The impact of performance skills on students' attitudes towards the learning experience in higher education
The University of Western Australia
One way to assist in transforming a lecture experience into an occasion that can attract and engage students is via the use of performance techniques. Investigating the impact of certain types of performance skills on students' attitudes towards the learning experience can help better understand the relevance of such techniques in face to face and online learning experiences. This paper outlines a project which: i) surveyed students about their attitudes towards face to face and online recorded lectures, ii) surveyed students about their attitudes towards performance techniques, in particular, spatial awareness, vocalisation, eye contact and passion, iii) interviewed lecturers about the potential benefits of performance techniques to student learning in the lecture theatre, and iv) investigated which factors most affected a teacher's decision to incorporate performance techniques in the lecture theatre. The results suggest that students and lecturers value face to face delivery of content, recognising the benefit of performance techniques in the lecture theatre. Recommendations are made regarding ways to encourage a wider use and evaluation of performance techniques in teaching and learning at the university level.
The available literature relates predominantly to K-12 teaching. There is a noticeable lack of research focusing on the use of performance techniques in higher education teaching. It remains one of the least investigated, developed or discussed aspects of teaching practices in higher education with little appearing in the literature in the last 15 years. With the rapid changes which technology is bringing to education (and higher education in particular) it is timely to re-energise discussions around the use of performance techniques in the lecture theatre. This paper aims to explore the impact of specific performance techniques on students' and lecturers' attitudes towards the learning experience in higher education, from an objective theatre practitioner's perspective within a representative case study. Exploring students' and lecturers' attitudes towards performance techniques in the lecture theatre can provide useful data and insights concerning existing face to face and online pre-recorded lectures as well as future virtual lecture designs.
Additionally, even though there have been a number of studies (Bauer, 2002; Bettencourt, Gillett, Gall & Hull, 1983; Coats & Smidchens, 1966; Collins, 1978; Murphy & Walls, 1994; Pineau, 1994; Richmond, Gorham & McCroskey, 1987; Rosenshine & Furst, 1973; Smith, 1979) investigating the effective use of passion to assist student engagement, and a substantial amount of research based within theatre studies (Chekhov, 1991; Chorpenning, 1931; Levy, 1987; Stanislavski, 1936; Ward, 1939; Zinder, 2002) analysing the connection between the effective use of voice and an actor's obvious display of passion, there have been fewer studies (Anderson, 1971; Kim, 2004; Knapp, 1971; Richmond, Gorham & McCroskey, 1987) completed in an effort to determine the impact of a teacher's use of performance techniques such as vocalisation on student learning. The majority of research literature, besides Tauber & Mester (2007) and Felman (2001), refers to the practice and value of performance techniques in either the secondary school context or the teaching of theatre and drama students for secondary education qualifications, or practicum outcomes regarding drama in education for teacher-artists (O'Toole & Lepp, 2000; Timpson, Burgoyne, Jones & Jones, 1997; Travers, 1979). These studies focus on teachers' practicum abilities and their views on the importance of performance techniques in education rather than students' perceptions. How to best implement voice, eye contact, spatial awareness and to display passion in a higher education context and within current face to face and online delivery modes and future virtual teaching environments remains largely uninvestigated.
More recently, a limited number of studies have appeared discussing the various reasons why students may choose online delivery modes over face to face lectures and the reasons behind the decrease in student numbers in face to face learning environments (Franklin & Peat, 2001; Johnson, Aragan, Shaik & Palma-Rivas 2000; Massingham & Herrington, 2006). These studies provide minimal reference to the use or lack of performance techniques by teachers as a possible cause of student absenteeism at face to face lectures. The studies rather refer to influences such as university staff time constrictions, the push for research outcomes, financial 'cut backs' and student life style choices as causes for changes in the teaching environment. Technological advances have also facilitated an increase in the number of students accessing content online (Franklin & Peat, 2001; Johnson et al. 2000; Mills, Yanes & Casebeer, 2009). While there is an increasing interest in online teaching, with research projects being conducted into what constitutes 'best practice' in this environment, there remains lingering concerns regarding the quality of lecturers' performance in the lecture theatre which have not been resolved (Parsons-Pollard, Diehl Lacks & Hylton Grant, 2008). Researchers such as Massingham and Herrington (2006) and Ponzurick, France and Logar (2000) report students' preference for face to face instruction, being more satisfied than students who receive courses via distant education or online pre-recorded lectures.
