Friday, August 8, 2014

Students' Experience of University Class Sizes

The John Henry Brookes lecture theatre at Oxford Brookes University SOURCE: Oxford Brookes website

The recent Higher Education Policy Institute/ Higher Education Academy report on student academic experience raises many issues but of particular interest to me were points made about students' experience of class sizes and student absenteeism.

Class size, student attendance and teaching contact time are usually investigated in relation to student performance. Much has been researched and written about student views on their experience of class size and how much teaching time they get and both class size and contact time are seen as proxy indicators of teaching quality. Student absenteeism in higher education has become a consistent problem for universities and their teaching staff. However, whilst it is common to hear of lecturers bemoaning lack of student attendance there little written on the views of students who do attend teaching sessions and whether there is any impact on them as a result of their missing fellow students. Instead the focus tends to be on asking students why they miss classes.

Class Size

Figure 11 below, taken from the HEPI/HEA report, shows a strong relationship between the decline in perceived academic benefits as class size increases . Basically students are positive about the benefits of class sizes between one to 15 students but then there is a:
"...striking decline in the proportion of students perceiving educational benefits as the size of class increases, especially when they reach lecture sized groups. Even medium sized seminar classes see notably fewer students receiving benefits compared with tutorial sized groups."
For tutorial/small seminar sized groups of 6-15 students 42% of students felt they gained 'a lot' educationally. This figure falls to only 20% for groups of 16-50 students.

(SOURCE: HEPI/HEA, 2014 page 24)

The main question for me here is why does the perceived benefit decrease so quickly at a relatively low class size? The majority of students' contact time is spent in classes larger than 15 students. The implication from the report seems to be that the reasons is that interaction between staff and students is more feasible in small classes but is this the whole story? From my own, admittedly small-scale, interviews with students for my doctorate research, it seems there may be other interrelated factors involved. Students, especially those coming from a private education, are used to a secondary education system involving these small interactive classes. This is what has served them well (if they have got into the university and onto the course of their choice). It is also a stark contrast to the standard university first year teaching model of very large lectures and sets of identical seminars. So students believe they learn best in small classes, whether or not they have them at university. They are also used to having a closer relationship with their teachers compared to their lecturers, who may not even know their name, especially in the first year. But in addition, students often don't know each other within larger cohorts. This means they also cannot gauge the extent to which other students are understanding what's being taught in a session. This lack of relationships in a larger class size inhibits the asking of questions and therefore reinforces the feeling of not being known. This generates a feeling of anonymity, which is again reinforced as a class size increases. Lecturers often say to students at the beginning of a lecture,
"Feel free to interrupt if you have any questions or there's anything you don't understand."
But students come to know that questions risk not only making them look bad in front of many other students but also that they risk taking the lecturer away from set of PowerPoint slides that needs to be completed within the hour and thus incurring the wrath of their fellow students. Students reported in my research interviews that they had very mixed feelings about other students asking questions in a lecture, and would not themselves ask a question in case the other students had the same views as them. Instead, students saved questions to ask in seminars, where they said they could better assess whether the understanding and feeling of other students and would not look bad in front of others.

Student Attendance

Research on student attendance at classes usually investigates the correlation is between attendance and student achievement. Attendance has been shown to decrease over the duration of a module showing significant decreases when coursework submission is due on other modules (Van Blerkom, 1992). Much less attention has been paid to the relationship between class size and attendance with the accepted view that the larger the class the higher the absenteeism because students feel more anonymous and that their lack of attendance will not be noticed. The HEPI/HEA report states that students miss less than 10% of their scheduled teaching contact time.

The main reasons given for absenteeism is that students did not find the lectures very useful and that the notes were available online. This begs the question what is the additional benefit to students of physically attending lectures? 

