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UEA’s singing lecturer

UEA nursing lecturer Stephen Smith, who specialises in nursing neuroscience and specialist care for patients with neurological diseases, has been making headlines with his unusual twist on the usual teaching methods. Smith uses songs in some of his lectures to help his students remember course content.

“They have a lot to deal with, so I think that we have a duty as lecturers, if we can, to make the learning a bit lighter and to help memory, to save reading the same books so often” says Smith.

“The thing about songs, you’ve got a lot of things that help you remember stuff, you’ve got repetition, you’ve got rhyme, rhythm, that’s all stuff that lends itself to remembering.”

Music has long been a part of Smith’s life, and he describes how “It’s something I’ve always done, I come from a big family. It seems a strange thing but ever since being young I would get up at weddings, funerals, birthdays and do something about the people and the occasion.

“I learnt to play the guitar at about the age of 14 at school. I always ended up at a birthday or a wedding doing a rhyme, and by the time I learnt guitar it was a song.”

As well as helping with memory, Smith’s songs also help to express to students the human side of what they’re learning.

“Over the years, when I’ve nursed and engaged with families, people have told me their stories – and I’ve always asked permission – but I’ve put songs together that are what people have told me about their experiences,” Smith explains.

“So, some of the songs are quite emotive, and I can’t really take credit for the fact that they are emotive, it is just what people have told me and I try to stick fairly faithfully to that. That sticks in people’s minds.

“What you’re trying to convey is not just the academic facts, but that this is how it hits people, and that you need to be aware of that when you go out there to practice.”

Lectures haven’t been the only outlet for his musical flair, and recently Smith has been performing at local folk clubs. ‘I’ve been surprised how well it’s gone down,’ he said. “At folk clubs I keep the range of topics really broad.”

Smith believes though that in a casual setting his more academic songs can still be relevant. “everyone knows somebody who has dementia, most people know of someone who’s had a stroke, a lot of people know people with Parkinson’s,” he said.

The recent flurry of media attention is a welcome change for the long serving UEA lecturer, who explained that, in cooperation with his son: “We’ve made a couple of CDs, and we’ve had a bit of success, they’ve been played on quite a few radio stations. I’ve been doing songs in lectures for 20 years, but I don’t think anyone’s ever taken much notice except the students!”

His songs have also attracted attention from within academia though, and Smith explains that for the past 20 years: “I’ve never had a year when I wasn’t invited somewhere internationally to give a talk. It’s caught on that I’ll play a song at the end too, so I tend to do that, and it’s got me around the world!”

Positive feedback from both current and ex-students are what encourages Smith to carry on singing. “I think I’d really think again if I ever got a bad reaction or even a non-reaction,” he explains. “When we were on radio Norfolk somebody phoned in and said to them, ‘I am now a qualified nurse, some years ago I was there [at UEA] and Steve was a lecturer. I can still remember the choruses and it really helped me learn’”.

28/01/2020

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Ted Tuthill-Jones