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.


4 thoughts on “Is all this talk of how we lecture just academic?

  1. I think the idea that it is the whole lecture course not just the lecture itself that we should think about is a really important point. And ofcourse beyond that, the strategies and techniques that the student uses – are they are deep/surface learner (and how does the organisation of the course affect their learning approach).

    My current research project it analysing Ross’ first year physics lectures – to find out exactly what active learning entails. How much time is spent on PI? What other types of activities take place, what sorts of interactions are there? etc. One thing I’m interested in is the idea of ‘dialogic’, interactions between student and lecturer that allow the student voice to be heard, opinions to be expressed and that result in a feeling of a joint construction of knowledge, rather than the teacher telling the students all they need to know. And it is clear that it isn’t just the lecture, but the structure of the course that affects this. Students being asked to complete a quiz before the lecture which includes a question asking what they found difficult for example, starts this conversation – students feel they have a say in what happens in the lectures. Encouraging students to ask questions and to value those questions during the lecture, also has this effect. Active learning is much more than just what happens in a lecture.

    1. Hi Anna,

      Saw this in action last week and was hugely impressed. Convinced me more than I need that it is the course structure that should be the focus of our discussion, rather than just the content of each lecture. I look forward to reading the outputs of your research!


  2. Great post. Lectures are at most 25% of the total ‘learning’ of any module. But I think we have to be careful about ‘over-scaffolding’ independent learning; otherwise we’re heading into Second Level territory.

    1. Careful now! No over-scaffolding! Of course, but you could argue that lectures are scaffolding. They are give students an indication of the content we will assess them on. So the question is how much do you want to support that. One thing I find in practice and the literature that these supports actually mean students work harder, and hopefully smarter. There’s a narrative that helping students somehow means we are spoon-feeding them. I’m not sure that is really the case.

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