From my own research students did not give overly reassuring answers to this question but did mention that the lecturer would always give additional information to what was in the notes and 'may' give advice about the assignments which would otherwise be missed. However, one other key issue seemed to be the extent to which the quality of teaching environment influenced students' experience and decisions about attending. For example, students mentioned being influenced by the space, seating and temperature of a room but also whether other students attended or not. The absenteeism by other students affected those who choose to attend in both positive and negative ways:

  • a less than full attendance at a session can create an environment more conducive to a ‘good’ learning experience simply because there is more space, a better choice of seats (including the advantageous seats near the front of the class) and less distraction from students talking etc.
  • some students actively seek out seminar sessions that they know will be poorly attended. For example, those timetabled furthest away from the lecture to which they relate, in order to have a session and where they can feel more confident in asking questions and where the lecturer might get to know who they are.
  • the main negative impact of non-attendees on the learning experience of those students who do attend appears to be the impact on the creation of a community cohort.
The 'positive slant taken by students on other students' non attendance has not been explored fully as most of what is written tends to focus oh why students do not attend. In addition, a lecturer facing a depleted audience generally feels negatively about the lack of attendance and may ruminate on the impact on the learning experience and potential attainment of the non-attendees. Rarely would they conclude that those students who have attended may consider the situation to be an advantageous.

The focus is on feedback rather than class size

Finally, a last point from the HEPI/HEA report, see Figure 8 below. The surveys focusing on student experience, especially the NSS,  invariable mention feedback on assessment in terms of the time taken for marked work to come back to students or the quality or usefulness of that feedback to the students' learning. 'The feedback was poor' scored 26% in the HEPI/HEA 2014 survey, yet not too far behind it with 19% was 'The teaching groups were too large'. Perhaps there should be more of a focus on class size.

HEPI//HEA 2014 Student Academic Experience Survey published May 2014
Van Blerkom, M. L. (1992) Class attendance in undergraduate courses. The Journal of Psychology, 126 (5), 487-494.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

If it's good enough for you...

This year I have been fortunate to be an attendee on a personal development course on women and leadership in higher education. In various conversations with other attendees, ‘role models’ and mentors connected with the course I have heard mentioned several times the idea that, as a leader, you need to become comfortable with doing work that is ‘good enough’ rather than spending a disproportionate amount of extra time making marginal improvements.

This comment is invariably solicits nods of agreement and that’s all well and good. Except I’ve thought about it a bit more and now I’m not so sure.

Part of my job involves helping academic staff in developing new courses. I work with amazingly committed people, trying to create exciting, relevant programmes for undergraduate and postgraduate students. In this context, the best outcome is unlikely to be achieved by people producing work that is ‘just’ good enough.

If you are engaged in work that you care about, is it possible to feel good about turning out less than your best? Can you feel proud about good enough? Or does the satisfaction of quantity ticked off a to-do list outweigh the lack of pride in its quality?

I’m not sure I can advocate a style of work were consistently putting in less than your best is acceptable.  How does that make you feel?

I don’t think there are many lecturers who would feel happy about a lecture where they didn’t strive for the best they could do.

Does the innovation, new discovery, breakthrough ever happen without the extra effort?

On reflection I can see how the idea of good enough might be appropriate for some kinds of work but attention to detail, well, the devil’s in the detail isn’t it?


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Top Tweeters for Students Studying Real Estate

Image from:

I am really looking forward to taking over the undergraduate real estate Research Methods module next semester. As part of my preparations I want to create a list of property-related tweeters for students to follow. I'm doing this so that:

  • students can see how brilliant Twitter is for real estate research, and 
  • they can widen their focus of property beyond traditional commercial property to encompass retail, residential and niche property, as well as planning, urban design, and other related areas.

Putting to one side that you might 'expect' property students already to be following the property tweeters such as:
  • the 'big' property companies;
  • the trade publications;
  • professional bodies such as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB),

... so the question is - who else should they follow and why?

Here is the beginning of my list of tweeters - any suggestions welcome! It definitely needs more retail representation, for example. I would love this to be a collaborative effort that could be shared with real estate students in other universities, so please help if you have a good suggestion. Note, I have not included any tweeters whose information or links are behind a pay wall/require a subscription.

UPDATE (September 2013) - thanks to those that suggested additions. I have added those that I think are directly relevant to students' learning.

Networking, career advice and employment opportunities:

@Sociable Surveyors
For the all expenses-paid internships with major firms for property students

Relaxed networking organisation for those new to the industry

UK focused tweeter/blog with APC advice

Online commercial property jobs board for Estates Gazette

Property Week board for senior and graduate surveying and related vacancies

Research focused:

Office of National Statistics in the UK. Updates on economic and demographic information.

News, research, data and reports on UK commercial property market

Real Estate Organisations:

British Property Federation - body representing interests of those involved in real estate ownership and investment in UK

The magazine of RICS, covering land, property, construction and the built environment.

