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How can lectures be made more effective?

  1. Jul 26, 2008 #1
    In another module, I have just finished a round of tutorial classes. I structured it as follows:

    1st hr: provided a worksheet that essentially summarized the lectures with blanks for them to fill in.

    2nd hr. Discuss tutorial questions.

    By the time the 1st hour was over, the students were complaining about how they found it difficult, even with the lecture notes in front of them. The worksheet even told them which page to look at.

    Hmm, I really wonder how lectures can be made more effective. It was really heart-wrenching to see them struggle with a simple-freebody diagram, that had been illustrated over and over again during the lectures. I'm not the lecturer concerned, just a tutor engaged for this module.

    Subject: Mechanics of Materials.

    Profile of students: working adults - attending lectures in the evening. tutorials on saturday.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 26, 2008 #2


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    It is difficult to say. Maybe the course IS too difficult for them: maybe they don't have all the prerequisites, maybe the lecturer supposed his public to be fluent with certain notions of which they only barely grasp the concepts... Like sending a 15-year old to a second university year physics class: even with an outstanding professor, and unless we have a little genius, the material will objectively be too difficult for our youngster. 3 or 4 years down the path, the same youngster, now a student, will maybe think the same course as being superb or even easy.
    Maybe the prerequisites are met, but maybe the lecturer demands a higher level of abstract maturity of his public than it really has. Adults can have lost a lot of their abstraction ability if they didn't do any abstract thinking for years. I've seen that with engineers which have 10 or 15 years experience. In their specific field of experience, they are of course very fluent, but put them again before a first-year chemistry or mathematics problem, and they are totally lost. Nevertheless, it is sure that when they were a student, they could handle that without a problem.
    Then maybe the lecturer is bad, or his course is confusing. That should be something you could find out yourself: do you find the course well put together or do you have to say a lot of times: "yes, happily that *I* know what he's talking about, because with what he's saying there, I wouldn't be able to find out if I didn't know it already".
    And then maybe there is a problem of attention. Maybe the public doesn't have the right motivation to sit through the course. Maybe they just do this to get this or that job advantage, and maybe they are bored to death. If it is a compulsory course, then that could be the case. Also, maybe these people are tired. After a hard day's work, it's maybe difficult to get your attention together.

    I think it is important to find out what is the cause, before thinking up a remedy.
  4. Jul 26, 2008 #3
    Thank you for your possible reasons!

    Yes, it was kinda like a crash course. They were expected to have an ability in calculus, understand the principles of equilibrium and so on. Most of them had just completed a mathematics course a few weeks ago - algebra, calculus, matrices etc.

    The students had been in the workplace for 5 - 10 years. They couldn't handle a simple curve sketching problem. You're probably right about this too.

    Certainly not. It was very well put together, but I found it heavy in content. It certainly required lots of prerequisites.

    Yes, absolutely. Lectures are held in the evenings, after a hard day at work. Even I'd want to fall asleep.

    Actually, I was trying hard to avoid giving a 2-hr "problem-solving lecture" at the tutorial. Rather, with the worksheet that I did up, I was trying to give an overview of the lectures and remind them of some of the mathematics that were needed. I went round giving one-on-one help (only 12 students in the class). Even then, they found it difficult, and demanded that I just go back to giving them the answer for the tutorial questions. It was hard to convince them that without certain prerequisite knowledge they'd find my explanations hard to follow.
  5. Jul 26, 2008 #4
    It's simple really. They need to study harder to come up to speed with the course. Either they are interested and want to learn anything about it, or they are lazy persons who'd rather sit by the tv with a cold one. Why in the name of bleep are they attending lectures and tutoring if they don't study more than that?

    You have to convince them of the following;

    1. to actually open the books, take notes from them and try to solve problems on time that isn't lectures or tutoring time.
    2. They have to get their thumbs out of their behinds and actually go through the mathematics modules needed to understand the material given to them now.
    3. That if they're not interested, I believe it's not mandatory? Then they should drop out.

    Besides, one thing you could do to assess their problem-solving skills is to actually give them efficient individual time. Everytime they show up, give them a non-grade-impact test on a problem or two that is solvable in due time. Maybe have "exam"-type materials on these tests with exam-conditions. This way the really will see if they have what it takes, you can collect them and give feedback to 6 of them right a way, then give written feedback to the other 6 and change the rotation of this.

    Of course doing it like this demands that you are a hardass on them and instilling the discipline that is needed to take physics/maths/whatev science.
  6. Jul 26, 2008 #5
    I'd suggest getting them involved with a more brute force approach. Put a problem on the board and ask the class questions like "what should we do now," "what sort of problem is this," and "what assumption can we make." You'll probably have to answer a lot of these yourself, but not until they give a few answers. Work through the problem with this, getting them to conduct the problem solving steps.
  7. Jul 26, 2008 #6


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    Can you pinpoint the source of difficulties?
    Can you show us the materials that were used?
    How does that compare with the approaches used in modern introductory physics textbooks?

