Ding ding, round two

I’ve been really pleased to receive comments on my recent blog Another Bell Tolls for the Lecture. (Chiefly, as it’s proof that someone actually read it.) I wasn’t sure when I wrote the blog, how well it would be received. Teaching is an emotive subject. It’s very difficult not to demonise staff when we talk of the need to change practice.


Am I unambitious? Yes. If I had the power I would scrap the lecture immediately but like most of those who try to influence education, I don’t. I’m also careful when talking about teaching practice and prefer to give a balanced view. I know plenty of staff who would fight tooth and nail to keep their lectures. Staff are under enormous pressure and it’s easy to cause offence when you discuss their practice. Especially given that a lot of the reasons for the use of the lecture are beyond their control. I think it’s important to acknowledge the external constraints and pressures that they suffer. It’s easier to blame an individual for poor delivery of a lecture than blame the systems that perpetuate the lecture format.


The University Economy

All Universities strive for more students. More students = more money. More money = more buildings etc. The problem with more students is you need more room and more staff. These are not forthcoming in any university I have worked at. For more students you need more staff, again, rarely forthcoming, so we build a bigger room to fit them all in so then we still only need one lecturer. Hence the perpetuation of the lecture. If we get more students, and do small group teaching only, we need more rooms and more lecturers to timetable.

I have no idea whether universities have determined the critical mass of student numbers. Clearly there comes a point where student numbers are such that the university infrastructure cannot cope. Appointing new staff can be a lengthy and costly process, as a result new staff are not necessarily employed in time to cope with the increase in students numbers. This results in the preservation of a model that most would accept, and research demonstrates, is not the most effective way for students to learn.


Is delivery the problem?



Stephen thinks so and I agree to an extent. Bad delivery is not unique to the lecture. All teaching can be delivered poorly. Bad teaching is simply bad teaching. There are lots of reasons why teaching can be bad, sometimes, even with the most careful planning and preparation, teaching just goes wrong. I can certainly think of lots of car crash sessions I have delivered. The difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher, in my opinion, is whether they reflect on what went wrong and try to change it.

Stephen mentions discussion which, when poorly facilitated, is no more effective than the lecture. Done well discussion can be the a valuable method of teaching. I read an interesting book on discussion recently by Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill called Discussion as a Way of Teaching (2005). They have adopted discussion as their main teaching method and reflect on the pros and cons.

Active is the most important word in Stephen’s comment. Active learning is the key to effective teaching and learning. Whether that be through discussion, group work, problem based learning, polling, questioning etc. Is active learning easy to do in the types of rooms and with the sizes of classes we are given? No. It’s hard but we can many small things to make a difference. I know of a lecturer who dances in his lectures. Not everyone’s cup of tea but his students love it and it certainly keeps them awake. Other encourage discussion in pairs or use a polling system to quiz their students in the lecture. It’s not easy, but we can do it.

I think a good start would be to remove the lecture v.s. small group teaching dichotomy. Techniques and methods used in lectures and small groups should not be considered as mutually exclusive. All techniques, when well used, will work in any teaching context.

The perceived hierarchy of those who teach and those that learn should be broken down as a collective collaboration of learning. Stephen Fisher December 2015


Yes please. Collaborative learning would certainly ensure the students can influence and invest in their learning. Again, I am drawn to mention all the constraints that make this very difficult if not impossible. We do a lot to involve students in the development of their programmes. Through various forums and through student reps however, the downfall is that improvements usually happen after the fact; too late for the current cohorts to benefit from. This is largely due to the bureaucracy that surround programme and curriculum development. I’d love to know more about how Stephen sees this being achieved.

It was great to see Teuta Hoxha, who’s article in the Guardian “Is missing lectures harming my studies?” in the Guardian prompted my writing the original post. I’d love to know more about how you’ve been directing your own studies.


Tell Us More

I would love to hear from staff and students about the lecture. Do you love lectures? Hate lectures? Want to save or scrap lectures?

Tweet @kerrypinny or leave a reply at the bottom of this post.

Another Bell Tolls for the Lecture

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.


Student Expectations


“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.