Lecture Notes

One week to go before the end of teaching term, and it’s time for the dreaded questionnaires to be handed out for the purpose of gauging student feedback on our teaching. The responses from the students go off somewhere to be counted and I’ll get a summary back in due course and learn what the students made of the  series of chaotic and rambling performances I strung together to masquerade as lecture courses. At the end of the year we usually get to see a league table of who’s popular and who isn’t, but the scores aren’t very useful beyond that. More important than the tick boxes are the comments that students write about what’s good and what isn’t. I read through all those and they’re often very helpful in suggesting things to be done differently in subsequent years.

Lecturing has changed an enormous amount since I was at university almost thirty years ago. In those days we got very little in the way of printed notes and we were expected to write everything down in classes that were primarily delivered in the chalk-and-talk style, although some lecturers used overhead projectors. The disadvantage of the latter over the former was a tendency to go too quickly through the material.

As a student I just accepted this was the way things were and developed my own note-taking strategy. I trained myself to be able to write things down about as fast as the lecturer could speak. I did this by cutting out the biggest hindrance to taking notes quickly, which is the business of  making your eyes go backwards and forwards between the blackboard (or projection screen) and paper in front of you. I just wrote everything I could on the paper without looking at it. Although my handwriting was scrappy when I did this, I could keep track of just about everything that was said as well as what was written by the lecturer. Later on, I’d turn these notes into a neat copy and in the process of doing that I tried to iron out any bugs in the original notes as well as figure out things I couldn’t make sense of.

When I started lecturing I primarily used blackboards and chalk. I was teaching quite mathematical things and found this the best way to do it. For one thing the physical effort of writing made me go through the material at a reasonable pace. The other advantage is that I think mathematical proofs and derivations should not just be presented, but should happen as a process for the students to see. I always felt that a lecture would be more interesting if it appeared to be spontaneous rather than delivered from a pre-prepared script. Even if the students disagreed, I certainly enjoyed lecturing much more if there was an element of improvisation in the performance.

However, I soon noticed that many students didn’t really know how to take notes even at the modest speed I was going. They would generally only write down what I wrote on the board, not the little verbal explanations and embellishments I put in. My response to this observation was to make sure I wrote down more and consequently went through the material even more slowly. When I got to sit in as a peer reviewer of other staff lecturers, I looked at what the students around me were doing and realised that the vast majority simply didn’t know how to take notes efficiently or accurately. For many the act of writing things down took so much effort that they weren’t listening to the lecturer. I guess this stems from the changing style of teaching in schools, but even if that is true it is something that university teachers need to come to terms with.

Incidentally, I have from time to time given final-year undergraduate lectures at Italian universities (in English). When I used the same style there as at home – writing full notes on the board rather than just the equations – the students asked me why I was doing it. They all expected to have to write down what I was saying. If they could manage to do that with lectures in their second language, I don’t really see why our students can’t do it in their mother tongue!

Gradually the ubiquitous powerpoint has largely the old-fashioned style of lecturing to the extent that many lecture theatres don’t even have a blackboard. We’re generally expected to hand out complete sets of printed notes, with the result that the students don’t have to take notes of their own but also turning a lecture into an entirely passive experience.

I resisted the move to powerpoint for undergraduate lecturing for many years, but gave up and went with the flow when I moved to Cardiff.  However, what I do is a bit different from the others who teach this way. I generally use slides which have only a few bits of text, key equations and figures on them. I hand out copies of these slides at the start of each lecture and then go through them during the class, and also make the powerpoint files available on the web. This gives them all the important things, but I tell the students I expect students to annotate the handouts and make their own set of notes based on the skeleton I’ve handed out. However, it is clear that many students don’t write anything down at all during the lecture. We’ll see from the forthcoming exams how much they have actually learned.

Newer educational technology should enable us to improve the standards of teaching in universities, but I think there’s still a long way to go before we work out how to use it effectively.  In particular I think we need to question whether lectures in the old-fashioned sense should continue to provide the primary mode of teaching. My personal opinion is that we should be moving to more independent, problem-based, learning and much less of the passive spoon-feeding.  I think we should be aiming to cut the number of lectures we give by about 50% across the school and use the time and effort saved in more creative and effective ways.

