectives), each ending with a quecture question.  Students’ questions ranged from an “I don’t understand…”  level of question to “how do we know that?” or “what does this mean for other things I already know?”  Importantly the question belongs to the student and not the lecturer and is something that they can (and should) themselves address during revision.

The idea came from comparing how an academic behaves during a seminar (constantly questioning the new knowledge) with the habit that some students have formed of using lectures simply to gather notes. As nicely explained in the March blog on this site on neuroscience (see here), learning happens when learning a particular point really matters to us and curiosity, concern or reflectiveness, for example, make it really matter.

So, how did it go? Well, overall it was a big success.  Admittedly writing their own questions during lectures took many students well out of their comfort zone, so not everyone liked it, but 74% of students surveyed agreed that the quecture questions helped their learning.  Moreover, when asked which of quectures, fully flipped lectures or traditional lectures attendee students preferred, quectures won hands down.  One student commented “very helpful and I feel that it has greatly improved my capability of asking questions around the lecture material, that will in the long run help me to grasp the material a lot better”.  Bullseye!

But what about Homer?  The quecture does not provide a solution to the non-attendance issue.  In fact the whole concept of quecture questions must be quite baffling to those who did not engage, and there were a worrying number of those.  This makes me wonder whose problem non-attendance is, and what is to be done about it?  Should I perhaps have re-watched my own video to find out and transcribe what I said between minutes 37 and 40 for Homer’s benefit?  I did not.  Did Homer review the resources I provided for that learning objective, consider what he did not understand and ask me that question?  He did not.  Had he done so, he might even have been curious enough that my answer would have mattered to him and he would have learned.  But then, Homer never did learn the value of the quecture.  Doh! An epic tragedy really.

Reference

Farhan R. Khan, Gary T. Banta & Christina Sørensen (2015). STEM teaching: avoid Swiss-cheese effect. Nature 524, (7564) 161.

About the author

HMcQHeather McQueen is a senior lecturer in molecular genetics at Edinburgh University. She has a long history of interest in public engagement (such as her  “Gene Jury” project at http://www.genejury.biology.ed.ac.uk/), and in innovative teaching (finalist in HEA UK Bioscience Teacher of the year 2014). She also enjoys alternative music and being with her dog. Heather is currently seconded to the Institute of Academic Development at Edinburgh University on a part-time basis to develop student engagement in the School of Biology.

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