Raising the Dead: The early and late lecture

I teach at a University that has about 25,000 students on a campus that is heavily constrained in terms of expansion space. To our Northern boundary lies a river, to the Western edge borders a road, the South has a very large road (one of the main streets of the CBD – and then the CBD) and our Eastern edge has both another University, then a road. When it comes to expanding, we have to go up or down.

Fortunately, students stack vertically. (As evidenced by this picture from Indiana University Northwest.)

Because of this, we have to make good use of our teaching spaces – because building more is a challenge and our University continues to grow! While we always have enough space, sometimes this means that lectures start at 8am or go until 6-7pm so that we can accommodate the rich diversity of course pathways that students choose and we can get enough bottoms into the proximity of sufficient seats.

Of course, the earlier the lecture, the more likely you are to have the dreaded zombie student.

These aren’t the walking dead – these are the barely waking alive. It can be hard enough to get information across to people when they’re awake let alone when they’re semi-conscious and attempting to wake themselves up with caffeine, guarana and whatever chemical is found in the energy drink of choice. Now this isn’t limited to the early or late but it’s more often seen in these sessions – for me at least.

My students in Singapore are coffee, tea or (brace yourself) coffee-mixed-with-tea drinkers and will drink one to two over a daily session. My students in Adelaide can consume 4-6 cans of Energy drink (large cans) and, by the end of it, appear awake but have the learning capacity of a slightly damaged brick.

I, as an ex-student, both understand and sympathise. For me, the early lecture meant dragging myself out of bed at the last minute, often after a late night, showering at speed, dashing into Uni and then, after all this adrenal explosion, sitting down for an hour of a traditional lecture. Back then, I didn’t drink coffee or tea, nor did I drink Coke that early in the morning and (strange to believe) we didn’t have energy drinks. As a result, the lecture had to complete with all of the lead-in excitement and, quite often, I had difficulty focusing. Later on, I discovered caffeine in a big way but, after finally working out the way between alert and awake, I stopped using it to try and stay awake and started focusing on getting enough sleep.

But that took me a while to figure out.

These days, of course, I may have to deal with students who dashed in to make an 8 or 9am lecture, under similar circumstances, or have spent all day with us and I’m seeing them out at 5-6pm. Up in Singapore I may be dealing with people who’ve worked 5 and a half days and then spend 6 or 7 hours with me on the Saturday and Sunday. What does this mean?

My only defence against the zombie student is to engage those parts of the brain that are still human, still alive, and try to keep them from going all the way to the dark side. I have to be interesting, engaging and I have to involve the students in the lecture. A traditional ‘stand out the front and talk’ lecture is just not going to fly in this slot. As it is I usually run around the room like a battery-powered cymbal clapping monkey, regardless of time, but at the early and the later I have to make sure that everyone is involved, especially if they look like they’re nodding off. Sometimes this can be as simple as getting people to talk in small groups and give me an answer.

You won’t always be able to stop the zombies from taking over, especially when it’s been a really big weekend, but we know that they’re out there.

Waiting… well, sleeping. Mostly sleeping.

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