Residential Real Estate:

UK residential focus

Comment on residential property


High Street individual retailers

Shopping centre owner's perspective of the market
(Suggested by Mark Robinson)
Real Estate and Property News (mainly UK):

Property news with UK focus

UK property news

London based property PR consultant - commercial and residential

News summary for property sector.

Property news and comments from the Telegraph


Global news network for residential commercial and holiday real estate

Global property news including UK

Professional Standards and Corporate Social Responsibility in Property:

Urban Land Institute - research/education organisation focusing on land use and sustainable communities
(Suggested by PRPTBLOG)

Group committed to raising professional standards in property and related sectors

Corporate responsibility tweeter

Monday, June 3, 2013

How is the lecture narrative?

This post is a write-up of the presentation I gave at Storyville13 - the Higher Education Academy (Arts and Humanities) conference in Brighton on 29-30 May 2013. Here's the Storify archive link for the event. The presentation was called The Role of Narrative in the Lecture: can we make lectures resonate through narrative structure?

Narrative and stories have long been used in education, including higher education and narrative is also used as a method in (educational) research – collecting personal narratives for example but narrative also has implications for the structure, content and delivery of teaching material (including the lecture) which is where the focus of this research lies.

Lecturing can involve narrative in at least three interlinked ways. First, the delivery of the teaching material in a lecture can be seen as a performance by the lecturer that has to convince the student audience by invoking a response that is beyond what might be expected from a simple statement of fact or information. Simply put, the lecturer has to move the audience in order to be effective.

Secondly, pedagogical knowledge itself can be thought of as narrative as the lecturer has chosen and crafted it themselves with the student audience in mind and so the content of the lecture itself can be thought of as narrative.

Finally, the lecture can have an overall narrative structure and may also contain various narrative devices within its duration.

So why use narrative? Why not just state the facts? Rossiter’s quote hints about the engagement that narrative affords..."leaving space in which the learner can interact with the subject".

In my research I’m using a framework developed by Nancy Duarte in her book Resonate, which focuses on the importance of stories - primarily in business presentations -  as a means of persuading an audience to engage with a product, brand, mission statement, set of values etc. Duarte developed her framework by analysing famous speeches and presentations by the likes of Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs, Richard Feynmann and others. Her framework draws on literary and cinematic traditions and focuses on the importance of engaging the audience through a contrasting dramatic rhythm in presenting and a structure that makes meaning clear through impassioned contrast.

Including emotion in a lecture doesn’t mean it should be half fact and half emotion, it means introducing appeal that invokes a response in the audience. This is most easily done through the use of stories and a recognisable narrative structure.

The importance of using stories is two-fold:
  1. They contain complex information, which the audience can make meaning from and that influences and inspires them.
  2. They allow the audience to make connections, engage and empathise through emotion

Duarte’s presentational form is shown in the diagram below – it doesn’t suggest that all successful speeches or presentations should adhere to this format rigidly – it’s flexible.

Things to note:
  • There’s a clear beginning, middle and end.
  • There are two turning points in the structure to guide audience through the content and to separate the beginning from the middle and the middle from the end:
  • The first one is a call to adventure showing the gap between what is and what could be – needs to be big to jolt the audience and create imbalance that they wantto be resolved; 
  • The second is a call to action, which identifies what the audience need to do or how they need to change – this signifies that the presentation is drawing to its conclusion.
  • The back and forth structural motion pulls and pushes the audience to feels events are unfolding and so they will stay engaged as ideas and perspectives are unwrapped frequently.
    Each presentation ends with a vivid description of the new bliss that’s created when the audience adopts the new idea but note that the form does not stop here as the presentation aims to persuade the audience to complete a subsequent action afterwards – crossing the threshold.


Below is a field note from one of the lectures that I have observed as part of my pilot work for my doctorate. It displays the contrasting rhythm described by Duarte but also has a planned story half-way through, which is the catalyst for a vigorous discussion amongst the class. The story is designed to create this response, rather than being a device for supporting theory or other teaching points made. I have called this type of story, Trojan Horse.

One of the clear points I noticed in observing all these lectures was the different ways that narrative was used by lecturers within their lecture. Some were designed and planned, some were spontaneous reactions, unconscious to the lecturer as stories and some had very deliberate intentions other than the story itself. So here is my typology of narrative within lectures so far.