Some studies (Dell, Low & Wilder, 2010; Franklin & Peat, 2001; Johnson, et al, 2000) have indicated that while students (and lecturers) expect and prefer face to face lectures as part of the university culture and experience, there is little difference between student achievement when studying via distant education or face to face learning experiences. Other studies (Sheely, 2006; Tucker; 2001) have presented an alternative view regarding student perspectives on the choices they make regarding content delivery. This variation in findings may well signal a possible link between the impact of performance skills on students' attitudes towards the learning experience in higher education and the choices students make between online and face to face learning experiences. This paper investigates student and lecturers' views on the use of performance techniques in the lecture theatre and their perceived affect on student learning.
spatial awareness ... walking at least two steps in the same direction from one location to another ... vocalization ... a noise coming from the vocal chords of the teacher in an interesting way such as tone and inflections and eye contact ... an occurrence of looking into the eyes of any student in the class [or scanning the audience] (p. 2)Passion may be regarded as the sum effect of the use of performance techniques such as spatial awareness, vocalisation and eye contact. For the purposes of this study it was described as, "the magic of learning, the challenge to make a difference, the wonder of knowledge ... Every teacher who can recapture that passion within is prepared to handle the tools and techniques of the classroom [or lecture theatre]" (Murphy and Walls, 1994, p.140-141). In responding to the questions, both students and lecturers were asked to consider a typical lecture theatre as the learning space context.
Students acknowledged the role of performance techniques in making the face to face lecture a preferable mode of delivery over its online counterpart. This was evident by comments including "[lectures provide] better interaction... easier to pay attention", an appreciation that "body language, facial expression...contribute to learning", and "if the lecturer makes good eye contact, speaks clearly and loudly...I understand better in lectures". In summary as one student commented, "it gives it a more human feel". A specific example was provided by one student who commented on an individual lecturer's style, and his impact on the student's attention and engagement.
In Politics, our first lecturer was really good, everybody turned up just to see what he would do next, but [as well as] being entertained we also learnt more and had an added motivation to understand the topic.Students who reported a preference for the delivery of online pre-recorded lectures cited reasons of convenience, such as the flexibility of when and how often they could listen to and view material. Timetable clashes and other commitments often impacted on their preference for online delivery. Typically as one student explained, "it depends on my workload ... it can be good when you miss a lecture or can't make one". A number of students valued the ability to revisit the material several times, and believed this assisted in their learning. An example of this was explained by the comment, "I'm able to pause, rewind, repeat, do it in my own time and take notes".
Reflecting the comments of both those preferring face to face as well as those preferring the online mode of delivery, the students who had no particular preference based their judgment on a combination of individual lectures and aspects of convenience. One student commented, "It depends on the lecturer really" and another explained:
They [lecturers] are better in person, however, I feel that you get more out of them via Lectopia. [It] depends on my workload. Usually would attend personally, but if I have stuff going on, I'd watch Lectopia.
In terms of perceived effectiveness in assisting students to pay attention participants unanimously ranked voice and passion equally high (100%), followed by eye contact (91%) and spatial awareness (82%). Similarly, in terms of assisting them to be more enthusiastic about the topic and encouraging them to learn more, students ranked passion (100%), voice (91%), eye contact (74%) and spatial awareness (73%). These results arguably support the proposition that, as tools of overall effectiveness for learning, students rank passion highest followed by voice. While eye contact rated highly (91%) as a means of maintaining attention, students rated eye contact less effective (74%) and approximately as effective a performance tool in encouraging learning as spatial awareness (73%). There is a clear indication from the results that the students completing the survey differentiated between the different types of performance techniques employed by teachers and their relative ability to both gain the students' attention and positively impact their learning experience. Explanatory comments supplied by the students provided an insight into their attitudes towards the individual techniques.
