A neon sign with the word hello in a voice bubble
Interaction between students and lecturers can have a surprising pay-off for both parties, writes Dr Christina O'Connor and Dr Gillian Moran at the School of Business, and Prof Denise Luethge, Northern Kentucky University

With a new academic year underway, students and lecturers alike are acclimatising to demanding timetables, new faces and large class sizes. In Ireland, third level student numbers are on the rise year after year leading to class sizes that regularly enter the hundreds.

In a lecture theatre of 500 people, it is easy for students to feel as if they are just another face in the crowd. There is a shared belief among students that they can blend into the background in third level education, making themselves anonymous and almost "invisible" in large classes. This represents a voluntary exclusion by sitting at the back of the room, not speaking up in class and never talking to their lecturers.

While some are most comfortable sitting back and taking it all in – happy to let their peers ask questions, provide answers and engage in class discussions - these students are missing out through their voluntary exclusion. They are less engaged with the content of their courses, less engaged by their lecturers, and benefit less from the learning process.  For lecturers. it can be frustrating when students opt to disengage, and many retreat into traditional lecturer mode providing course content to a room of faceless students.

But what if both students and lecturers choose a more inclusionary path. Can we enhance the third level educational experience by reconnecting students and lecturers? Is it possible to bring personalisation back into the lecture theatre through something as mundane as knowing our students’ names? Both students and lecturers have a joint responsibility to engage better with one another in order to enhance the third level education experience for all.
It can be easy to forget that the adjustment to third level is a stressful time for students. Lecturers must recognise this and do their bit to facilitate and accommodate this transition. Our current students are largely from Generation Z, which The Economist characterises as "more educated, well-behaved, stressed and depressed". They spend more time online than their predecessors, connecting with friends and conducting social interactions behind their screens via their devices, and are less comfortable face-to-face.

But an over-reliance on technology and withdrawal behind a screen can make them feel lonely and left-out. This may be compounded at university by the vastness of lecture theatres and unfamiliar lecturers who do not even know their students’ names. Retreating into one’s device can offer comfort through the distraction of technology.

Recent research undertaken at Maynooth University identified that Gen Z students’ actually do want more interaction and engagement with their lecturers. They miss the personalisation of secondary school and find the large class sizes overwhelming. Perhaps this is something that has been overlooked by lecturers as student numbers increase. One student remarked that "having a lecturer that knows you by name and cares about how you're doing and helps you in any way they can is greatly beneficial and encouraging to a student to contribute their best".

Ultimately, the simple act of "recognising" our students can make them feel reconnected to the positives of earlier learning environments. "The class felt very personal and interactive which was nice because I haven’t experienced that feeling since being in school. I didn’t feel like just another student number in her class…". The unintended output of lecturers recognising students by name resulted in positive engagement overcoming students’ original desires to remain invisible, which enhanced student learning. "The module overall was very formative, from the get-go the lecturer surprisingly knew my name which made me more inclined to work and feel like my work was valued. It also gives less of an opportunity to hide or coast along for the sake of it".

Communication skills to get work done, and social skills to connect with others, will be vitally important in future careers

This simple insight should be regarded as a welcome incentive for both students and lecturers to engage more despite the challenges of large class sizes, competing technologies, and resource limitations. The lecturer has a responsibility to make students feel visible and valued, even in large classes. While this is increasingly challenging given our growing student numbers, we must not forget that simple name recognition is key. Equally it is the student’s responsibility to make themselves known to lecturers and peers, especially in first year, simply by introducing themselves to the lecturer and engaging within the classroom. 

There are additional benefits beyond the classroom of having a lecturer recognise and know them such as providing job references or acting as a referee on the all-important graduate CV in later years. More importantly, this interpersonal rapport also leads to better core skills for the workplace. There are few professions in the business world today where one can hide in a cubicle and relate with co-workers only via text, email and document transfer. Communication skills to get work done, and social skills to connect with others, will be vitally important in future careers. Possibly due to the focus on technical literacy as opposed to social literacy, students are not getting these skills growing up, but they will have difficulty in the future workplace if they do not learn these skills at third level.

Personalisation and interaction have always been at the core of education but have somehow gotten a little lost in the past few years. Let’s reconnect the student name with the face to ensure that the lecture theatre is a place in which learning is personalised and contributes to a society of socially, as well as technically, literate individuals.