Why I think that lectures that don’t get applause at the end have failed (and how I think you can fix that).

When we design courses for our students, at some point we decide that the best thing to do is to put all our students in a large room and talk to them for 90 minutes. Usually, we do this because it’s cheap, which is not a good reason. Often, we do this to convey information, which is also not a good reason.

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Mind you, I’m not against lectures are such, but I do want lectures to be taught for the right reasons.  I think that lectures may be cheap but they should also be valuable.  I think that lectures may be informative but they should be about insight. Students are experts at recognising if a lecture offers value and insights or not and they will react accordingly. A lecture without applause at the end has failed.

If we simply use lectures to convey information we find ourselves competing with books, journals and the entire Internet. That is a battle we are going to lose. Books, journals and the Internet can be accessed day and night, chapters of books can be re-read or skipped willy-nilly, websites can even be translated into anyone’s native language at a mouse click. Lectures can’t do any of that and personally I have no intention of being available in the middle of the night to answer my students’ questions.

But there are things that we can do in our lectures that books and journals and the Internet are less good at.  For instance, we are really good at interpreting information, pointing out highlights, showing strengths and weaknesses of academic practices, influencing students’ attitudes towards particular phenomena. We can offer our specialist view on things, make connections to different fields of study. We can interact with students, asking for their opinions, insights and questions, we can check if they understand what we are talking about. And if they don’t, we can react immediately by offering explanations, rephrasing things, giving examples etc, until they do.

And we can entertain! Yes, I know, books and journals and particularly the Internet can also entertain but that’s not what I mean. I do not think that we should try to be funny all the time, I think that there is no way that all the students in the lecture hall are going to be focused for the entire ninety minutes. We are really good at occasionally pointing out the absurd outcomes of our competitor’s research, the unexpected behaviour of our research subjects or the number of mosquito bites that we suffered during fieldwork. We can use these mental breaks to regain the students’ attention so that they are ready to absorb the next tricky bit of information, and to give them something to remember our lectures by. Which means that the entertainment should always be somehow connected to the content and the purpose of our lectures.


Students in our lecture halls are an audience and they should be treated as such. If they get the feeling that you’re just repeating what’s already in the book that you have made them buy, they will feel that the lecture is a waste of time. And they will be right. If they feel, however, that you have something to add to the book, the journals and the Internet, like  your interpretation, your expert opinions, your insights, if you show your willingness to interact with them and to entertain them, if they notice that you have worked your fingers to the bone to make this lecture valuable especially for them, I guarantee that you will have applause at the end.


This guy was a true believer.

You could tell by the way he smiled. It was that slightly awkward, toothy smile that lasted too long for comfort. It was almost conspiratorial, as if we were sharing a secret. I recognised it because it was the same smile that the two gentlemen wear who come knocking on my door once a year. They want to talk about God. I don’t. Every year they seem genuinely distressed about this and every year I wonder why they keep coming back. I also wonder why they are wearing these terrible suits. Still, over the years I have come to appreciate their resolve. And in all fairness, if I had absolute proof that there is a God, I would probably stop caring about the way I dress, and go door to door too, but without that hideous smile.

Anyway, back to my toothy student., whose name was not John. The group was getting ready for their presentation class: arranging the tables, uploading their presentations on the classroom’s computer and so on. And there he came, smiling as if we had won a hundred  pounds in  an illegal dogfight.

– Can I ask you something, Bob, he said.

– Of course, John! How can I help you?

– Well you see, I have a very important message that I want to share with the rest of the group.

– (I knew it!) I see. What message is that?

– Well, it is a very important message about our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

– Ah. You’re a Jehovah’s Witness?

– Yes. My next presentation is scheduled for next week. Do you think I could deliver my message during that presentation?

– Eh, let me think about that one… Tell you what: I am professionally interested in the talk you want to give, but this is a course in presentations about technology. Also, I guess there will be some students in the group who will not appreciate a talk about religion. So, what we’ll do is this: next week you will first give a presentation about technology, as scheduled. Then I will ask the students if they want to hear your talk about religion, which will be after the last presentation of the day, in the lunchbreak, so the students who don’t want to hear your talk can leave a without missing part of the lesson. I am particularly interested in the differences and similarities between both talks. You should be asking yourself the same questions for both presentations: who is listening and why? You can talk for five minutes. Okay?

– Excellent! Thank you very much.

And so, one week later, John did both his talks. I explained to the students what was going to happen and that they were free to leave if they didn’t want to hear John’s message. Most of them stayed. Like me, they were curious to see what was going to happen.