|Key survey questions||I tend to pay|
|I am more enthusiastic about the topic|
and I am encouraged to learn more
|When a lecturer moves around the room during a lecture ...||82%||73%|
|When a lecturer uses their voice well during a lecture ...||100%||91%|
|When a lecturer uses eye contact during lectures ...||91%||74%|
|When a lecturer is passionate about the topic during a lecture ...||100%||100%|
... when a professor moves around and is more animated and the entertainment value goes through the roof. Add to that enthusiasm and a passion for the subject and everyone has an enjoyable experience. Enjoyment is crucial, a good learning strategy and retaining information. Thus, better result and a better uni experience.
All four lecturers agreed with students that a teacher's obvious display of passion in the lecture theatre positively affects student engagement and encourages learning. However teachers also pointed out that the delivery of content and a teacher's pedagogical and professional experience was more important. As one academic stated:
If you're [the teacher] not interested it's because you have a lack of enthusiasm, you will alienate the students and that is a disaster ... I use my own experiences and what I know to enhance the lecture. I try and relate it to what I already know ... If you're not confident of your area of content but with experience it doesn't matter because you will draw in threads of what you already know to assist this situation.Additionally, all four lecturers agreed that the overall use of performance techniques in the lecture theatre were important in producing "personal contact with students" and assisting students to "remember information". One lecturer explained that without the use of performance techniques in the lecture theatre the students will fall asleep, "no matter how interesting the subject is, if a lecturer has a tiny voice it's bad, they will lose interest". However, lecturers were also slightly divided and raised conflicting views when asked about the importance of individual performance techniques. In the responses that did not seem to recognise the connection between individual techniques and a resultant display of passion, the lecturers generally felt that the use of eye contact, voice and spatial awareness were not as important as passion or the delivery of content.
Lecturers also elaborated on what was deterring them from implementing such techniques. For example, two lecturers commented that a lack of training as well as the imperative to cover the content was a concern. One early career teacher explained what he perceived as the competing demands between student engagement and content delivery, "I'm unable to cover content appropriately when focusing on student engagement in the lecture theatre" and an experienced lecturer stated, "a lack of [performance technique] training" was deterring him from using performance techniques effectively in the lecture theatre. Additionally, when lecturers were questioned about the use of voice there was a divergence of opinion, perhaps influenced by the norms and expectations of their discipline or by their own teaching and learning experience. Two experienced teachers asserted that the reliance on technology (microphone) as well as having notes on the podium prevented them from projecting their voice, or using pitch and volume. One lecturer expressed this by saying, "I feel forced to stay behind the podium because of my notes and the microphone". Similarly, another teacher commented, "I'm anchored to the [podium's] microphone and the visualiser and I can't talk off the top of my head". In contrast, an early career teacher as well as a teacher with a formal acting degree suggested that voice was extremely important. The teacher with background experience in acting went to great lengths to incorporate voice in the lecture theatre. He explained it by saying:
I emphasise words with a strong loud voice and it booms all over ... if however the lecture theatre is large with a larger group I will use the microphone and concentrate on rhythm and tone rather than projection.Whereas, the early career teacher posited that the use of voice was most useful within a combinational approach in order to assist in "grab[bing] their attention" and to "learn more":
I think that using the space well, eye contact, voice and engagement are extremely important in creating a learning environment for students that grabs their attention and assists in them learning more. Spatial awareness, pace and using your eyes and sounding interesting in what you're talking about.The majority of lecturers' comments and views suggest that a teacher's experience does not necessarily contribute to their ability to implement performance techniques into the lecture theatre. Rather, a lack of training as well as the need for confidence building is often deterring them from doing so.
While taking steps to ensure a level of reliability by confirming a shared understanding of the techniques, it is important to note that the researcher envisaged that the survey questions would encourage students to complete a broad exploratory response, and that the personal comments would support different interpretations and potential varied responses in terms of how participants interpreted "effective implementation of performance techniques", "paying attention", "more enthusiastic", and "to learn more". Therefore, the researcher's emphasis on the meaning of each performance technique prior to each survey and interview being completed, encouraging the participants to comment on why they felt this way as well as to give examples was important to the research project as part of the mixed method case study.