Duarte, N. (2010) Resonate – Present Visual Stories that transform Audiences. New Jersey: John Wiley& Sons
Rossiter, M. (2002) Narrative and Stories in Adult Teaching and Learning. ERIC Digest No. 241. [Online] Accessed at

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Is the Lecture Really Dead?

It all started with a Facebook page called The Lecture is Dead. About a year ago I 'liked' it but now I'm not so sure. The page states 'In schools and universities the non-interactive lecture is an outdated method of teaching. Engaging pedagogy produces better academic outcomes and a richer, more pleasant learning environment'. What's not to agree with there? However, I've come full circle on lectures and no longer think the lecture is dying or even all that ill. Part of the reason why is that whenever I read something about how poor a teaching method lectures are, there's often something contradicting this within the article itself. Here are two examples of what I mean:

(Reproduced from

Enough with the Lecture Bashing

As a teaching method the lecture has long, long been criticised (for example see Bane, 1925; Bligh, 1972; Gibbs, 1981). The criticism probably goes back further than this and most of it centres around the lecture being a passive teaching method and its lack of effectiveness compared with more active learning modes. Academics such as Eric Mazur have promoted a more interactive style of lecturing, involving students discussing points and feeding answers back to the class. More recently, the concept of 'flipping' has become popular, whereby students cover lecture material away from class and the teaching time is then given over to more interactive modes of teaching.

Recently, I read this interesting blog post by journalist Anne Murphy Paul which mentions some amazing research by MIT Professor Rosalind Picard and others where students were fitted with wristbands that measured skin conductance as an index of the “arousal associated with emotion, cognition and attention.” The sensors in the wristbands recorded regular, strong spikes during periods of study, laboratory work and homework, but the readout flatlined during two activities: attending lectures and watching TV. The graph (below) of the students response is very telling with noticeable flatlining during the lectures but not, interestingly, always during sleeping.

Poh N-Z, Swenson, NC and Picard, RW (2010)*

However, whiles the research findings are clear, what I found really significant were the comments to Murphy's blog about this research, which seem to show that lack of arousal in lectures may not be an indication of lack of learning and contradict the flatlining in the graph above. Here are some of the comments:
Very interesting, though from my own experience I feel that I learned very well from lectures (and I also remember the content of books and TV programmes well too)… I agree that they are essentially passive but it is possible to be mentally engaged nevertheless. I genuinely can’t remember a single thing that I learned during homework activities. Perhaps the effectiveness of these forms of learning depends a lot on the individual. Jonathan Firth
...While I don’t think that lecture should be the only teaching strategy incorporated, I do believe that there is a place for lectures within educational institutions, especially at the collegiate level. I agree with John. Being auditory, I love a good lecture and often find myself listening to lectures on iTunes U to expand my depth of knowledge. I think what the professor does with the lecture is essential, as well as what the learner views as the purpose of the lecture is. Lectures don’t have to be passive... Stephanie Franks
Maybe they need to assess their lecturing technique at MIT. I studied psychology at NUIG Galway, Ireland, and found most if not all the lectures very engaging and worthwhile. Kevin Doyle

The authors of the comments above recall their own experiences of learning in lectures almost fondly. In a previous blog, 'What's Still Good about Lectures?' I wrote about similar positive comments in an online discussion by academics about lectures and lecturers. The idea that passive learning works well concurs with Murphy Paul's earlier article called 'Couch Potatoes, Rejoice! Learning can be passive' which espouses the effectiveness of passive learning through observation, especially if students are likely to practice or repeat what they are observing and/or have prior experience of what's being observed.

Another, very different, example of contradiction in lecture bashing is within a Guardian Education article by Anna Fazackerley which details Dale Stephens Uncollege initiative and his ethos behind it, described in his book 'Hacking Your education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will'. Whilst I don't have any issues with Stephens basic idea of debunking the belief that going to university is the only route to success, he contradicts his own book title by suggesting that non-students should try and "attend lectures" (without enrolling) because "the academics were more than willing to host someone who genuinely wanted to share their knowledge and learn". He seems to be suggesting here that, if you don't ditch the lectures, you might learn something.

So, perhaps the case against the lecture is not so open and shut. The lecture may not be popular but I'm off the bashing bandwagon for now.