I had seen John give presentations before during the course, and I knew he was pretty good. He was an electrical engineer who could explain the magic that was practised in his faculty to non-experts, without making them feel like idiots. So it was no surprise that the first, “technical” presentation he gave, was well structured, well  argued and well executed. He was ready to answer questions and he was friendly and professional.

And then came his important message for the rest of the group. And it was a total and complete shambles. Within 30 seconds he was threatening the audience with hell and damnation, fire and brimstone. There was no structure, no  argumentation. He howled and wailed, he shook his fists while quoting obscure bits of the Bible that he seemed to assume we had read. It was the worst attempt at conversion I had ever seen. Also, he lost all sense of time, so he was completely taken by surprise when I stopped him minutes after he should have stopped himself. His smile had vanished, he was sweating, a he was out of breath and out of clues about what had just happened. The other students  were also bewildered: this  had  been more spectacular than they had anticipated. Clearly, there was somehow something wrong somewhere, but what?

Perhaps it was because he was genuinely convinced that we would go to hell and burn forever if he didn’t save us. The horror of failing to save 10 people at once was simply too much for him. At least, that’s what he said when he had regained some of his composure.

– John, I said, Aristotle described three modes of persuasion: authority, reason and emotion. I think you have just demonstrated what happens when you try to build a case on emotional arguments alone.

John left, a sadder but wiser man. I wonder how he’s doing and if he now starts his talks something like: “In the next five minutes I shall point out to you three reasons why you should become a Jehovah’s Witness. These three reasons can be best described as … First let me elaborate on …”

That would definitely put a smile on my face.

Embrace the Cliche!

Last Friday I asked the students in my Technical Writing group what sentence they found the most difficult to write. They answered the same way all my writing students do every time I ask that question: the first one. Once they have got started they are usually able to continue, but it is writing that first sentence that proves to be their biggest challenge.

Why? Even if my students are not linguists, they are mostly quite clever. You would expect them to be able to write something as simple as a good first sentence of an essay. But they’re not. And there are at least two reasons for this. One, it is actually quite difficult to write something that is easy to read. Two, my students don’t compromise. Being as clever as they are at calculating stuff, they are used to giving the correct answer to every question in one go. They don’t believe in drafts.

As a result, many students take a lot of time trying to say something brilliant in their first sentence. But writing something brilliant is bloody difficult and even experienced writers don’t usually manage to do that in a first attempt. So how to go about this? What can you do to write something clever?

My advice: start with something stupid. Something obvious. Use a cliché. And then continue writing. I promise this will be easy, because you’ve got your first sentence. Once you’ve got that one, the rest of the paragraph is easy. And before you know it you’ve written an entire section.

And then comes the magic trick. When you have finished the first couple of paragraphs or section, have a good look at your first sentence (the cliché one) and slowly and deliberately cross it out. Yes, I know this is very unpleasant (in the teaching world this is called “kill your darlings”). Now look at the sentence that was your second sentence and is now the first. See if you’ve come to the point yet in that sentence. If not, cross it out. Keep doing this until you have a first sentence that makes you happy. Sometimes you only need to cross out the first sentence, sometimes you’ll need to cross out the entire first paragraph. Usually, that is all you need to do to end up with a very good start.

Interestingly, there are quite a few students who almost get this right. They write wonderful clichés, utter grotesque platitudes or mind-boggling truisms and then they don’t recognise these for what they are. They don’t see that all they need to do to be brilliant is to cross out the first one or two sentences.

I have seen this a million times. Sometimes I have to help and occasionally a student will swear out loud when I solemnly cross out their first sentences for them – and then they grin. They swear because they suddenly realize they have been writing nonsense, which hurts, and they grin because two seconds later they see that their text is suddenly much sharper.

So next time when you’re having trouble writing those first sentences: embrace the cliché!





How a Skinhead’s excellent presentation fails at the very last moment.

One of the most successful ways to end a presentation is to bring back an image, concept, person or something else that you used in the introduction. Part of the success of this trick lies in the fact that the audience don’t know that you are going to so this, so they are usually pleasantly surprised when you do and will start to applaud.

A few years ago, one of my first-year Mechanical Engineering students almost got this right, with the result that at the end of the talk there was no applause, but awkward silence.

The others in the group had warned me about her, saying that she was nuts. She may not look nuts or talk as if she was nuts and she may not act nuts, but she was completely and utterly nuts, they said. And it was true: she did not look, or act nuts at all. She was a skinhead, and in her presentation she explained the rules and customs of the skinhead community. It was actually kind of interesting, if slightly awkward. It certainly had news value, as none of the students in the audience had ever dared to ask a skinhead what their mores entailed.