We’re in the middle of a review of our course structure in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University and I hope we take the opportunity to make radical changes not just to the curriculum but also to the way we present it. Not everyone in the School is keen on really radical changes. I think I understand why. I actually enjoy lecturing. I always have. It’s fun and it’s also a lot easier to give a lecture than to prepare large numbers of problems and write pages and pages of printed notes. Looking back at my time as a student, though, I am bound to admit that I learnt next to nothing from lectures. This was partly because many of the lecturers I had were poorly delivered but also partly because I’m not sure lectures are the best way to teach physics. We carry on doing it this way just because it’s what we’re used to.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the way we teach physics these days is that it encourages students to think of each module as a bite-sized piece that can be retained until the examinations, regurgitated, and then forgotten.  I’ve no doubt that memorizing notes  is how many students pass the examinations we set.  Little genuine understanding or problem-solving ability is needed. We promote physics as a subject that nurtures these skills, but I don’t think many physics graduates – even those with good degrees – actually possess them at the end. We should be making much more of an effort in teaching students how to use their brains in other ways than as memory devices.

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37 Responses to “Lecture Notes”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    If the student’s brain is not engaged in some manner during a lecture then its pointless – they might as well read a book on the subject. Problems arise because of two things which are in tension:

    1. People learn quite effectively by listening and writing what is said in real time.

    2. If you ask them to srite down everyting they need to know, you iwll never finish the lecture in 60 minutes (or the course in 16 lectures).

    I’m not sure there is a solution to this problem.

    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      Anton

      Another thing is that different people learn in different ways, so any particular form of teaching won’t necessarily suit everyone. That’s another argument for having more varied activities.

      By the way, our standard lecture modules (we’re not allowed to call them courses) have 22 lectures, two per week spread over 11 teaching weeks followed by a revision week. I assume Cambridge still has the 8-week terms with two or three lectures per week, leading to 16 or 24 lecture chunks.

      Peter

      • telescoper Says:

        Before anyone else says it, I should also mention another thing that has changed a lot since I was a student. I got a full maintenance grant, so didn’t have to work during term-time or worry too much about loans. That left me with plenty of time to study outside lecture times. Today’s students sadly don’t often have this privilege.

  2. Manolis Plionis Says:

    I quite agree with your views regarding the value of using a blackboard. My own experience supports the more “traditional” sort of lecturing style. By the way, I would like mention and pay tribute to the, by far, best lecturer I ever had… which was Roger Tayler.

  3. Seb Foucaud Says:

    Hi Peter,

    I read your article with interest as I am a new fresh lecturer, and I am surely lacking experience. I am not sure that my current experience is actually directly comparable though, as my students are from a total different cultural background than yours (Taiwan vs UK) and I am teaching in a second language for them (as well as for me actually).

    However I have two remarks:
    1/ as a student I was always very lazy in taking notes (and eventually attending the lectures) and the main part of my notes were photocopies of the “girl-geek-that-seats-in-the-front-row”. So in that sense my experience of being a students was more close to a “power-point style” lecture. Beside my laziness, I remember that I was understanding things better when I was not taking the notes myself.
    2/ I am using the power-point style of lectures here, and I hand out the slides to the students at the start of each lecture. I am actually using very few words on my slides, mainly plots and pictures. The first semester I realised that the results from the students were lower than I expected. Now I am giving homework every week … not sure it makes me very popular, but it improved by far the results of the students (according to the midterm).

    I agree that physics is more a DIY science, but giving the material to cover and the few hours of lectures, the alternative is to push the students to do the DIY at home 🙂
    Not sure it’s feasible in the UK though.

    Cheers

  4. Chris Tuckley Says:

    I’m a current undergrad student (2nd year) at KCL. I find the most effective method used by my lecturers is one where we pay for a booklet of lecture notes (in a chapter format, one chapter for each lecture) at the beginning of the year and in the lecture the lecturer goes through all the material on the blackboard and talking as we write notes (well, not everyone does and those who don’t tend to get lower results). That way we can look over the notes before the lecture which helps and check any mistakes in our own notes against the provided ones. The notes also contain sets of questions in the back, one set of questions for class tutorials (these account for half of the 44 hour course) and one set for homework, marked weekly.

