Is all this talk of how we lecture just academic?

It’s getting harder to remember what my final years as an undergrad were like, but I can just about remember this. We had lectures in blocks, usually of 5, which ran in a series, one after the other. Each course involved a lecturer rolling in and giving their best for 5 lectures. The style was what we now consider passive, that’s not to say they were bad. Ones I remember most were those involving demonstrations (from my future PhD supervisor), and the ones with brilliant and passionate explanations from my lecturer on quantum chemistry, who really wanted us to understand. In most cases, notes were erratic, in some, they weren’t so great, so then you just went to the book and made up your own notes, and all was well. PowerPoint was used by some younger staff, but you could count them on one hand.

I was reminded of this in the last while, because I am wondering whether all this talk of lecturing style is worth the effort. There now seems to be two camps, with firmly entrenched beliefs about their preferred style and little hope of common ground. But if you are a student finishing 5 lectures on a topic in October, which will be examined the following May, is it important? Yes, you might remember that a particular topic was interesting or engaging. Yes, the lecture itself may have helped in understanding of a topic, and I don’t dismiss efforts to create an active classroom to facilitate those moments. I try to create them myself. But if you are a student with several honours papers to sit, months on from the lecture events, what’s going to matter most is how you study, and what materials you have to study with.

Instead of considering how we deliver a lecture, is it better to consider how we deliver a lecture course? We say at university that we expect students  to do independent work. That the notes are just a skeleton. As a student, I remember being confused by this—how much extra work was enough? Students want to work hard but can need direction. So why not structure the course so that it scaffolds the independent work to do? VLEs can host the (skeleton) notes, review quizzes, tutorial reviews, links to further and supplemental reading, prompts for thoughts and discussion, glossaries, and on, and on. Each of these have a specific purpose, integrated into the course with a particular pedagogic purpose. There is an overall design to the course.

By examining usage of these we can get a measure, way beyond a personal hunch of how brilliant we each are at lecturing, of what is providing value to students. If students watched my tutorial review and tried the quizzes scored less than those who didn’t, something is wrong. Our approach to teaching becomes data driven, and we can derive some metrics of value. The lecture was a central and important part of this, but it is part of an overall framework of resources that we provide to students as part of our lecture course. Our discussion on lecture quality moves away from how good a lecturer is to how comprehensive a lecture course is.

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