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Briefing students and setting ground rules


In their first chapter, "Structuring the process", Gibbs et al. (1992) recommend briefing students at the beginning of a course on the role of lectures in the course and the teaching style and activities that will be adopted. This recommendation makes obvious sense (to us); but it is worth bearing in mind that early in the course NNS students may well have difficulty following such a briefing, because:

  1. their listening skills may not be adequate to follow it, and
  2. they may not have encountered this procedure before, and may be expecting you to launch straight into the conceptual content of the lecture.

To brief students at the start of a lecture is to tell them what sort of a lecture it is to be, and what sort of learning activity it might be sensible to undertake. Briefing students not only influences their behaviour so that they make more appropriate and effective use of your lecture in their learning, but also has an impact on their perceptiveness and discrimination as learners. They will begin to recognise that different learning tasks make different demands, and start extending their repertoire of learning responses accordingly....

[Two of the five examples given:]

a          "The reason I am lecturing in the way I am is that I want you to see some live examples of the applications of legal principles to specific cases. I'm expecting you to learn the principles from your text books, and to learn to apply legal principles by tackling the legal problems I've prepared for you which we will discuss in tutorials. In this lecture what I want you to pay attention to is the way I go about tackling such problems. I want you to be able to do it like me. There is only any point in noting down the details of the cases if this helps you to understand and remember the legal arguments involved. OK?" ...

d          "Personnel management, as far as these professional exams are concerned, is a very cut and dried subject. If you can list the five features of this and the six problems of that, and give a sensible example of each, then you will be all right. My lectures on this topic will be very cut and dried. I expect you to take full notes and learn them so that you could write them out from memory." ...

Briefing is concerned with the overall function of the lecture, and is therefore distinct from Flagging [see p. 17] which is used to draw attention to the nature of specific actions you might take within a lecture.

Gibbs et al. (1992), pp. 15,16

For this reason, even if you do not normally write out your lectures in full, it may be worth scripting this paragraph or so in full (at least for the first few lectures), delivering it as written, and making the written transcript available to the students in any of the following forms:

  • in a handout
  • on an OHT or presentation slide
  • on a MUSO Opens in a new window link associated with the audio of the lecture.

Setting ground rules

As Gibbs et al. (1992) point out, there are unwritten conventions of teacher and student behaviour in lecture theatres (often apparently based in the 'principle of least effort') which may not be the principles you would want to apply in your lectures. "In this case you may need to take some time at the start of the course, or of specific lectures, to make your own preferred ground rules explicit." (pp. 19-20)

You could say, "On this course the lecture periods will be rather different from what you are used to. In them I expect students to tell me if they think I'm going too fast, if they need a break, and so on. So if you feel you just can't listen any more and your writing hand is aching, it is perfectly OK to ask me to stop for two minutes to catch up and rest. I'll expect such suggestions from you."

Students' assumptions about ground rules may be soundly based in their experience of many conventional lectures. You will need to be very explicit about your own ground rules, refer to them repeatedly, and behave appropriately ... for students to start operating according to your ground rules. More radical changes in ground rules ... may need to be introduced gradually.

Gibbs et al. (1992), p. 20 (emphasis added)

Cf. also the notes on ground rules in Facilitating interaction in class.

Again, it is worthwhile to make them available to the students in an appropriate written form.

Students' questions

One specific groundrule you should consider establishing early on is when and how, if at all, you want students to put questions to you during your lectures.

In Chinese universities, students do not spontaneously put questions to a lecturer during a class. A lecture is understood to be a 'public' event presided over by someone in authority, and "[s]tudents are unwilling to speak out in a public forum because they do not wish to disturb the 'harmony' of sessions by challenging what is being said and so risk losing 'face'" ( Thorpe 2006, p. 3) - and, indeed, threatening the 'face' of the lecturer. If a question is raised, it is only likely to be put by a student who is recognised as a class spokesman, speaking on behalf of the class as a whole (Thorpe, loc.cit.; Ouyang 2004, 2006).

The opportunity for students to put individual questions to the lecturer comes at the end of the class, when the 'public' event is over, and it is normal practice for Chinese teaching staff to spend some time at the end of a class surrounded by students with particular questions to ask.

One student reported that in her first few weeks in Australia, because other students weren't going up to the lecturer at the end of the lecture and asking questions, she assumed that they had understood everything and didn't have any questions to ask. Of course, this assumption was not necessarily true, but it tended to reinforce her own feelings of inadequacy.

If your concept of a lecture accords with the Chinese view, and if you have ample time to respond to individual questions at the end of it, well and good. If not, it will be helpful to students if you explain to them clearly when and how you want to be made aware of and respond to their needs for further information and clarification.

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