    On the other hand we’ve also had bad methods, such as only having powerpoint slides and reading them out and handing out the slides (I hate this, many lecturers tend to get a little bored doing this I think, and as a consequence bore their audience). Saying this, some people like this, but most in my classes prefer either the method I described above, or a mix of using powerpoint with certain derivations on the blackboard.

  5. telescoper Says:

    Interesting that KCL charge you for the printed notes. That’s quite unusual, I think. Most departments would consider such things to be included in the fee.

  6. Couple of things –

    I use powerpoint and a lot of chalk and talk, and state at the outset that if you simply read the lecture notes that you are not going to get all you need (i.e. for the exam) out of the course. The fact that students now work (I had a full grant as an undergrad too) does impact on their time to work on material beyond the class.

    Second thing, and this has weighed heavily upon me recently, but I am starting to see modern physics teaching as being quite flawed as

    1) We teach a victorian science – we teach from the textbooks that were copied from the previous textbooks, and we do our analytic derivations and viola “the spectrum of the hydrogen atom” or “the perihelion shift of mercury”, and then we go back to our office and and sit at the computer. Yes, the analytic derivations are a vital aspect of science education, but we lack the next step with the modern use of computers (and yes, I know they are courses that cover this, but it should not be separate but should be woven into all material).

    2) In fact, I think it’s worse that that – we don’t even tell them what physics is. We throw some loose phases around about comparing theory to nature, but don’t tell them how to do it – possibly a vague notion of rubbery statistics, but there is the model fitting and testing? If you are lucky, there will be will be a senior level course on this, but by this point it is getting to be a little too late.

    Why does this matter? Well, having supervised many undergraduate and postgraduate research projects, I am tired of having to retrain virtually every single one of them (all except a russian!) and being told “why didn’t anyone tell us programming is important” and “So this is the way you fit cosmology to SN data” etc.

    Is it me being precious about graduate students? No, because I think the tools of the trade in physics (data handling and programming) are vital tools for the broader business and industrial world, and we should be expecting all students to have them when they finish. But, alas no – I believe xkcd got it right with

    http://xkcd.com/519/

    Anyway – we are starting to look at this in more detail here down under – I personally hope it can change.

  7. Chris Tuckley Says:

    A lot of the students did, but we didn’t make much of a fuss about it, they’re very good notes, almost like a small book, and it was only £5 per course.

  8. telescoper Says:

    We also struggle to find an effective way of teaching computing to physics students and I’d certainly like to see computing and data analysis techniques woven throughout the syllabus rather than being done in stand-alone modules. We’re working on this in our new course design and I hope some radical suggestions will be implemented, such as putting computing tasks in the coursework for most modules…

    As for your second comment, I also agree. However, I think for the UK this is largely a consequence of disastrous changes to the school science curriculum. Students no longer seem to understand anything about the scientific method and, as a result, they often see physics as a series of facts and proofs to be learned rather than as a process .

    One way to emphasize this even more is to include much more cutting edge stuff where there is no consensus to show how science actually works through rational debate and experimental test. Of course, students need to learn about newtonian mechanics and electromagnetism and things like that but it’s important to get across how these things came to be understood the way they are.

  9. Anonymous- we are legion Says:

    I’m a first year undergraduate here at Cardiff, and attend Peter’s lectures. I must admit that I’m one of those people who doesn’t annotate the lecture notes, but I use them in conjunction with textbooks to do the homework problems and find that this how I learn much of the material.
    I think that in general lectures give you a superficial understanding of a topic, whioh you then have to shore up yourself, but I’m sure I’d like to see them replaced with lots and lots of bookwork.
    I also think that exercise classes are the most helpful activity, but I’m not sure how feasible it is to have more than we currently do.

  10. Anonymous- we are legion Says:

    I should have said: “I’m NOT sure I’d like to see them replaced with lots and lots of bookwork.”

  11. telescoper Says:

    When I arrived at Cardiff (nearly 3 years ago) and took over doing the first-year module I now teach I wanted to make it one lecture and one exercise class per week. However there was just too much in the syllabus to get through it all that way. I therefore had to do two lectures and organize extra exercise classes.

