Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Learning in lectures: A contradiction in terms?

Sonia Walker
Law School
Murdoch University

Helen Shurven
Marks Healy Sands


This paper examines the outcomes of a programme which promoted student participation in a range of teaching strategies. Specifically, the paper outlines the teaching strategies incorporated into an introductory three hour legal studies lecture and in particular, examines student perceptions of the value of being taught through a diverse range of activities.

Teaching format

A three hour lecture and tutorial period was allocated to present an introductory workshop on the theory and basic skills of mediation. The format was designed to raise awareness of mediation as a form of dispute resolution, provide the opportunity for students to develop skills through a range of teaching activities and test the students' perception of the efficacy of these various teaching strategies. An evaluation questionnaire was administered at the conclusion of the workshop. While this programme was designed to introduce students to mediation, the format has applications for the teaching of other concepts and skills.

The workshop required students to participate in a total of four activities including: a brainstorming session; reading and discussion exercises; viewing audio-visual materials; and participating in a role play. These activities were designed to promote verbal, audio-visual and hands-on learning experiences for students and create opportunities for students to learn in ways which best suited them.

Johnstone [1] suggests that while the provision of a range of teaching methods facilitates learning for all students, some students are particularly oriented towards certain learning styles. Studies suggest that these styles may be identified as: convergers, who apply themselves to practical tasks and problem solving; divergers, who are imaginative and take information from different areas to merge them into a solution; assimilators, who are more abstract in their focus and rely on theory; and accommodators who are intuitive and solve problems in a hands on way [2]. The range of workshop activities was designed to cater to these different learning styles while at the same time providing all students with the opportunity to examine new ideas and concepts from different perspectives.

The following analysis briefly outlines the individual strategies used in the programme and discusses the rationale for their inclusion in the programme.

Brainstorm - discussion activity

Students' understanding of mediation was surveyed in a twenty minute brainstorm activity conducted at the start of the workshop. Brainstorming is a useful introductory exercise. It stimulates interest in a topic and energises the group by encouraging students to share their ideas [3]. The question asked of students in this particular exercise was: "What do you understand by the term mediation and what are its characteristics?" Asking this question enabled the lecturer to establish the knowledge base of the students prior to the workshop. In the tradition of brainstorming activities, students' comments were recorded on a white board by the lecturer and critical judgements were suspended until all ideas had been recorded. This approach has been identified as encouraging lateral or divergent thinking [4].

The responses to the brainstorming session on mediation were as follows:

The responses indicated that students had some understanding of the mediation process. However, they focussed mainly on the advantages of the process as compared to litigation, and tended not to be critical or analytical.

The benefits of using the brainstorming method were that students were required to articulate their own understanding of mediation prior to participating in any other activities. All subsequent activities were then built on the students' existing understanding with the lecturer adjusting these activities to draw out issues not previously identified by students. Hounsell [5] has argued that this process of eliciting and exploring students existing conceptions is an integral component of the teaching and learning process. An additional benefit was that divergent learners were provided with an opportunity to use their strength in generating a wide range of ideas about material [6].

Reading Exercise

Students were given a twenty minute reading exercise following the brainstorm discussion. This was designed to supplement existing understanding by reading selected extracts of articles on the advantages and disadvantages of the mediation process. Some students were given extracts which dealt with the advantages of mediation while others were asked to read materials which highlighted the limitations of the process. After reading, students were able to add to the initial points made during the brainstorming session. These were also recorded on the white board by the lecturer. This process enabled students to share their increased understanding of the area.

It appeared that students had a clearer understanding of some of the pitfalls associated with mediation and had a broader and more critical understanding of the issues following the reading exercise. For example, students raised questions about the importance of accreditation of mediators. Students also raised the issue of power dynamics between disputants, something which had not been raised previously.

The benefit of this activity was that students saved time by only reading one side of the argument and there was an immediate discussion of the reading.

The lecturer's role in this process was one of facilitator rather than expert. This role was adopted to encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning and to see written materials and the views of their peers as potential sources of information.


