We have, for a long time, been questioning the role and effectiveness of the lecture in university teaching. The format of the lecture has changed little from its inception in ancient Greece and yet we continue to rely on this as the core teaching method. So, my interest was piqued when I saw an article titled “Is missing lectures harming my studies?” in the Guardian.
Teuta Hoxha, a student from Kings College London, stopped attending his lectures after a few weeks.
“The anticipation of passionate words bouncing off and beyond the podium”. Tueta Hoxha 2015
I think it’s important to consider what students expect when attending university. Teuta, I fear, had watched The Dead Poets Society (1989) a few too many times. I think all teachers would like to think they are the embodiment of Mr Keating, inspiring students to think differently to have them stood on their tables at the end of every lecture giving us rapturous applause.
That is not the reality. I think students forget that we are not automatons. We are human beings as nervous as they are to stand in front of other people. They forget that in lecturing we are vulnerable, that we are giving away a little piece of ourselves each time.
We don’t all teach interesting subjects and what is interesting to one student will bore the next. If we want to give our students the contextual understanding of their field we have to teach the ‘boring’ stuff. We can’t always be blowing stuff up in the lab, creating the next Turner prize winning submission or solving the unanswered questions of the universe. We can make our subjects interesting by employing activities that keep students active. By asking challenging questions and involving them in discussion. Are these activities easy to do in a lecture theatre? No, they take a lot of careful planning and students who are willing and able to be involved.
“I expected enthusiastic speakers whose hunger for Chaucer could be seen in their uncontrollably moving hands. Instead, lecturers read off their notes, blazing through piles of information in the most monotone and disengaging voice.” Tueta Hoxha 2015
We are not all great orators. There are courses on confidence, presentation techniques but essentially confidence comes from practice. We are not all teaching subjects that excite us, that is more the fault of the institution than the lecturer. Lack of staff means it’s hard to enthuse on a subject if you’re not fully confident in your knowledge or if you don’t find it that interesting.
Learning Environments, the Timetable, the Curriculum and Cohort Size
We are also bound by a number of things that students don’t see. In the race for student numbers, small flexible learning spaces are becoming a premium. Our timetables mean we often end up getting what we’re given, not what we asked for. Yes there’s an element of interaction that can be injected in to a lecture but we can’t give students the kind of individual attention they desire, especially as cohort sizes reach several hundred.
We are also expected to deliver a curriculum. We have outcomes we must meet. I often wonder what students would prefer, less content but more interactive teaching or, more content but less interaction? I’m not sure. Of course there is a balance, but would students really be happy if the onus was as much on them, to seek learning, as it is on us to deliver it?
Is this the death of the lecture?
Long, long, long term, yes; short term, no.
The University of Northampton has taken the plunge and is building a campus without lecture theatres. I wait with baited breath to hear how well that goes.
Some would argue that the lecture itself is not the problem; it’s the way it’s taught. I can agree with that to some degree. We as teachers have a responsibility to make sure that our teaching methods and activities are effective in supporting students to learn. If part of that is making sure they stay awake; we should be doing what we can.
To bury the lecture everyone, students, staff and the institution, must reach the fifth stage of grief, acceptance. We know lectures are not the best way to learn, they are the best way to provide lots of information. Whether students take that in, or learn anything, has for some reason been seen as inconsequential. Teuta is yet to suffer any ill effects from missing his lectures but perhaps Teuta is in the minority of students who have the discipline to self-direct their learning. Would that approach work for everyone? I’m not convinced.
If we are to give up on the lecture, we must do as Northampton has, and take the plunge.
Let me know what you think tweet @KerryPinny.