5.1 The lecture

A question: If every lecturer had to publish all their teaching material openly, in advance, what would they want or need to do in a “lecture” period?

Lectures are the staple of most existing engineering degree programmes. However, it has been known for many decades [Bligh, 1972, the book which first made me think about the effectiveness of various teaching methods] that the lecture is not particularly efficient as a way of developing either knowledge or understanding. It appears to be efficient in transmitting information, and particularly in appearing to the student to define the syllabus and thus the content to be examined. The lecture is thus popular with university administrations (who see it as an efficient mass transfer of knowledge), with students (who see it as a painless way of delineating what they need to memorise to pass the exam) and with staff, many of whom are still called ‘lecturers’ (who see it as the most-time efficient way of fulfilling their teaching duty). This is a slightly cynical view, which does not do justice to the good intentions of a number of thoughtful staff and students, but it contains sufficient truth to make it worth stating.

A thought: One of the main reasons for the survival of the lecture is that you, like me, probably like giving a lecture. Many of us became lecturers because we like theatre!

Sutherland and Badger (2004) reviewed the perceptions that lecturers themselves have about the lecture. They discovered that, in giving lectures to first-year students, 80% of lecturers were trying to transfer information and about half of them were also trying either:

  • to demonstrate how something was done (e.g. a worked example); or
  • to provide a framework within which the topic could be understood; or
  • to motivate the students to study the topic or to improve their analytical thinking skills.

Sutherland and Badger were not able to determine whether any of these were successfully achieved!

I, and others who question the ubiquitous value of the lecture, are often accused of being “anti-lecture”. We are not (or at least I am not). I have attended several inspirational lectures, and watched a few more on TED or Youtube. However of the thousand-plus lectures I have attended I remember only about half a dozen, and I can think of no case where follow-up reading was not needed to understand the important points. So would it not have been better to do the reading first, and then just ask questions? [By the way if you think that my “thousand” is an exaggeration, do the sums for your own education and career. You will find that I am not exaggerating.]
Yes, an occasional lecture can be inspiring and even life-changing. I can still remember lectures by the politician Tony Benn and E F Schumacher (author of Small is Beautiful) and a few by writers and dramatists (I heard Peter O’Toole at a student drama festival in the sixties!) but I can recall not a single lecture from my undergraduate programme. There are certainly some inspiring engineering lecturers, but none of them featured in my education (nor probably yours)!

A good question would be: If you started with a fresh sheet of paper, and adopted constructive alignment (see Chapter 2) to design your module, what material would you want to be delivered using lectures? I know that most of us do not start completely afresh because we inherit modules from previous staff and/or programmes, but let us assume a utopian situation. You will have started by distilling out, from your understanding and reading of the module topic, the key desirable learning outcomes (LOs). You will have checked that these are consistent with the programme LOs of any programme or programmes to which your module contributes. You will have checked the extent to which these outcomes are covered in other modules. You will have considered the best way for the students to master the LOs. You will be bearing in mind the time, spaces and resources available to you and the students. You conclude that some lectures would be useful, perhaps because:

  • You have available an inspirational lecturer who stands a chance of firing the students with enthusiasm for the topic; [note that most of us are not very successful at this, even when we think we are – a lesson from the school of hard knocks!];
  • You know of some wonderful demonstrations which clarify difficult aspects of the material and a one-to-many lecture is the easiest way of helping the students to get to grips with them, because you can add a commentary;
  • You want the students to know who you are so that they will be able to approach you individually later;
  • You want to bring the students together regularly so that they can learn to operate cooperatively;
  • Your institution (or government) insists that you keep a register of student attendance.

You may conclude that some (or many) of the learning outcomes are best addressed by other means, which can include individual private study, but having decided to offer some lectures you will then want to make them as successful as possible, not in terms of student popularity, but in terms of delivering the LOs. You would then want to consider using one or more of the many techniques available for maximising the effectiveness of a lecture. Since almost all research indicates that a listener can only give proper attention to a speaker for about 15 minutes, you will probably start by breaking down your ‘lecture’ period into chunks of 10 to 15 minutes. In each of these periods you might deliver a mini-lecture but between these one-to-many sessions you will probably want to insert some ‘active’ elements.

You may also decide that, although you want to speak to the students for periods of 15 minutes at a time, it would be better not to do this in a conventional raked lecture theatre. Unfortunately the availability of flat or flexible learning and teaching spaces, and the limitations of the students’ timetables, may inhibit your freedom of choice.

There are many techniques for adding activity to a basic lecture. Students can be asked to do something before, during and after a timetabled period, or all three. They can be asked to do this singly, or in spontaneous groups (‘discuss with the students sitting next to you’) or in predetermined groups (e.g. tutorial groups). Some lecturers insist that students always sit in these groups, so that they interact regularly with the same group of peers.

My analysis in the original text five years ago still seems valid, but a further complicating pressure has emerged with the arrival (in the UK) of large fees. There is now a tendency for naive students and their parents (and journalists) to think that lectures are “what you are paying for” and therefore the greater the number of lectures the greater the value for money. This is of course an entirely specious argument: What you should be hoping that your fees buy you is an opportunity to be educated, and (I would strongly suggest) you don’t become “educated” in a lecture.

Some of the techniques which engineering lecturers have found to be helpful are listed in the next section.

Read on …  (but first please add a comment)

2 All Responses to “5.1 The lecture”

  1. Peter Goodhew

    I, and others who question the ubiquitous value of the lecture, are often accused of being “anti-lecture”. We are not (or at least I am not). I have attended several inspirational lectures, and watched a few more on TED or Youtube. However of the thousand-plus lectures I have attended I remember only about half a dozen, and I can think of no case where follow-up reading was not needed to understand the important points. So would it not have been better to do the reading first, and then just ask questions? [By the way if you think that my “thousand” is an exaggeration, do the sums for your own education and career. You will find that I am not exaggerating.]
    Yes, an occasional lecture can be inspiring and even life-changing. I can still remember lectures by Tony Benn and E F Schumacher (author of Small is Beautiful) and a few by writers and dramatists (I heard Peter O’Toole at a student drama festival in the sixties!) but I can recall not a single lecture from my undergraduate programme. There are probably inspiring engineering lecturers, but none of them featured in my education (nor probably yours)!

    Reply
  2. Peter Goodhew

    My analysis in the original text still seems valid, but a further complicating pressure has emerged with the arrival of large fees (in the UK). There is now a tendency for naive students and their parents (and journalists) to think that lectures are “what you are paying for” and therefore the greater the number of lectures the greated the value for money. This is of course an entirely specious argument: What you should be hoping that your fees buy you is an opportunity to be educated, and (I would strongly suggest) you don’t become “educated” in a lecture.

    Reply

Leave a Comment