The current study investigated student and lecturer attitudes and lecturers' practices associated with the use of performance techniques in the lecture theatre in higher education. Recent and rapid technological advances have resulted in the proliferation of online delivery of content including live recordings of face to face lectures, which are subsequently or alternatively made available to students. The traditional model of the lecture being delivered in a lecture theatre to an 'audience' of students is changing. It is relevant therefore to extrapolate the findings of this study beyond the traditional lecture theatre to the online environment. Two questions arise which the results of this study can begin to address:
The results indicated that there was a disconnect between teachers' perceptions and those of the students regarding the usefulness of performance techniques to enhance the learning experience. While both teachers and students recognised the importance of passion in the delivery of content, when it came to the individual performance techniques the lecturers tended to temper their endorsement by introducing the argument for content knowledge and experience as being equally or more influential. For instance, the majority of students agreed that voice was as important as passion in gaining student attention and only slightly less so for encouraging learning, whereas teachers were divided and suggested that content knowledge and experience were more important than the implementation of voice. It also appears that the teachers did not equate the lack of performance skills in the lecture theatre as being an important reason behind the decrease in student attendance at face to face lectures even though students suggested otherwise. In this study, students clearly stated that they preferred face to face delivery of content over online delivery modes, and especially when the lecturer was "passionate" and "displayed interest".
Interestingly, despite a general endorsement by both students and lecturers for the use of performance techniques in the lecture theatre, both groups noted that they were rarely implemented effectively. This might be a reflection of the belief expressed by some of the lecturers interviewed, that passion and voice were less important than content knowledge and pedagogical experience. Additionally, some teachers interviewed believed that they were unable to implement certain performance techniques such as passion and voice due to a lack of training. Three of the lecturers, expressed some unease about not being formally trained in the area of performance techniques, and having the knowledge to be able to evaluate the effective use of such techniques. As one lecturer explained:
I use performance techniques without thinking about it but if I were to undergo training that specifically focused on eye contact or moving about the space, I could enhance the lectures because I'm really not aware of what I'm doing, I just do it.Alternatively, it may be due to teachers believing that they were too constrained by in-built microphones, being bound to technology at the podium, and the recording of lectures to consider or worry about using performance techniques. This view might be misguided in the light of students' comments suggesting that they believed a teacher's lack of performance techniques indicated a minimal level of displayed passion, which did influence student absenteeism. It would appear this barrier to the implementation of performance techniques by lecturers may be due to them being unaware of students' attitudes towards the impact of performance techniques on their learning experiences. As Felman (2001) points out:
too many professors often remain ... isolated and alone, tucked neatly behind a podium peculiarly academic in nature, peering at impeccably prepared notes, and waiting for the staccato sounds of sufficiently respectful applause (p.xvii).Of the cohort of lecturers interviewed only one had a formal acting qualification and no one had a formal teaching qualification. This is common among academics at the university level where more importance seems to be placed on the research expertise of the academic, or their workplace superiority (Giles, Wetherbee & Johnson, 2003; Spencer, 2003; Vaughn & Barker, 2001). Formal preparation for teaching in higher education does not typically include a focus on performance techniques as a usual skill. Usually, such skills and strategies are primarily learnt on the job through observation of others, and from aspects of trial and error (Goulden, 1991; Grobe, 2001; Felman, 2001; O'Toole & Lepp, 2000).
While what the students want and what the lecturers deliver is at odds we remain unable to adequately answer the second of the questions posed by this study which is: is the students' choice of one form of delivery (face to face versus online) over another influenced in any way by the use of performance techniques? There is a need to revaluate "best practice" associated with current aspects of face to face as well as online delivery of lectures (as well as future online and virtual learning environments), and the degree to which they assist in meeting student learning needs. The results of this study suggest that students do want passion from their lecturers made evident by the use of techniques such as vocalisation, spatial awareness and eye contact. The results also bring good news. Rather than viewing the inevitable move towards online delivery of content as an impediment to the thoughtful use of performance techniques, we can be reassured in the understanding that the two techniques that are transferable to an online environment, namely passion and voice, are those most valued by students.
