Bristol Teaching Awards, Teaching and Learning Gallery, Teaching Stories

Using Props In Teaching

When reading through the Bristol Teaching Award nominations, I was struck by the number of students that mentioned how helpful their lecturers’ use of props had been.

Bringing props into teaching (especially online!) can surprise and entertain students, as well as simplifying difficult concepts by using objects to visualise what is happening. Props can make content more memorable by actively engaging students in the scenario you’re creating.

I spoke to two colleagues, Imogen Moore, Associate Professor in Law and Professor Nigel Savery, Professor of Biochemistry, about their teaching props and how it has helped their students.

Imogen – I heard you’ve turned to puppets as teaching props this year! Can you tell me a bit more about it?

I don’t use puppets as such, but a collection of soft toys (my children having outgrown them) with chocolate (usually Smarties as they are conveniently transferable without melting!) to illustrate who’s got what in a Trusts relationship, and then allowing students to ‘see’ movement of property and ownership changes in different contexts.

Seal the Settlor, Teddy the Trustee, and Bunny the Beneficiary

It seems to be quite helpful for some learners to get a handle on what might otherwise be quite esoteric notions of ‘legal ownership’, ‘equitable title’, and ‘beneficial interest’. One of those areas where visualising something seems to help. And it always gets a laugh.

Happily, it transfers well from lecture hall to my laptop camera, although when my cat joined us (obviously at home, rather than in the lecture hall!) that did get a bit trickier to manage. When I first did it, I used student volunteers to be the characters, but they find it a bit daunting to stand up in front of 400 other students in the Victoria Rooms, so soft toys seems to be the way to go, although if we move to smaller groups next year I might try it with students again, not least as they are more visible than a small pink bunny that keeps falling over!

Nigel – can you talk to me a little bit about why you’re using pipe-cleaners in your teaching?

The idea came as a solution to the basic problem that when teaching students about DNA we often have to represent quite complex 3-dimensional microscopic objects with simple 2-dimensional drawings. I try to help them understand the different types of drawing by using 3D models that more accurately reflect particular aspects of the structures we are thinking about and then I get students to make models out of paper, cut them up or write on them or whatever is necessary to understand the concept.

Holliday Junction – represented with pipe cleaners

The pipe-cleaner thing is a representation of something called a Holliday junction, where two DNA molecules get intertwined with one another. It’s important for the mixing of maternal and paternal genes when making sperm and ova, and for repair of broken DNA. It looks quite pretty with 4 different colour pipe-cleaners wrapped around one another. For some students, the ability to see me manipulate a model made of pipe-cleaners (or pre-COVID to hold and manipulate it themselves) just seems to allow things to click in a way that pictures don’t.

What props have you used in your teaching? Share below in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Using Props In Teaching”

  1. In a plant biology lecture with few students (~20), I let them build flowers using precut tissue paper (sepals and petals) and pipe cleaners (stamen and carpels). The aim was to get across that even with the same “building material”, how many elements you use and how they are arranged determine flower shape.

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