*A Wearable Sensor for Unobtrusive, Long-Term Assessment of Electrodermal Activity
Ming-Zher Poh, Nicholas C. Swenson and Rosalind W. Picard. IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, VOL. 57, NO. 5, MAY 2010 1243

Monday, March 4, 2013

Narrative, Story and Plot and Why We tell Stories

Trying to describes what narrative is and what it isn't is complex. It's Oxford dictionary definition is 'an account that presents connected events'. This implies a linear timeline of a series of happenings and that those occurrences are connected to each other. Author Jake Arnott believes narrative is a powerful force. In BBC Radio 4's 'Something Understood' (broadcast on 5 August 2012) he suggests that the instinct to create stories is innate within people and that it is essential to our understanding of both the world and our own life. Narrative enables a person to join everything together and make sense of the series of perhaps random and unconnected events that make up the life experience.

EM Forster furthers this in Aspects of the Novel and explains the distinction between story and plot. “We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. The point about causality is key here.

“The king died, and then the queen died” is a story. 

“The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. 

Or again: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.” This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. 

However, Arnott takes issue with the notion of causality and argues that Forster's insistence that story, or more accurately plot, is 'mere' causality is wrong. He believes that story occurs without anything having had to happen and that it's not just an order of events. He cites Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' as a play in which nothing much happens, and yet it resonates with a powerful sense of story.

Arnott proposes something that I haven't come across before - this idea that story or narrative can be independent of a series of events. In the programme he describes how a piece of music or works of art can have a narrative and that narrative may just be hinted at rather than formed.

I like this idea of narrative that isn't obvious and it's interesting to think about how narrative can exist without anything having happened.

Related to this, on a vicarious internet search, I found this lovely YouTube video of poet Phil Kaye. In it he talks about the first type of stories that he loved - doing impressions. He calls them 'immediate stories' that happen through changing the tone, pitch and timbre of your voice to give an entire context of belief or feeling. It occurred to me that this is not dissimilar to Arnott's idea of independent narrative.

Kaye goes on to explain his thoughts on the important question of why we tell stories. He describes the often simple intentions behind telling stories - to entertain or make some laugh, to warn, to scare or explain. This last one, to explain, is quite close to what I am researching which is the the telling of stories  in teaching.
Kaye suggests that we tell stories to feel alive and we do this because we like to believe our lives are a linear and predicatable set of events, which they can appear to be if looked at retrospectively. However, surrounding the narrative of events are a whole series of what-might-have-beens if, at any point, a different decision had been taken. People like to reasure themselves that they can plot out their lives and perhaps that they can control that causality mentioned earlier but there is whole area of chance surrounding the events that happen to us that makes us feel vulnerable. It is this vulnerability that is the impetus for storytelling, so we can connect with others and feel alive by marking an event.
So Kaye concludes that we tell stories to feel alive by making context of our past (events) whilst recognising the vulnerability that exists surrounding the narrative.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Some Personal Development

Just before Christmas, the group of beginner cellists that I have been playing with for over a year, Oxford Cellists, took part in a tango workshop. We played a selection of tangos whilst dancers performed. Below are a couple of photos from that lovely evening. To me dancing the tango seemed a lot harder than playing the cello.

Photo: Julia Diamantis
Photo: Julia Diamantis

In January, I found myself on a coach to London to enrol as a doctoral student at the Institute of London. This is, pehaps, the end of the beginning as Churchill said, of a process that started a year ago with the birth of this blog. One of my first entries was about becoming a 'fully cooked person' and doctoral studies is as much a part of that for me as my cello playing.

"When someone is described as fully cooked I think it means they have experience and knowledge, and they have learnt much. It's sort of the opposite of saying a person is a raw beginner - that they are 'uncooked'. I suppose it's strange to talk about oneself as nearly fully cooked, or almost ready to serve. I don't know why I have always used this term to describe myself and other people, nor do I know where it comes from. The connection to food is a useful one though. Quite often you meet a person for the first time and they appear to you to be an adult, grown up and mature. Then, as you get to know them better, you realise that actually they are not that at all. They are like a pudding taken too early from the oven. It looks cooked on the outside but inside it's still got a way to go before it's ready. This happens the other way round as well, when you meet an incrediby sage young person, who you expected to be inexperienced in life.

I'm not saying it's disappointing to find that people aren't fully cooked. Becoming a cooked person takes a long time for some people, maybe a lifetime." Georgina Dalton, February, 2012

Institute of Education, London