Overall, this study concurs with past research that the lack or use of performance techniques in the lecture theatre can negatively or positively affect student engagement (Felman, 2001; Murphy and Walls, 1994; Tauber and Mester, 2007). The majority of students in this study supported face to face over online delivery of content and the lecturers supported the use of both. The data and comments illustrate that students believe that they learn more when they are confronted with lecturers who engage passionately with their subject and use their voice effectively. However, attracting and holding students' attention is never easy, and this study has indicated that implementing certain performance techniques such as passion and voice in the lecture theatre is one way in which a lecturer can assist improved student engagement and learning. This study would suggest that proactively incorporating performance techniques (those discussed in this project and others) into teaching preparation programs in higher education and into ongoing professional development for teaching academics could be beneficial for both teachers and students.
|||Throughout this paper, the phrase "performance technique/s" is used, referring to "acting skills" or "performance skills" which are terms commonly utilised by theatre practitioners in the acting and theatre field.|
|||Lectopia is an online lecture delivery system commonly provided alongside most face to face lectures at The University of Western Australia. The Lectopia version is recorded during the face to face lecture, and made available within 24 hours for students to access via The University's learning management system.|
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NB. The term "performance technique" is used in this questionnaire to describe the practice associated with a lecturer presenting content using the voice, spatial awareness, passion and eye contact in the lecture theatre, assisting student engagement.
NB. The term "performance technique" is used in this questionnaire to describe the practice associated with a lecturer presenting content using voice, spatial awareness, passion and eye contact in the lecture theatre, assisting student engagement.
Teaching and/or Acting Qualification
None, BA in Acting
|Subject/s currently taught||Bio Chemistry||English Literature||Creative Writing||Performance Studies|
|Attitudes towards face to face delivery of content||Positive||Positive||Positive||Positive|
|Advantages for students||A positive and engaging learning experience||A positive learning experience||A positive learning experience||A positive and engaging learning experience|
|Disadvantages for teachers||Unable to cover content appropriately when focusing on student engagement||Human communication that is real||None||A live and powerful performance|
|Attitude towards pre-recorded online delivery of content||Neutral||Positive||Positive||Neutral|
|Advantages for teachers||Better for students if they have missed lecture/s||Better for students if they have missed lecture/s||Better for students if they have missed lecture/s||Better for students if they have missed lecture/s|
|Disadvantages for teachers||Unable to get to know students||Unable to get to know students||None||Unable to get to know students|
|Attitude towards spatial awareness in the lecture theatre||Positive||Negative||Neutral||Positive|
|Attitude towards eye contact in the lecture theatre||Positive||Neutral||Positive||Positive|
|Attitude towards voice in the lecture theatre||Positive||Negative||Neutral||Positive|
|Attitude towards obvious display of passion in the lecture theatre||Positive||Positive||Positive||Positive|
|Advantages of using performance techniques in the lecture theatre for teachers||* Student engagement|
* Personal contact
* Answering questions
|* Personal contact|
|* Personal contact|
|* Personal contact|
* Passion towards
|Disadvantages of using performance techniques in the lecture theatre for teachers||* Lack of training|
* Lack of confidence
* Peer reflection
|* Content is more|
* Lack of training
|* Content is more|
|* Peer reflection|
|Authors: Rachael Hains-Wesson is a sessional teacher and PhD candidate in the Department of English and Cultural Studies, Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, at The University of Western Australia. Rachael teaches in the areas of theatre, performance and creative writing and her interests encompass performance education, imagination in early childhood from a Theater for Young Audiences' theatrical perspective, Theatre-in-Education and Drama-in-Education.|
Please cite as: Hains-Wesson, R. (2011). The impact of performance skills on students' attitudes towards the learning experience in higher education. Issues In Educational Research, 21(1), 22-41. http://www.iier.org.au/iier21/hains-wesson.html