Posted tagged ‘lectures’

Time to retire the sage on the stage?

May 13, 2014

For centuries universities in the west have based their learning methods on the lecture. The concept is simply enough: a lecturer stands in front of an often large group of students and delivers a monologue on his or her specialist topic. Students take notes. Then at some later point there is an examination, during which the students will try to recreate the lecturer’s approach to the subject, and maybe add some analysis or commentary if they dare. And if all of that works well, the student gets a degree.

Of course a good deal of lecturing is better than that, but some isn’t. Truly interactive lectures are still rare, and nowadays many student don’t turn up at these events at all. Still, this is a resilient form of teaching, and even now new university buildings will typically contain fairly inflexible (in terms of design and furnishing) lecture theatres. But is that justified?

A recent study in the United States has again called into question the usefulness of the lecture. It revealed that students taught principally through traditional lectures have a high failure rate and learn less effectively. This does not mean that teaching large classes is always bad, but rather than various ‘active learning’ and participation techniques will create a better pedagogical setting. This could include the use of technology, or breaking into smaller groups for more interactive discussions.

In reality many lecturers will already employ interactive learning techniques, even in large lecture classes. However, it is perhaps time to look again at how useful the lecture really is. Certainly in the internet age it can be seriously questioned whether lectures are needed where their purpose is simply to disseminate basic information. But it can also be asked whether a theatre-style lecture room is what is needed as we make use of newly gained pedagogical insights, and whether new academic buildings should contain such facilities at all. It is time to ask whether lecturers really should, well, lecture.

Note this!

August 27, 2010

Exactly 35 years ago I started my second year as an undergraduate law student in a Dublin university. My workload for that year consisted of four ‘subjects’ (no modules in those days), three of which I had been very much looking forward to. But I dreaded the prospect of the fourth. The subject-matter was dry beyond words, and in addition the lecturer concerned appeared only to have a passing interest in it. He had the habit of sitting while delivering the lectures, which he did in a monotone voice reading from a prepared text from which he never deviated, ever.

Anybody proposing to go into legal practice had to take this subject for professional reasons, and so he had a captive audience. Lecture attendance was compulsory, and each session began with a roll call. But it was impossible for any human being to follow the stuff, and so the 50 or so students in the hall would doodle, read a novel, write letters home, do a shopping list, or whatever came to mind to relieve the boredom. The lecturer never looked up from his notes, and what we did seemed to be of no consequence to him.

One thing we didn’t do was to take notes. The reason why we didn’t was because some bright spark a few years earlier had noticed that the lecturer kept precisely to his own prepared notes, and moreover that these never ever changed from year to year. As he could do shorthand, he took them down as dictation, typed them up and sold copies to every incoming second year student. He did a brisk trade, and once so equipped note taking was redundant. There was always the comic moment when the lecturer reached the end of the page, and there was loud theatrical turning of pages around the hall.

The general view back then was that the only thing that really mattered when it came to exam preparation was that you must have a ‘good set of notes’. This did not mean an analytical text that addressed the issues of the course in a critical manner; it meant a near-perfect reproduction of everything the lecturers had said, so you could learn it and then repeat it. Even then, this technique did not necessarily work, as some lecturers expected a much more intelligent approach, but it worked with enough of them to make it valid, by and large.

When I became a lecturer I quickly noticed that most students would write down every word I said however trivial or irrelevant. I swear that some of them started writing when I said ‘good morning’. So at first I would, at certain points in a lecture, tell student to stop writing and just listen and respond freely. As students got used to me they also got used to the idea that I wanted an exchange of ideas, and that I was not Moses handing out the tablets of law. I guess I had assumed that pedagogy had moved on recently and that both lecturers and students were now different. However, recently I was chatting with a very bright young student who told me in passing that he particularly liked a particular lecturer because ‘you can get great notes from his lectures.’ So is this particular practice still alive and well?

It is my view that if lectures are just occasions for a lecturer to disseminate ‘facts’ and ‘information’, then it has no legitimate purpose. Yes, there is scope and need for some information to be passed to the students, but there should be much more to it than that. They should be about stimulating the mind, not filling the memory. I think on balance that if I were lecturing today, I would ban all note taking altogether.

Sorry, what was that again?

January 12, 2010

According to the BBC, research recently carried out has revealed that students have an attention span of only 10 minutes. The researchers conducted a survey of 1,000 students, about one third of whom apparently blamed the pressures of other (non-academic) work and being over-tired for their lack of concentration.

When I first embarked upon lecturing in the late 1970s, we were always told that the normal attention span of any audience was 20 minutes, at which point a change in tone, pace or content is needed if they are to continue to follow what is being said. I used to follow that advice, and would always have two disruptive moments in my classes, either changing the tempo, or stopping to have a discussion with the students, or telling an anecdote (with relevance to the material). I used to find that this worked well, and on the whole I believe I kept my audience engaged; or maybe I’m just bad at recognising that people are asleep.

But ten minutes? Really? Maybe the sample of students were just bored with the researchers’ questions.

But then again, if the survey is right I had better stop. Half my readers may, at this point, only be reading yada yada rhubarb.

Taking notes

December 16, 2009

Today I had reason to cast my mind back to October 14, 1974, the date on which I attended my first lecture as an undergraduate student. The place was the Old Chemistry Theatre in the then science building in Trinity College Dublin. No, I wasn’t a science student, I was reading law: but in those days Trinity had few adequate lecture theatres, and this was one we used quite a bit. It was an interesting location, as there was always a faint whiff of gas in the room, and on the benches you could read what seemed at the time to me to be the rather nerdy graffiti of the chemists.