The reading exercise was followed by a twenty minute video. The video was used as an introduction to the various stages in the mediation process. Students were told that they would be invited to participate in a role play after they had watched the video, where they would be required to work through some of the stages in the mediation process. It was suggested that students should take notes of the various stages outlined in the video.

The video demonstrated a family law dispute where a couple had separated and needed to make decisions about property, custody and access, and the terms of the separation itself. The role play, which formed the basis for the next activity in the workshop, was also a family law dispute. In this way, the video was used as a means by which students could model their behaviour in the role play on those of the fictitious clients and mediator portrayed in the video. The video also helped reinforce information provided in the brainstorming and reading activities. Studies suggest that between 40-50% of student learning comes from combined visual and verbal activities, while only 15% come from either verbal or written activities alone [7].

Students were given the opportunity to ask questions about the issues raised in the video. The various stages of mediation were briefly reviewed by the lecturer to ensure that all students had the necessary information for the role play.

The Role Play

A family law dispute was chosen as the focus of the role play activity as it was felt that most students would have knowledge of this type of dispute either from personal experience or from portrayals of such disputes in the media. As Hounsell [8] suggests, when a concept "has been genuinely understood, it has been related by students to their prior knowledge and experience and is perceived as helping them to make sense of the world around them".

Students were divided into groups of three for this exercise. Individuals in each group chose the role they would play: either mediator, female party or male party. Where groups had four people (because of uneven class numbers), two people acted as co-mediators. Students had one hour to reach an agreement on the distribution of a number of items of property which the couple had accumulated during the course of their marriage. Only property issues were to be resolved in this role play. Access, custody and separation issues were omitted due to time constraints.

Role playing provides students with the opportunity to learn about legal problems in close to authentic situations. It promotes student centred learning by using an experiential learning mode drawing on students cognitive and affective development. As Goh [9] observes, "cognitive development is associated with the brain and refers to knowledge acquisition... Affective development is linked to one's emotional response to learning". Role play stimulates and enhances both of these important facets of learning. In addition, role play specifically caters to students whose learning style favours active experimentation and hands-on learning experiences [10].

Students engaged readily in the role play activity. Interaction noticeably increased during this exercise. At the end of 1 hour, all groups were required to report the terms of their agreement which were recorded on a white board. Out of 11 groups, 10 reached an agreed result. The various agreements reached by the groups promoted considerable discussion in class.

The terms of the agreements demonstrated that students had an understanding of the outcome of the mediation process in that they generally provided a clear means by which the parties could resolve their disputes within a certain time limit and conditional on certain events happening. During the negotiation of the agreements, the quality of the mediator interventions were surprisingly high and demonstrated an understanding of the requirement of impartiality and effective management of the process. A general discussion about the effectiveness of the various agreements followed the role play.

Students were given an opportunity to review their part in the role play by being asked to report what they found useful or difficult about the activity. Feedback suggested that the role play enabled them to explore their own values and assumptions about mediation and that it had highlighted the complexity of the mediation process. This concluded the workshop and students were asked to complete an evaluation questionnaire (see Appendix 1 and Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1: Student responses

The evaluation questionnaire

The evaluation questionnaire asked students to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed with each of ten statements made about their learning experience (Questions 1-10). Three additional questions invited students to comment on the best and worst parts of the exercise and suggest any improvements (Questions 11-13).

A total of 39 students participated in the workshop activities and all students returned the questionnaire.

In response to Question 1, which asked students whether their understanding of the mediation process had increased, decreased or remained the same, all students agreed that their understanding had generally increased as a result of attending the workshop. Additionally, responses to Question 9 indicated that 97% of students had enjoyed the learning experience.

Questions 2 and 3 asked students about the value of the group discussions and reading exercises. Over 80% of students indicated that these activities had increased their understanding of the mediation process.

From responses to Question 4, 85% of students thought that reading articles on mediation increased their ability to participate in the workshop. Similarly, Question 5 indicated that 98% of students thought viewing the video had increased their ability to participate.

