Lectures hold a special place in universities; after all, most of the people teaching in universities are described as ‘lecturers’ so people could be forgiven thinking that lectures is what university education is all about. However, the criticism of lectures has been building since 20 terrible reasons to lecture by Graham Gibbs and the more substantial work of Donald Blight in What’s the use of Lectures? and increasing student numbers and new learning technologies have created a new set of pressures on, and possibilities for, the lecture.
That is why the Teaching and Learning Development Unit (TLDU) has created a new web resource on Lectures in the Ideas and Guidance section of its website. The web page draws on the ideas explored in the Effective Lecturing session (running again on 12th June 2012) to consider some of the strengths and challenges of the lecture and introduce some ways of making lectures more effective for student learning.
Lectures can be effective for transmitting information from a lecturer to a large number of students simultaneously, increasingly, however, there is criticism of the potentially quite passive and therefore not particularly effective learning experience that a lecture offers students. A traditional lecture is a long way from the sort of active learning that is generally seen as being beneficial so it is not surprising that the new web page puts a lot of emphasis on introducing activity into lectures.
One of the strengths of the lecture is that it brings a cohort of students all together in one place, providing the sort of shared experiences that can help build the sense of belonging so important for students’ long-term success. Introducing more opportunities in lectures for students to speak to each other and work together makes those links between students stronger. Lectures are also one way of providing an outline of an area of study as preparation for more detailed work carried out individually or in seminars or tutorials. One view is that lectures should concentrate on basic concepts and key ideas, or threshold concepts. In any case, it is important to focus on what students need to know at their stage, rather than everything the lecturer knows about a topic. Writing learning outcomes for a lecture can help to keep attention on the essentials while planning the content and may help you to choose activities to informally assess students’ learning during the lecture. Recently, however, the possibility of recording lectures and using e-learning has led to calls to adopt a flipped classroom or Just-in-Time teaching model that moves individual learning out of contact hours which can then be used for more collaborative work.
An enthusiastic lecturer can inspire students to want to learn about a topic, but students are likely to be even more enthusiastic if they see the subject as something that relates to their lived experience and that they can actually get involved with themselves, so activities that engage students with current affairs, or real life questions will increase engagement and motivation. What research-active lecturers can really add to student learning is an individual perspective to a topic that may be different to, or more current than ideas explored in textbooks. Students value hearing about how the ideas they are reading about relate to lecturers’ own research, but even here the face-to-face lecture is really only adding value if it includes meaningful opportunities for students to ask questions about the research, either during the lecture or afterwards in seminars or an online discussion on Study Direct.
In some subject areas, the lecture is an opportunity to model a disciplinary approach and as a practitioner, a lecturer is in a good position to give students an understanding of what it means to ‘do’ their particular discipline, but most practitioners or researchers in a field do not approach their own learning through lectures. Academic conferences, which are the closest thing, also include opportunities for engaged discussion, networking and peer learning so it would be helpful to include opportunities for that sort of learning in lectures by using appropriate short activities, such as asking students to compare notes or ask questions amongst themselves. Listening to an expert talk about a subject also offers students the opportunity to get familiar with the new vocabulary of their chosen discipline, but a one-way lecture with little opportunity for students to test their understanding of new terms or ask questions may turn the new language into a barrier to learning rather than a gateway into a disciplinary community. Various lecture activities, such as quick tests, or students writing questions, can help with mastering new vocabulary as can use of Study Direct (SyD) forum discussions and glossaries. You could even show students the new words in the SyD glossary during a lecture to encourage its use or record a short video explaining key terms.
For many people, lectures are all about the notes, with note-making seen as the most important activity that students engage in during lectures. Too often, though, the process is quite passive with lots of writing going on but not much thinking. If you expect students to take notes, it is worth introducing a short exercise to illustrate note making rather than copying slides. Students coming to university from A-levels taught in English schools are unlikely to have been expected to make any notes and will have little concept of how to do so. You can help students to structure their notes and have more time to engage with your presentation by providing (in advance) skeleton handouts/gapped handouts. There is also advice for students on making notes in lectures on the Study Success at Sussex (S3) website.
The new web page also offers guidance on planning lectures, presentation skills, structure, attention, retention, disruptive behaviour and learning technologies and includes links to external resources on lectures and a list of further reading.