    Maybe there needs to be more interactivity... maybe some peer-instruction... (i.e. lecture less). Maybe there are kinesthetic activities that could be used to motivate the material.
  8. Jul 26, 2008 #7
    You said that the students were having difficulty with a lot of the prerequisite concepts in addition to the course content. How do you manage these difficulties? Is it one-on-one interaction mainly, or class discussion? One-on-one can be really effective to the individual learner, but not the whole class if they all struggle with same issues--your time as an instructor really is limited and you must try to find the appropriate balance which can be difficult.

    I would recommend making the lectures/tutorials more interactive by asking all students to respond to questions or to answer which formula is correct to use for a given problem--this takes time but is likely to save time and frustration in the long run for both students and teachers. For example, make questions up in multiple choice format and have the students raise a card in the air for their letter choice. Call on a student and ask them to describe to their classmates why they chose their answer. Using this technique you can see where major problems are and modify your lesson accordingly. With the freebody-diagram problems, you may find that the students don't know how to apply sine and cosine appropriately to determine force components.

    By the way that you describe the organization of the lectures, it appears that your students are learning "passively". In my opinion, filling in blanks is not learning--I compare it to a mouse looking for a piece of cheese. Also, if your teacher lectures for the full-hour nonstop with this note-taking method, the students are probably getting an information overload--they learn the knowledge at the moment, but forget it quickly because they don't work with immediately and must learn more knowledge and so on. I might recommend breaking the sessions up into smaller chunks. Teach for 15-20 minutes, then do applicable problems with review, and so on.

    With the demographics of your class, it appears that they are not in a very rigorous program. Therefore, it might make better sense for the students to learn less concepts overall but learn them very well, rather than a lot of concepts (many of which they probably won't use consistently) poorly. Good luck.
    Last edited: Jul 26, 2008
  9. Jul 26, 2008 #8


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    handsomecat, assuming that the lessons are well designed and well delivered, try to convicne your boss (the the teacher whom you help) or your boss and his department to establish a skills assessment for the course. Students who do not pass the assessment MUST immediately enroll in and attend a specific remediation course or be dropped from YOUR course. A system like this exists in some schools; students often do not like this treatment initially, but the ones who accept it and participate are those who will benefit.
  10. Jul 26, 2008 #9
    There is a large and growing body of research on pedagogy in science, and quite a lot specifically in physics education. You should probably review the current research literature in this area if you have not done so already. What is your background in education? Would you be willing to post or share a copy of the worksheet for our various eyes to review?

    Try the journals (The Physics Teacher, American Journal of Physics, international equivalents of those two, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, and related journals). Look for articles by Lillian McDermott, Arnold Arons, Frederick Reif, Fred Goldberg, etc.

    Look for the 1990 book "A Guide to Introductory Physics Teaching" by Arons.


    This resource letter is a little old, but is a good resource:
  11. Jul 26, 2008 #10
    Well, at least that part is simple. Don't give them what they want.

    Give them what they need.
  12. Jul 26, 2008 #11


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    What is the text for the course?
  13. Jul 26, 2008 #12
    A.C. Ugural. "Mechanics of Materials".
  14. Jul 26, 2008 #13
    Indeed I should. I'm a PhD student by the way, but am one foot into a teaching career (ie. teaching part-time somewhere else)

    No formal training - self-taught by trial and error, reflecting on mistakes and speaking with teacher friends. Began by handling tutorials for full-time undergrads. My institution never provided any formal training.

    sure thing. Give me some time to remove identifying information!


    Thank you so much.
  15. Jul 26, 2008 #14
    Certainly. I gave them an outline of the steps and told them that I couldn't give them every single detail.
  16. Jul 26, 2008 #15
    Well, when the students were doing the worksheet, I went round looking at their answers and intervened when necessary - sitting down with them and helping them. I had to sit down with one student who didn't have a clue how the line y = 0 looked like. A few others didn't know what is meant by "Gradient" of a function - and they had just completed a mathematics course.

    I certainly believe in making lectures short and interactive. However, it was out of my control.

    Certainly too. I sat in for one of the lectures. The lecturer was just flashing his slides and rattling off his explanations. No interactivity, except for the occasional question posed.

    I believe the same and I certainly feel sorry for them.
  17. Jul 26, 2008 #16
    ok here are some samples from the worksheet that I did. To place things in context:

    1. This comes at the final tutorial of the module. They would have encountered the principles of equilibrium, the type of reaction forces at the support and drawing of freebody diagrams previously.