The introduction was fine. She started by explaining how yoarmy bootsu could identify the status of a skinhead just by looking at their shoelaces. The black shoelaces she was wearing were a sign that she was a new member with low status. Status was acquired by the amount of violence one was willing to use. ‘The most prestigious shoelaces are red, she said, ‘you are only allowed to wear red shoelaces if you have killed someone with your bare hands.’

The body of the presentation was well organised and she used clear illustrations, good speed, melody, posture – she did everything right. She was in “uniform”, so she was able to use herself as a visual aid, pointing at specific parts of her attire, which was rather funny and even mildly endearing: she was a girl showing off her clothes.

And then she came to her conclusion, which went quite well, she summarised the main points she had tried to make, and then, in the very last sentence she demonstrated that she was a good presenter and completely crazy at the same time:

‘And one day,’ she said with a glow of anticipation, ‘I hope I will be wearing red shoelaces. Thank you for your attention’.

Group Writing, Part Deux

From my previous post you may have got the impression that I don’t want students to write in groups. Of course this is nonsense. I just wanted to illustrate what can go wrong if writing projects are poorly organised. So here is a small piece on how I think a writing course could be integrated in an (engineering) project,while causing virtually no casualties. Please feel free to comment.

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Most of the writing courses I teach are integrated in projects. This means that we spend a couple of lessons on instruction and we discuss the reports the students write for the project. This works quite well, because it gives the students something realistic to write about.

But some of our writing groups are as large as eight to ten students. That sounds like a lot, and it is. How do we deal with that? How do we avoid leeching and students not feeling responsible for anything except the chapter they wrote themselves? Is there such a thing as an ideal group size for learning to write? Can we give individual grades to students when we don’t know what they have contributed to the report?

In real life, the number of people involved in producing any text depends on what they are writing. If it is a Valentine’s card, I guess most people want to do that alone. Novels, too, are usually written by one author. But if you are writing a journal paper about the research you did with a partner, you will want to do that together. And if the five of you have designed something like a bridge or a landing gear or a coffee machine, all the members of the group are involved and everybody contributes text, but usually the chief designer/engineer does the final editing. Constructing the document, fitting all the team’s contributions together into a readable, understandable and convincing report has to be the responsibility of the person whose name comes first on the front of the document.

plethoraSo what does that mean for report-writing courses? Well, apparently, in real life too, only the main author feels responsible for the whole document. If we are going to simulate real life, we should also have students writing in groups consisting of one main author and several specialists. And if we want all members of the group to have experienced being in charge of a writing project, maybe we can achieve this by making the number of reports to be written as large as the number of people in the group and rotating roles for every report they write.

Let’s say we are running a project for which we ask our students to write a design report, a progress report, a test report and a final report. Four students could switch roles for every report so that by the end of the project they will have all performed the role of specialist three times and the role of main author once.

By doubling up on every role, making students work in pairs, we can bring the size of the group up to eight. From an educational point of view working in pairs is not such a bad idea anyway.

eFh1MIf, even though everybody in the project group will have contributed something to the text, only two students will have “written” the report, how do you give feedback? And to whom? And how do you give grades? You really don’t want to discuss a report with two students who wrote it and six students who did not. Also, the teams writing the first three reports will have had less input than the last team, so it would be unfair to grade them on their “own” reports. And besides, they would have their grade fixed too early in the project, which would be a poor incentive to keep coming to class.

So here is what you might do. Each report is discussed with the two main authors only, but the feedback is made available to everybody in the group. Of course the feedback and the way in which the teams communicate their input to the main authors can also be discussed during the lectures. After the final report has been discussed, each team gets the chance to use the feedback to write a new, final draft on which they are graded.

This way, a teacher receives four reports per group of eight students to give feedback on, and another four reports to grade after the project has finished. Also this way, reports are only discussed with people who actually wrote them. Also also this way, leeching will be virtually impossible.


Group Writing

asterix-huge-fight-37036293789The following is an almost literal transcript of a conversation I recently had with a student whose name was not James. I think it shows what often happens when students write in groups.

James: I received a fail mark for the report, while I thought I had done a really good job.

Bob: Oh dear! And what about the rest of your group?

James: They all failed too. Could you tell me what went wrong?

Bob: Of course! I think the problem is Chapter 5, “Concept Generation”.

James: What’s wrong with it?

Bob: Well, let me ask you this. What did you think about its quality?

James: I don’t know. I didn’t write Chapter 5.

Bob: I know you didn’t. And neither did anybody else.

James: Ah …

Bob: And there is another thing. Did you notice that Chapter 4 consists of illustrations only?

James: Ehhh … not really, no. I wrote Chapter 7 you see …

Bob: I do see! And what a wonderful chapter it is. If only the assignment had been to write one chapter each, eh? You would have nailed it!

(Oh, I almost actually said that last bit …)  😉