In response to Question 6, all students agreed that taking a role in the mediation exercise increased their awareness of the practical aspects of the mediation process. However, responses to Question 12, which asked about the worst part of the exercise, indicated that all students wanted the opportunity to play the role of mediator rather than client. Responses to this question also indicated that they had found it difficult to remain impartial and unbiased when acting as mediators. While students identified this difficulty as the worst part of the exercise, their comments suggest that the practical exercise had provided them with understanding of the inherent difficulties of the mediator's role.

Students appeared to enjoy the practical exercise. In response to Question 13, which asked for students to suggest improvements, a number commented that they would have liked more time spent on the role play. Additionally, 85% of students indicated in response to Question 10, that they would like more lectures to contain practical exercises.

In response to Question 8, students were equally divided between finding the video and the role play/practical exercise the most useful aspect of the workshop. This response would seem to support the contention that student learning is facilitated by a combination of visual and verbal activities [11].

Question 7 asked students whether combining reading, discussion and practical exercises had enhanced their understanding of the subject matter. All students who responded to this question, agreed that this was the case. Additionally, in response to Question 11, which asked students to identify the best part of the exercise, students indicated that this was the combination of activities. Students also commented that the combination of activities had enhanced their learning and had made learning fun and less threatening. The responses to Questions 7 and 11 suggest that a multi-faceted approach is a useful learning tool to apply at the tertiary level.


While the results of this programme do not indicate whether student learning actually did improve, they do indicate that students enjoy learning and feel they learn effectively from a diverse range of learning activities. By including a range of teaching strategies in lectures which promote audio-visual, verbal and hands-on learning experiences, we would suggest that learning is not only more enjoyable for students, but that students may have the opportunity to learn more.

Appendix One

Evaluation of the Mediation Seminar

Please circle one of the responses provided under each question
  1. Overall my understanding of the mediation process has

  2. Reading articles on mediation contributed to my understanding of the process.

  3. Participating in group discussions increased my understanding

  4. Reading articles on mediation contributed to my ability to participate in the workshop.

  5. Viewing the video on mediation contributed to my ability to participate in the

  6. Taking a role in the mediation exercise increased my awareness of the practical aspects of mediation

  7. Combining reading, discussion and practical exercises enhanced my understanding of the subject matter.

  8. The most useful aspect of the lecture was the

  9. Overall I enjoyed this learning experience

  10. I would like more lectures to contain practical exercises

  11. The best thing about the exercise was
    Please comment in the space provided below

  12. The worst thing about the exercise was
    Please comment in the space provided below

  13. Can you suggest improvements
    Please comment in the space provided below


  1. Richard Johnstone, 'Rethinking The Teaching of Law', (1992) Vol 3 No. 1 Legal Education Review, 17 at page 31. [back]
  2. See McBer and Company, Learning Style Inventory, McBer and Company, Boston, 1985; Bee Chen Goh, 'Some Approaches To Student Centred Learning' (1994) Vol 28 No.2 The International Journal of Legal Education, 158-167. [back]
  3. David Newble and Robert Cannon, A Handbook for Teachers in Universities and Colleges, Kogan Page, London, 1991, 13. [back]
  4. Bee Chen Goh, op cit, at page 158. [back]
  5. Dai Hounsell, 'Understanding Teaching and Teaching for Understanding' in F. Marton et al (eds), The Experience of Learning, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1984, 195. [back]
  6. Richard Johnstone, op cit, at page 31. [back]
  7. See Bee Chen Goh, op cit, at page 160. [back]
  8. Dai Hounsell, op cit, at page 192. [back]
  9. Bee Chen Goh, op cit, at page 160. [back]
  10. Richard Johnstone, op cit, at page 31. [back]
  11. See Bee Chen Goh, op cit, at page 160. [back]
Please cite as: Walker, S. and Shurven, H. (1997). Learning in lectures: A contradiction in terms? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p350-356. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/walker.html

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