1 November 2010

ANALYSING techniques used in the theatre to keep audiences spellbound led a University of Queensland psychology lecturer to change his own teaching style, with amazing results.

So strong has the interest been in Associate Professor Matthew Hornsey’s new “dramatic” teaching technique that his lectures now attract students not enrolled in his course – and others who are not even current university students.

“Sometimes they are students who are sitting in on my lectures, sometimes they are students’ friends, sometimes they are parents or even adult children of students,” Dr Hornsey said.

“For me this is the ultimate compliment — when people choose to spend their free time in my lectures.”
Dr Hornsey said engaging, motivating and inspiring students in large classes was a perpetual challenge for teachers.

In wrestling with these issues, he decided to take inspiration from the theatre, where the experience of an audience member is similar to being a student in a large class.

“At the theatre you find yourself sitting in a chair, in the semi-darkness, surrounded by hundreds of strangers, peering at a tiny actor on a distant stage,” he said.

“But when it’s done well, the experience can be very intimate. You forget that you’re just one person in a big crowd, and start to believe this story is being told to you and you alone. You are spellbound.”

Dr Hornsey thought if he could identify the factors behind this process, then it shouldn’t matter how large the class was – just as it doesn’t matter how many people are in a theatre.

Studying orators within and outside academia, Dr Hornsey said it became apparent that charismatic and enthralling presenters obeyed quite specific and achievable principles of public speaking.

“What united them was that they used narrative to communicate their ideas, they connected their ideas to the life experiences of their audience members, they were passionate, and they were empathic and clear with their communication,” he said.

“I translated these principles into my large-class teaching and the student response was amazing.”
The initiative earned Dr Hornsey a $10,000 Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning Award from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council this year.

Dr Hornsey’s award was in recognition of his work in “inspiring and motivating psychology students in large classes through the use of narrative and connectedness”.

UQ had the perfect success rate in the ALTC awards this year, winning the maximum 10 citations, equalled only by the University of Western Sydney.

Citations are awarded to those who have made a significant contribution to the quality of student learning in a specific area of responsibility over a sustained period, whether they are academic staff, general staff, sessional staff or institutional associates.

Media: Helen Burdon (Marketing and Communications Manager, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences) 3346 9279, h.burdon@uq.edu.au