    Having been here a while I now realise that much of the content I inherited is repeated in the 2nd and 3rd year anyway. I’d like to see us redesign the course so it progresses more, with less stuff in year 1 and more time devoted to practice at problem-solving and other essential skills, and less repetition in subsequent years.

    I think the other point is one I made in a comment earlier on. Each student responds differently to different things. Some like lectures best, some like tutorials, and some like to be left alone with a good textbook. We just need to make sure each one finds a way to learn that works for them.

  12. Peter – like yourself I went through a stage of using the “colouring book” method – incomplete handouts to have diagrams added etc. But now we tend not to give physical handouts at all. The powerpoint slides are available online and students are expected to print their own if thats what they want to do. For first years we break the passivity by inserting anonymous multiple choice quizzes into the middle of lectures. Everybody has a “clicker”. Its a bit like Ask the Audience in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. This actually works quite well but is only a partial answer and is not appropriate for third year.

    Its amazing really that we still cling on to Lectures. Clearly they evolved for economic reasons, as the only way to teach lots of people simultaneously. As you say, surely we should evolve towards more individual problem based learning. But then why physically come to Cardiff or Edinburgh ? Why not just let OU take over ? Reason-1 is that lectures by GOOD lecturers still have a place as inspiration. They should become more showmanship than before. Reason-2 is that group learning is better than individual learning, at least for Physics. What we find works well is problem classes, where students sit round in small groups and solve problems together. This is fairly techy – we have “pods” with several seats and a shared screen that somebody can plug their laptop into etc.

  13. It is such a small world – Andy was one of my lecturers when I was an undergraduate at QMC/QMW 🙂

  14. Anton Garrett Says:

    Re: Institutions that charge for lecture notes in hard copy – I hope some students make pdfs and upload them to a public website.
    Anton

  15. I was an undergrad at the time when powerpoint was starting to be used more and more frequently in lectures. I think powerpoint is a terrible style of teaching and I hope when I have to start teaching that I can stay away from it. Taking my own notes is what kept me awake & reasonably concentrated in a lecture – having these ready-made handouts made my mind go to sleep. But then, I was the “girl geek that sits in the front row” (apparently a phenomenon – who knew?) whose notes everyone wanted to copy – including a few lecturers who hadn’t been able to read their own handwriting since 1985.

    Re. the KCL model of paying for notes – this is the standard model of lecturing in Belgium actually (unless it’s changed in the last few years, I know they’re trying to modernise university teaching there). I was never an undergrad in Belgium but I always thought it was pretty unfair that students had to fork out for these notes. Probably an easy way for the University press to secure a steady stream of income…

  16. From my limited experience:

    Lectures I found to be important for derivations (in the chalk-and-talk style), introducing a new mathematical trick, or introducing an important concept or perspective. The ability to ask questions (in small enough lectures) is extremely valuable, and should not be understated – nor forgotten by students fortunate enough to be in such sized classes. It’s also important to ‘structure’ things; to set a pace for the learning and a logical flow for what can often be a terribly confusing array of mathematics and principles.

    But at the end of the day, the important transition between being introduced to the notions and being familiar/proficient with them (at least enough to sit an exam) came about by doing problem sheets. I can’t stress how important I found these, along with the worked solutions. I suspect we could probably do better by having shorter lectures and filling the time with as many problem sheets and problem classes as could be budgeted for. It’s all too easy to sit in a lecture and then go home, and never try a calculation. That (in my experience) was the precurser to flunking an exam.

  17. Brendan says :

    “I suspect we could probably do better by having shorter lectures and filling the time with as many problem sheets and problem classes as could be budgeted for”

    Spot on Brendan, but they are expensive, unless you go down the anonymous online MCQ route ? I am assuming you will pop along the corridor to volunteer your services to Ken Rice for Astronomy-1.

    Cusp – I think that was maybe just after QMC merged with Westfield College, and we were under strict instructions not to refer to it as QMWC. But when I explained to Mike Watson we were called QMW, he said “what does that stand for ? Queen Mary Wollege ?”

