Two heads are better than one

Can anyone really keep their focus during student lectures, asks Asha Sumroy?

October 30, 2017 16:01

Asha Sumroy is one of the JC's regular student bloggers for 2017-18. She is studying at Durham University.

I do a double take every time I go for lunch at university and realise that I live in an 11th Century Norman castle. At night the huge wooden gate is closed and guarded by bouncers who check ID’s of students who are queuing up to go to the most popular college bar, the “Undie”, which is literally underground, beneath the great hall of Durham Castle and serves pints for £1.90. I think it's fair to say this isn’t typical of most student experiences in the UK. But gradually, it’s starting to feel like home to me.

Something that hasn’t been so quick to settle has been the academic side of university. I can’t stop comparing the learning environment and structure that I’m experiencing here, to the one that I lived for the past year on Shnat Netzer (Gap year programme in Israel with youth movement Netzer Olami). Maybe it's because the castle walls emanate a similar weight of history and stories as the Jerusalem stone I was surrounded by, that has made the pastoral shift comparably less jarring than the academic one - but the drastic difference between the two learning environments and styles that are juxtaposed at this point in my life require some reflection. 

At first, as I fell asleep in a two hour lecture at 9am on a Wednesday morning, I put the slipped pen marks across my notes down to not getting enough sleep the night before. But I can think of so many instances in the last year where I’ve slept far less and been able to focus and engage in some really demanding areas of study and debate.

The truth is, no one can actually focus for that long. *One study of student attention decline published by the Journal of Chemical Education found that “students do not pay attention continuously for 10-20 minutes during a lecture. Instead, their attention alternates between being engaged and non engaged in ever-shortening cycles throughout the lecture segment”; deeming even hour-long lectures a flawed educational format.

This study further found that students’ lapses in attention are far fewer when educators were using “non lecture pedagogies”. Immediately I couldn’t help drawing the link between this and the ideology of the informal education programme - where the focus is on discussion and debate to reach a depth in topics, variation in the methods used to present information is key (accommodating for the recognised differences in the way all humans best learn) and, perhaps most importantly, the baseline idea that everyone is always learning - including the educators. 

One of the most important forms of study used during my gap year programme was chevruta. Translated literally as “fellowship” or “friendship”, this is the most central form of Jewish text study. First used in the Talmud, students are paired and together work through a piece of text, line by line, struggling to understand its meaning and relevance to wider ideas.

The main point here is that both students must analyse what they are reading and organise their thoughts in order to share them verbally. It also proves an extremely important lesson in listening. Chevruta demands that the students feed off each other’s thoughts to reach a deeper understanding; together sharpening their ideas and their capacity to think. 

Perhaps most importantly, this reciprocal relationship instills respect, perseverance, intention and the idea that one’s understanding and learning is always enhanced by interaction with others. To me, these important Jewish values are missing from my current routine of listening to professors in lecture halls and completing an expected 200 hours of solitary reading across this first year of my degree. 

Our universities are centuries-old (in the case of Durham nearly 200 years), and their formal education system is similarly ingrained into our society. But I can’t help but imagine how different students’ experiences would be - both in terms of engagement in study and social and personal development - if some of these informal, value-led methods were adopted. Our institutions could learn a huge amount from traditional Jewish text study. In the meantime, I would urge anyone, Jewish or not, to find ways of engaging in this beautiful method of exploring the world we live in. As 16th century Italian rabbinic commentator Obadiah Seforno interprets the following verses on chevruta: 

“Two are better off than one, in that they derive greater benefit from their efforts. For if they should fall, the one will raise up the other, as opposed to if one falls when there is no one to raise him” (Ecclesiastes 4:10-11)

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* Bunce, D.M., Flens, E.A., and Nieles K.Y. (2010). How long can students pay attention in class? A study of student attention decline using clickers. Journal of Chemical Education, 87 (12), 1438-1443.

October 30, 2017 16:01

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