Next to me at this opening lecture was a girl whom I was meeting for the first time on this occasion. I don’t actually know what happened to her since our Trinity days, but by heavens she was organised. As I watched her unpack her bag I was amazed to see colour-coded binders and pens, and as she opened up her note book and held her pen at the ready, she offered the observation that academic success was all about ‘keeping a good set of notes’. Then the Professor of Law entered and began lecturing (with minimal introductions, as I recall), and my neighbour was off! Head down, as far as I could tell she took down every word he said. Even when he repeated his statement (as he often did), she took it down again. She didn’t do shorthand, but she was a fast writer, but the speed of the writing that was required made her look agitated at times. I was so fascinated by this display I didn’t take down a single word on that occasion. As a result I never worked out what was the initial argument that introduced us to the law of torts. At the end of the lecture I’m not sure she did, either, but she could certainly look it up; I couldn’t.

A few years later when I started lecturing, one of the things that irritated me most was when a student was visibly just transcribing my words of wisdom without stopping to think about them. I used to interrupt my own lectures from time to time to invite such students to make a comment, and to encourage them to see the lecture as a dialogue rather than a speech. I succeeded with some, but there were always others to whom a complete set of notes was a matter of religion rather than of learning. To try and re-educate these I sometimes told students that, for a few minutes at least, they were not allowed to write anything – they should just listen and then respond.

I wonder what it is all like now. Recently I was chatting to a group of students and asked them whether they took notes at lectures, and what approach they had to them. Some never went to lectures and so couldn’t offer a view, but those who did seemed to me to have an approach not unlike that of my neighbour in the Old Chemistry Theatre. And indeed the non-attenders thought this was great, because their approach to picking up what they were missing was to borrow (or even buy, I discovered) the regular attenders’ notes.

It seems we still have a way to go before we have persuaded students that active learning trumps highly organised regurgitation. But then again, when I put that to the students I was talking to, they replied that they would believe me when first they saw a hyper-organised note-taker fail the exams, or at least perform at a grade worse than a 2.1. We are, they suggested, good at talking up the value of active learning, but very bad at rewarding it. So maybe that’s something to think about.

PowerPoint, with neither power nor a point – better to be naked?

August 16, 2009

Nearly a year ago in this blog I wrote a piece about the use of PowerPoint, Microsoft’s presentation software, and argued that it was too often being used badly, and was certainly being over-used more generally. I was reminded of this recently when I turned up for a public event to which I had been invited that was to consist of a major lecture. As I entered the room I was handed a print-out of the PowerPoint slides the speaker intended to work from; I stopped for a moment and glanced through the 64 slides (!), concluded immediately that this lecture held no interest for me whatsoever, and left again immediately (though taking the hand-out with me, just in case). Instead I repaired to a rather nice coffee shop where I had a cappuccino and a rather good pastry and read an article in an academic journal I had with me. Damn it, I thought as I left the cafe, I was wrong, PowerPoint has its uses.

But if it does have its uses, it increasingly has to battle with the sceptics. It seems that more and more doubts are being expressed about whether PowerPoint has a useful place in the university classroom, where it has become totally ubiquitous. These days it is almost impossible to go to a university lecture in which there isn’t a PowerPoint presentation that takes the student through every point the lecturer is making. Admittedly I have seen this done rather well, but have also experienced occasions when the lecturer seems to be merely reading off the words from the screen, sometimes sounding as if he or she were encountering them for the first time.

But now, according to the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education, there are the beginnings of a campaign to bring this to an end. One US college, the Southern Methodist University, is removing all computers from classrooms; and a survey undertaken in England by the University of Central Lancashire found that 59 per cent of students found lectures were becoming dull and that this was connected with the use of PowerPoint. So what is increasingly being proposed is that lecturers should get used to ‘teaching naked’, which I hasten to add is the practice of not using technological props, but to return to the concept of a university class as a forum for intellectual interaction between faculty and students; this, it is felt, has been inhibited by the use of PowerPoint.

I suspect there is room here for questions about babies and bath water, but it does seem right that we should remind ourselves that technology, including PowerPoint, is not an end in itself but at best a tool. Its use has probably had some positive effects, such as persuading lecturers to structure what they are saying, but on the other hand it has become so much the expected thing that too many teachers no longer think properly about what value it is adding, and have allowed it to stifle debate rather clarify content. I had already reached this conclusion ten years ago, as I was embarking upon my last year as a lecturer: back then I decided to ensure that in every second lecture I used no technology at all and focused instead on interactive discussion. So maybe I was ahead of my time…

Hang on a minute!

March 23, 2009

Concerned that traditional teaching methods may be outdated? Wondering how we can keep students interested in our programmes? And are you reaching for the TV remote control right now as you start to lose interest in this post? Hang on a minute. Literally. We have the answer: the ‘microlecture’. This is a ‘tiny burst of education’, 60 seconds of exposition or explanation (I absolutely refuse to believe it could include analysis), available online – or at any rate, available online with San Juan College in New Mexico. So we read in this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

If you are studying in San Juan, you can access microlectures for degree programmes in health and safety, tribal government, and veterinary studies. Indeed as I understand it, microlectures are the only teaching tool used for the health and safety course. The view of the College is that these ‘bursts’ can be as useful as traditional lectures.

I am bound to wonder, why stop there? Why not Beethoven’s 9th Microsymphony (the full essence in 60 seconds), Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake at last understandable as condensed into one paragraph, Einstein’s theory of relativity made even more relative by putting it on a car bumper sticker – and equally good intellectually, if not better.

Seriously, we must be open to new methods and pedagogical insights. But as we enjoy an ever-decreasing attention span we must not bring ourselves to believe that bite-sized knowledge should validly replace analysis. I am not saying that reduced coverage or mini-methods cannot work in some contexts, but not as a basis for degree programmes. At least I think not. Heavens, maybe I just need to get with it. Briefly.