In Conversation with Hayden Smith- a Lecturer at UNSW

Keeping the Lectures Entertaining and Engaging

How often do students find themselves sleepy in the lectures? Even when the topic is important for the upcoming test, many of them may be struggling to keep their eyes open. Have they been sleeping less or are they just disinterested? Are they on their mobiles too much while the lecturers are trying their best to explain to them the topic?

Or how often is the attendance in the lectures low? Like maybe a small fraction of students attend lectures, and only because they pay the fees and want to get the most out of it. Or maybe some of them do want to learn but have trouble with the language, so they prefer watching the lecture recordings where they can pause and rewind. 

But the reality is that most of the content is already available online. Students often joke online about learning the topic from some YouTuber right before the exams.

The content that is being explained in the lectures can often be found online. If students have any doubts on the topic, they can make a quick search or head to the forums where their doubts are generally answered. So, what is the role of educators? Some of the experienced educators feel that it is about getting students excited about the topic and letting students learn by themselves. Here I talk about one educator at UNSW who believes in more than just explaining the content to his students.

Hayden Smith (LinkedIn) is co-founder of Pearler Investments and a lecturer at UNSW School of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE). His lectures have a pretty great attendance; over 100 students turn up for his class, which is significantly higher than the average attendance in most other lectures.

I came across Hayden while scrolling on the UNSW Discussions Group on Facebook (which is more of a meme page than a discussions group). A student had uploaded a video of Hayden going through the student responses and solving the doubts. In the open polls, one of the students had commented, “Iteration two gave me ligma pray for me guys :’(  :’( ”. (‘ligma’ is a made-up disease). His response was casual, and everyone had a laugh about it. This video and the comments on it made me reach out to him to learn what makes his students like him so much. 
Hayden started using polls since he started lecturing this year (2019). 

“I wanted a way to give students a sense that they controlled the narrative of the lecture at the micro level, not at the macro level. I think it gives them great power and entertainment.”

He, like many others, believes that it is important to have a connection with the students. I got the impression that the students felt relaxed in his lectures and were able to express themselves and be understood. He entertains the silly responses while not losing focus of the topic. 

“I’m very lucky that at my current age (26) I’m young enough to be relatable to the students, but old enough to command some authority. I think I’m very honest with students and they can see I respect them as adults which helps.
I think that students need to see that they’re respected. Respecting students will help them listen and come along for the journey. Then they need to feel empowered and enabled, because that is what will rocket them forward without you once you’re not there anymore.”

To see what it is like to be in his lectures, I decided to attend his revision lecture in week-12:
Hayden came with a few bags of treats and asked the students to distribute them. When asked about it, he said, 

“it was a reward for making it [to the lecture?]. Normally I don’t bring food, but it was like just friendly food”

For the rest of the class, I saw some students moving around to pass or grab the treats (gummy bears, toffees, biscuits). In my view, Hayden actively made it easy for students to do as they please in an otherwise serious lecture. As he opened the polleverywhere page, there was a flood of questions from the students who seemed anxious about the upcoming exams. However, I did see some random trolls (“taco”, “Hayden is lying”, “are you single <3”). 

Trolling on open polls
The lecture seemed informative (I study design and as such, I don’t know Python).

Though a student sitting at home watching Mr. Robot commented that they had never attended the lecture in person. But the open polls made them feel like they were part of the discussion.

(I swear this happened! I wish I had clicked a picture of the comment!). For me, this comment summed up the relaxed and engaging environment that Hayden manages to create in his class.

Technology has impacted the way we learn. Addressing this issue, Hayden feels that

“[Educators should adapt to this change] not because it’s better or worse, but just because it’s reality and student behaviours will shift with technology.”

Online polls are just one of the several methods that educators can use to engage the class to make the topic more fun while testing the student’s understanding. I have always loved educators who are friendly and approachable, and those who make the topic interesting. On the other hand, I have known educators who were knowledgeable but unable to make students understand a single concept or get them interested in learning. 
What is really expected of educators, however, is up for debate. 

My video about Making Lectures Engaging:

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