Exercises within Lectures

This page owes much to the work of Ruth Pickford and her collaborators: it can't do justice to the ingenuity of the Fe-Fi-Fo-Fun approach, so read her paper hereWho said that lectures, even large (100+) ones had to be passive affairs? View the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures if you need to be disabused of that notion. Few of us have the time and resources to prepare shows like those, as full of experiments and demonstrations and audience participation as a journal article is of references.

But there are simple and easy methods to incorporate participation and active learning into lectures, which require no more resources than you will already have to hand.

The basic tool

—is some means of facilitating communication from the audience to the lecturer. That's all. It does not have to be sophisticated.

Each adds extra functions, but since I am a KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) person, who believes that Murphy's law applies in spades to any classroom technology, we shall only go as far as coloured cards.

On the use of keypads, see here and here and here

Feedback to the Lecturer

How do you know when your students have got the point, and you can go on to the next one?

Writing these pages, I don't know when I am labouring the blindingly obvious, or blithely skipping complex ideas (OK, that's pushing it a bit); because I don't know who is reading them, and apart from the much-appreciated several hundred of you who have contacted me, I have no idea what you are making of them. Even then, most of the responses are about how much you like it—many thanks, but where are those of you who think it is patronising or puerile or misleading or...? It doesn't matter much, here, because you can click on a link and surf away. But in a lecture? The students are stuck there, at least for this hour. You need to know how they are responding, apart from observing the proportion who are asleep.

Ask them. It may be as simple as a show of hands:

The culture of the group (the "audience") can be powerful if crude. It may be basically passive, and individuals are unlikely to want to stand out. If dependence is too pronounced, you will get very little response, and you will be in trouble (in the wider sense, you may be feeling great, with all these young minds hanging on your every word—in fact you may be so seduced that you won't even do the exercise of asking them; I know, I've been there.) You may need to force the point, but that is where the added value of the coloured signals comes in.

Back to group culture

Checking understanding and creating interest

One looks back, the other forward, but the technique is the same in each case: multiple-choice questions answered by a show of cards. (If you have keypads and the associated equipment, of course, you can get detailed data from the responses.)

    So, revising last week's work; which of the following neurotransmitters is most associated with stress?

Answer here

  1. Serotonin
  2. Oxytocin
  3. Cortisol
  4. Dopamine

According to A J P Taylor, which of the following was a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the occurrence of the First World War?

Answer here
  1. Mechanical trench-diggers.
  2. Aeroplanes
  3. The telegraph/telephone?
  4. Railway timetables


For more ideas, follow the "further reading" here.

Thanks to Bruce Wertheimer for the following information on colour vision deficiency—which I erroneously referred to as "colour blindness" in an earlier version:

  • Do you know that virtually no humans are color blind?
  • Monochromacy is an inherited eye deficiency, found in only 1 of 30,000 in the population.
  • It is probably the most severe of all color blindness for it is literally, true color blindness.
  • An individual with Monochromacy sees the world in shades of grey for they cannot distinguish any hues, only various shades of light so everything is black, white, or grey.
  • It afflicts equal numbers of men and women.
  • Many men (about 10%) have varying degrees of color vision deficiencies.
  • For most people with milder forms of color blindness, the biggest problem is passing color blind tests.
  • The more accurate term is color vision deficiency – not color blindness because they see colors, they just don’t agree with most people as to what those colors are!
  • Don’t feel sad for them because they don’t get to see the world in all its beauty.
  • They don’t miss what they don’t know and there are probably millions of people out there who don’t even know that they have some sort of color vision deficiency!
  • By the way, you might have already guessed that I have a color vision deficiency.

On the other hand, I enjoyed reading your piece on lectures.  


(Up-dated 22 July 2011)

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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