Dialogue in lectures

This is not a post on whether the lecture is A Good Thing or not. Lectures happen. PERIOD!

A paper by Anna Wood and colleagues at the Edinburgh PER group, along with a subsequent talk by Anna at Moray House has gotten me thinking a lot over the last year about dialogue and its place in all of our interactions with students. The literature on feedback is replete with discussion on dialogue, sensibly so. The feedback cycle could be considered (simplistically) as a conversation: the student says something to the teacher in their work; the teacher says something back to the student in their feedback. There’s some conversation going on. Feedback literature talks about how this conversation continues, but what about the bit before this conversation begins?

Not a monologue

The spark from Wood’s work for me was that lectures are not a monologue. She is considering active lectures in particular, but cites Bamford* who gives a lovely overview of the nature of conversation in lectures in general. Bamford presents the case that lectures are not a monologue, but are a conversation. Just as in the feedback example above, two people are conversing with each other, although not verbally. In a lecture, the lecturer might ask: “Is that OK?”. An individual student might respond inwardly “Yes, I am getting this” or “No, I haven’t a freaking clue what is going on and when is coffee”. A dialogue happened. Wood’s paper discusses these vicarious interactions – a delicious phrase describing the process of having both sides of the conversation; an internal dialogue of sorts. She describes how this dialogue continues in active lectures, but sadly there is only one Ross Galloway, so let’s think about how this conversation might continue in lectures given by us mere mortals. How can we help and inform these vicarious interactions?

Developing a conversation

A problem you will by now have identified is that the conversation: “Is that OK?” and retort isn’t much of a conversation. So how can we continue this conversation? My intention is to consider conversation starters in lectures that foster a sense with each individual student that they are having a personal conversation with the lecturer at points during the lecture. And incorporates guides for the student to continue this conversation after the lecture, up to the point that they submit their work, prompting the conversation we started with above.

In Woods talk, she mentioned specific examples. The lecturer would ask something like: “Is 7 J a reasonable answer?” A problem with “Is that OK?” is that it is too broad. It’s difficult to follow up the conversation specifically as it likely ends with yes or no.

How about a lecturer asks: “Why is this smaller than…?” You’re a student, and you’re listening. Why is it smaller? Do you know? Yes? No? Is it because…? Regardless of your answer, you are waiting for the response. You think you know the answer, or you know you don’t.

If we are to take dialogue seriously, then the crucial bit is what happens next. Eric Mazur will rightly tell us that we should have allow discussion with peers about this, but we are mortals, and want to get on with the lecture. So how about the conversation goes something like this:

“Why is this smaller than…?”


You are a student: you will have an answer: You know, you think you know, you don’t know, you don’t know what’s going on. You will have some response.

The lecturer continues:

“For those of you who think…”

The lecturer responds with a couple of scenarios. The conversation continues beyond a couplet.

Did you think of one of these scenarios? If so the lecturer is talking to you. Yes I did think that and I have it confirmed now I am right. Or: yes I did think that, why is that wrong?

The lecturer can continue:

“While it makes sense to think that, have a look in reference XYZ for a bit more detail”.

The lecturer thus concludes this part of the conversation. A dialogue has happened and each student knows that that they have a good idea what is going on, they don’t but know where to follow up this issue, or that they haven’t a clue what is going on. Whichever case, there is some outcome, and some action prompted. Indeed one could argue that this prompted action (refer to reference) is a bridge between the lecture and tutorial – I checked this reference but don’t understand – and so the conversation continues there.

This all seems very obvious, and maybe everyone else does this and didn’t tell me. My lectures tend to have lots of “Is that OK?” type questions, but I do like this idea of a much more purposeful design to structuring the conversation with a large class. I should say that this is entirely without research base beyond what I have read, but I think it would be very empowering for students to think that a lecturer is aiming to have a conversation with them.


*Bamford is cited in Wood’s paper and I got most of it on Google Books.

One thought on “Dialogue in lectures

  1. Hi Michael,

    I like your article above. In recent years I’ve totally changed the way I lecture. In fact I’ve given up lecturing! What I mean is that on day 1 of each semester I put up all of the lecture notes for each module, and all of the past papers and all of the past solutions. I get the students to form themselves into groups with each group tackling a problem/project related to the module. I help them (through dialogue) to orientate their problem/project around the module learning outcomes. I do go through the module notes in class but fairly quickly and I expect them to have studied each topic before I talk about it in class. I encourage them to post questions about the various topics before we discuss them in class. I also encourage them to have a go at the past paper questions and if there’s a part of a question which they’re struggling with then we’ll put that on the agenda for the class. In this way the ‘class/lecture’ becomes more of a meeting with an agenda and minutes. I find that this type of asynchronous dialogue facilitates reflection and deep learning. I should add that none of the above was my idea. I copied it from Aalborg university in Denmark where they’ve been doing it like this since 1974. Non surprisingly, their graduates are streets ahead (on many fronts) of conventional battery-hen ‘lecture-fed’ graduates.
    You’re probably wondering how do I assess the students. Each group does a group project report and then I interview each student individually. Everyone in a group is expected to know everything in their group report. This requirement drives the peer- or collaborative learning. From what I can make out, most of the deep learning happens in the student-student dialogue i.e. without me. The taught modules still have an end-of-semester exam worth 50% and the other 50% goes for the group projects and individual interviews.

    If you’re interested in this then check out the above link and if you’re free on the 19th of May then feel free to join us in Maynooth for a symposium on it. Full details at: https://pblfacilitate.wordpress.com/

    Best Regards


Comments are closed.