Serious fun

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Professor Peter McOwan talks about his educational philosophy of serious fun.

Transcript of Professor Peter McOwan, ‘Serious Fun’:

So education today, university education, I think is about trying to engage with the students, and one of the techniques that I use for that is something I call ‘serious fun’. Education is about content, obviously, and in lectures that’s particularly important, if you’ve got a core of materials that you’re wanting to get over to them, but unless you engage the students and make them want to learn that, it actually can be quite difficult to do.

So there are ways of being able to take the material, I think, and present it in a way that’s maybe a little bit offbeat or a little bit different, possibly with a kind of humorous take to it, which is something that will engage them, that will pull them in, and then at that stage they’re ready to learn the serious stuff. So ‘serious fun’ doesn’t mean just going and having a laugh, what it means is going in and having a laugh in a productive and sensible way, because it’s pulling people into learning that, and I certainly think that some of my successes in teaching have been because I have a kind of attitude towards it that the students want performance rather than just somebody standing there dryly putting up a load of PowerPoint slides.

Interaction is obviously very important in there, you’ve got to talk to the students, you’ve got to ask them questions, you’ve got to basically manage your audience, and these are skills that develop over a period of time and certainly require a lot of confidence to be able to do those and it’s not something you automatically develop overnight, it’s a series of skills you build up over time; and the way that I did that was by just experimenting a little bit at each time until I was in my comfort zone, and then I’d push myself just a little bit further than that, and I think that that’s important, that when we’re teaching, that teaching is an active research process as well, that rather than simply going out and doing what we’ve done, because that was how it was done when we were at university, there’s a changing body of students coming in with very different expectations, with very different lifestyles, particularly with the 24/7 lifestyles they have, the impact, the speed with which they’re all Facebooking and Tweeting to one another and so on.

And so if you can tie it into the reality of their life whilst at the same time making it entertaining, then you’re likely to be able to get over to them in ways that you wouldn’t be able to do if you just went for the kind of more tried and tested techniques in there. So my advice to you is just to experiment a little bit, if it’s not for you it’s not for you, it’s not for everyone, but certainly it’s been useful for me to do that.

Want to learn more about keeping students engaged? Check out our Research seminar: Engaging Large Audiences; Tips and Tricks or Encouraging student engagement in large lectures.