  18. Paul Roche Says:

    I work in schools a lot, and it’s very interesting (and a little worrying) to see the discrepancy betwen how students are taught at GCSE and A level, and what happens when they arrive at university. Severel people have already mentioned that we often teach in the way we do because that’s how it’s always been done – even with the shift from chalk-n-talk to PowerPoint, things have not changed that much in that lecturers stand and talk, and students (to a greater or lesser degree) sit and listen.

    Bringing in things like interactive response, using the “clickers” Andy mentioned, is a nice way to break up the “I talk, you listen” approach, but I’m always amazed at how little universities talk to A level teachers (to get a sense of how students are taught, and what they are taught) and how little lecturers are informed about developments in teaching and learning. New lecturers now have to undertake a training regime, which usually covers things like the various teaching and learning styles that have been identified, and I think these are really useful – everyone I’ve met who did one has complained at the time about the extra workload, but then really appreciated the benefits.

    Maybe we need to re-train those of us who haven’t been through these sort of courses – train the trainers?

    But at the end of the day, it usually comes down to time, or rather the lack of it. I’m sure all of us who teach regularly would love to be able to update our course material before each lecture, and ensure we’re delivering the best/most inspiring/up-to-date course that we can.

    Is there a case for having university staff who primarily teach, with a bit of research, and others who research, with a bit of teaching?

  19. telescoper Says:

    It seems to me that what has happened at GCSE and A-level is basically the problem. Lecturers may not be aware of all the changes teaching style in schools, but they are all too aware of the consequences.
    Students come to university with maths and physics A-levels but little actual understanding of either subject and virtually no practical problem-solving abilities.

    Training us to repeat the same mistakes that have happened in schools doesn’t seem to me to be the answer. Putting real science back into the school science curriculum might be.

  20. Andy:

    “Spot on Brendan, but they are expensive, unless you go down the anonymous online MCQ route ? I am assuming you will pop along the corridor to volunteer your services to Ken Rice for Astronomy-1.”

    Well I did in my first year! I agree they are expensive, but the real question is if they’re better educational value per pound spent than alternatives.

    Paul:

    “…and what happens when they arrive at university.”

    What happened when I arrived was I was taught A-level maths, and A-level further maths, in the space of a year. This was alongside A-level physics (which took about a week), followed by what A-level physics probably *should* have been (which took the rest of the year).

    For me this was good, as I’d taken a gap year and (literally) forgotten how to integrate, and had never taken further maths. But the speed which this all could be taught, and the troubling lack of physics and problem solving skills I arrived with (as Peter speaks of), suggests A-level physics in particular needs serious changes.

  21. Paul Roche Says:

    I don’t think I’d suggest we train university lecturers to repeat the perceived “mistakes” of school teachers (who are constrained and annoyed by the various curricula they have to teach to….), but just be aware of the approaches taken in schools these days (i.e. far less emphasis on unseen exams, far more coursework), and to develop a better understanding of the psychology of teaching and learning.

    I suspect teachers would say that universities are making a mess of the fantastic grade A* A level students they send out every year…

    Despite the lack of problem solving skills that modern students undoubtedly display (mainly a consequence of the necessity for teachers to ram them through a packed curriculum in limited time, and so having to “teach to the exam” [or module assessment activity etc.]), I do think we need to give them credit for having a strong grasp of IT – if only they could combine their IT skills with a more developed sense of problem solving approaches, and get a better sense of the applications of what they are learning, we might see some good progress.

    I’m presumably not the only person who has been asked some variant on “Why are we learning this? Is it on the exam? What’s the point of this?” – students today seem to lack a context for much of what they learn, and again I’d blame the curricula for this. The students are as good now as they have ever been, and probably better, but the need to jam a certain quantity of info into them in a set amount of time (particularly at A level) often precludes instilling a deeper understanding of what it is all for, and telling them “this will make a lot more sense when you’re in the 1st/2nd/3rd/4th etc. year” doesn’t really work. They (understandably) want to know why they are learning things, so problem solving skills could be developed as part of this contextualising process – if there was time…

  22. >> Is there a case for having university staff who primarily teach, with a bit of research, and others who research, with a bit of teaching?