    2. Many of them would have attended a mathematics course before this, exposing them to calculus, vectors, matrices, complex numbers.

    3. They are given copies of the slides used by the professor!

    4. One strategy I used was to give one-on-one instruction while walking around.

    5. Macaulay notation for beam-bending problems is introduced in this course, and Question 1d. in the maths portion is intended to see if they had any ideas of piece-wise functions.

    Attached Files:

  18. Jul 27, 2008 #17


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    So, the first one is pure math [which is needed later].
    What kind of trouble did they have with that?
    How was this discussed in class?
    Can they at least construct a table of values sampled from the function, then plot them?
    Do they students understand that "gradient" is a derivative-wrt-x and and loosely the "slope function"? etc...

    For page 2,
    Do they have trouble with most free-body diagrams?
    If so, then maybe there should be more practice [including homework] on just identifying and sketching the forces and moments. (There is a series of articles (essentially worksheets) on free-body diagrams by James E. Court in the "Physics Teacher" http://www.google.com/search?q=Free-body+diagrams+james+e.+court )

    Is Macaulay notation essentially multiplication by a Heaviside step function?

    Are there any useful resources at the textbook's website?

    Have you tried having the students work in small groups? and possibly making short presentations of their answers to the class?
  19. Jul 27, 2008 #18
    Time was given for them to try it out and then I went round offering help to those struggling. As mentioned, they would have completed a maths course before this, and it was really surprising to see them struggle with it. Some difficulties:
    • not knowing what "gradient" is
    • not being able to recall the integration formula
    • not knowing that you just need two points to sketch the entire line
    • not knowing that you can construct a table of values to plot the curve
    I handled these things one-on-one as I looked at their answers. One didn't even know what y = 0 looked like.

    Yes! When taking moments they'd miss out the moment arm and so on.

    Thanks for the resources!

    Nope. Even if there was a chance, for this batch of working adults, it'll be hard as they expect to be fed answers.
  20. Jul 27, 2008 #19
    I commend you handsomecat for trying to help your students. It appears that you are in a really unfortunate situation, since you are the only one who is searching for ways to help his/her students learn and have little control over the direction of the course. Still, you can learn much from this experience that will benefit your teaching practices in the future.

    The students really seem to lack the prerequisite knowledge to be successful, which is a large reason that they expect to be spoon-fed answers. When your course first began, did they have this mindset? I would imagine that they came to class eager to learn, but soon after they became frustrated with their learning and developed this poor attitude.

    You have a large challenge to meet with the hour time limit for each class. If I were in your position, I would try to shy away from teaching basic mathematics as much as possible to focus on the content of your course. It seems like you have a good general idea as to what mathematical ideas that your students are lacking in, so I would develop practice problem sets with a few review examples solved step-by-step and answers to each problem so that students can complete it outside of class as review. If they have difficulties, they can email you. Of course, this will take more time on your part, but would be beneficial for all and allow you to focus more on the course material itself. And if they don't want to devote the time to their own learning, it is with their own volition and you should not feel bad for this student who does not take advantage of this opportunity.

    It also sounds like you do a lot of one-on-one mentoring during the tutorial session. This is fine but I would switch to more of cooperative approach with interactive activities. Here is an example. Since I am not familiar with Macaulay notation, let's assume that the students are trying to determine some quantity relating to the common problem with a block initially at rest on an incline. First, place the students in teams of two or more. Have them draw the diagram for the problem and then draw and label arrows for all forces present on the block (gravitational, normal, and even frictional forces). As they work together to solve this first task, visit each group and help as needed. Draw these forces on the board and review as needed. Next, have the students transfer these forces to a free-body diagram and determine the individual force components. Draw this on the board and review. Lastly, have the students apply the equations from their diagrams and solve for the given quantity. Do on board and review. This method has the benefit of breaking down the problem into small steps, keeping all the students on the same page, permitting students to help each other out so you don't have to do all the work, and allows you to give help to two or more individuals in the group rather than an individual student.

    At the end of lesson, I would construct a mini-review. Prior to class you should make up four index cards for each student, each with an individual letter A,B,C, or D. Give the students multiple choice review questions that reflect the important points of your lesson and require all students to hold up their answer. This will permit you to see their grasp of the presented content during this hour, and what you may need to review upon for the next session. If you note major problems, you could email students more examples with descriptions to help with their homework. For example, I would give students four diagrams about the problem previously discussed, each with a different orientation of force vectors, and ask them to identify which diagram is correct. Another example would be to give students the diagram with the force vectors already drawn appropriately but four different choices for the free-body diagram.
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