    We have this discussion – and nothing ever gets sorted. Of course, departments often end up with staff who have decided to let their research slide and concentrate on teaching, admin etc, but this is not what Universities want, especially in the era of ERAs. When we hire, research-strength is king – but I feel that there is a place for teaching intensive positions (in fact, the University has recognised this and has provided a route for promotion for those who are not research intensive).

    >> if only they could combine their IT skills with a more developed sense of problem solving approaches

    I wonder about our IT generation – personally, being able to update their facebook profile (or what ever it is they do) is not the necessarily the kind of IT skill that is needed for research (or industry or business etc). I think they need a bigger mental shift to transfer to efficient problem solving.

    >> Despite the lack of problem solving skills that modern students

    After being exasperated by this, I intend (once I get some time) to put
    together some notes on “What is physics?” to give to incoming students,
    that explains what we mean by data, uncertainties (and our incoming students have had no exposure to these), models, model fitting and even the meaning of numerical analysis. I guess my worry is that it will blow out to be a textbook, but I might give it a go when on sabbatical later this year.

    ———————————– 8> I think that was maybe just after QMC

    Yes, it was. If my failing memory serves me correctly, I came to see you in Romeo and Juliet (or possibly Hamlet) playing a priest??

    >> Paul Roche

    Hello to Paul, who once let me sleep on his kitchen table.

  23. Paul Roche Says:

    I know that some universities do indeed actively promote the idea of teaching-focussed faculty appointments, so this practise is growing. I personally think every department should have at least one person who is designated as their “teaching and learning specialist”, who can act as a go-between for the lecturers and schools, and help feed in new ideas, developments, changes in the A level syllabi etc., if only to keep the university staff up-to-speed without too much effort. I’d see this as a minimum, and preferably would like to see a few faculty members who are allowed to specialise in developing T+L expertise.

    But as Cusp says, in the age of the RAE/REF, research rules, and unfortunately this drives faculty appointments and makes it hard to justify appointing staff who have chosen a more teaching-focussed path. A handful of schemes promoted by individual universities and the HEA mean that at least a few T+L based appointments exist around the country, but it would require a pretty big change of attitude (and funding models) to make this the norm I suspect.

    Cusp – apologies, you’ll have to be more specific – too many kitchen tables, too many random bodies found on/under (and on one occasion, wedged into…) furniture over the years…!

  24. >> apologies, you’ll have to be more specific

    Actually, I now remember, you were on the table and I was in a chair – it was after me giving a talk at Southampton on Gravitational Microlensing in 1993 (I think). As a clue, I am welsh (like you) and we recently met again at the Nam in Preston (with my mum and gran there).

  25. telescoper Says:

    Paul,

    You could click on Cusp’s name and find see his URL…

    Peter

  26. Paul Roche Says:

    Ah, some of it is flooding back now – you were part of my “Welsh astronomers”-themed astro-seminar series at Southampton (which technically was 3 Welshmen and a Russian called Vladimir, but I don’t think anyone noticed…).

    We’re hoping to start a new degree programme at Uni Glamorgan in “Observational Astronomy”, which will adopt a much more “hands on” approach to the subject – it is targetted not at the traditional AB-in-physics-and-maths students who form ~95% of the UK physics/astro undergrad population (according to Mike Edmunds excellent review for the HEA last year), but at those with C/D grades. It will focus far more on problem solving, and is aimed squarely at “amateur astronomers” who are not planning on progressing on to research – people who want to study astronomy but can’t hack the maths and physics in a traditional course. No IoP accreditation, no separate maths or physics courses – everything taught in context.

    We’re stripping things down to a basic level, including a lot more geology, biology and chemistry than is probably the norm, and focussing on using telescopes (e.g. regular access to the Faulkes Telescopes) and working on data and projects. It’s something of an experiment, to see what you can strip out of an astro degree and yet still have graduates who can “do astronomy” (at the “high-end amateur” level) and communicate science.

    Unashamedly not a physics/maths-centric course, but there seems to be a market of keen students out there who are interested in careers in science centres, the media etc. who want to do something like this. It’s a new approach, based on feedback from several years of working with 6th formers and teachers, and I’m excited by the opportunity to try this out.

    As there is no research base in astronomy at Glamorgan, they are not “encumbered” by the need to split time between teaching and research, so it may be that this is an unusual situation where we can succeed in changing the way we teach the subject…or maybe that’s just wishful thinking. But I guess at least it’s worth the try.

    And who can argue that what the inhabitants of the South Wales valleys needs is a better understanding of the nature of the Universe….amongst other things, admittedly….

  27. Bryn Jones Says:

    A number of good points have already been made here by Peter and in the
    various comments. I’ll add some short points of my own.

    1. Peter made a very important point about different students responding differently to various teaching methods. Some students like one type of teaching, other students like another type.

    2. A consequence of this is that there is no best teaching style. A variety of teaching styles might therefore be best within any one module.

    3. In reality, contact time with students can often be too limited to introduce extra teaching styles beyond basic lecturing and exercise classes. Problem sets can therefore be useful extra learning activities if thought through carefully by the lecturer. Contact time at university tends to be more limited than in schools.

    4. Handing out lecture notes can be an efficient, if not ideal, method of getting over a lot of material in a limited contact time.

    5. Lecturers do not have as much control over the content of modules as many students imagine. The syllabus, aims, objectives and learning outcomes are often drawn up by other people long before the lecturer took over the module.

    6. Introducing computer-based exercises, for example alongside written coursework, can be a good way to train students in the practical use of computing. It also introduces diversity into the learning experience.

    7. Lecturing with Openoffice (or Powerpoint for those people whose lives are controlled by Microsoft) may seem a good idea when preparing a module. It becomes less of a good idea when the lectures are scheduled in a room without a data projector.

    8. Effective teaching usually requires preparation, and lots of it. Lecturers need to analyse each teaching task carefully, and be aware of what the students need to learn or learn to do (aims, objectives, learning outcomes, etc. in the jargon). It requires planning the delivery of each part of the teaching task, including choosing carefully things like mathematical notation.

    9. Lecturers should not always blame students if the students fail to learn what they should. Some students will indeed be lazy, but many will be hardworking and will take their studies seriously. Lecturers should always consider whether their teaching could be improved to ensure students do learn what they need.

    10. The character of exercise classes varies enormously between universities. In some, they are large group tutorials going over past coursework. In others they are problem classes where the lecturer goes through examples and background material. In others they are sessions where students can have one-to-one discussions with demonstrators about their problems with course material.

    11. Some departments use small group learning alongside traditional lectures. Students can work together on mini-projects or group presentations. This can introduce more of an element of self-learning.

    12. Peter complains about material being repeated to students during different years of their studies. Repetition of material in some circumstances can, of course, have a positive effect in that it can reinforce important basic concepts.

    13. Teaching can indeed be enjoyable at times, but the enjoyment is greater when the university teachers feel they are having a strongly positive effect on the students’ learning, which can be had most when the teachers have control over the teaching activities to shape them positively.

    14. I am intrigued that Cardiff’s School of Physics and Astronomy produces a league table of lecturers based on student questionnaires. I am used to the results of questionnaires becoming known only to the lecturer, the second examiner (who collates the raw results), the head of department and a few other academics closely involved in teaching organisation.

    15. There is a story that one lecturer used to charge students 7 pounds each (fifteen years ago) for a set of photocopies of his illegible lecture notes. This is said to have been heavily criticised by the government’s teaching quality review panel when they visited that department.

    16. Cusp took his mother and grandmother to a National Astronomy Meeting? That was an unusual venue for a family outing.

  28. I always took few notes. I don’t see the point in trying to produce something covering all the material while listening. That usually leads to not being able to listen properly and not being able to produce something which covers all the material.

    I prefer it when the lecturer recommends (chapters of) (a) book(s) which cover (at least) the course material. The lectures should concentrate more on “between the lines” stuff and allow time for questions and answers (more profitable if the students have read the corresponding chapters before the lectures).

    Good lecturers are a good thing to have, and in my view essential. Otherwise, one could just learn everything from a book. But because they are essential, and provide something which a book can’t, there should be no attempt in the lecture to present all the material, nor should the student be required to write it all down.

    Think of a scientific conference. In the old days, one of the reasons to go was to get the early scoop. That’s no longer the case today (“This is an old transparency; for the latest version check out this preprint on the ArXiv”.), but still conferences are valuable. The worst talks are those which just present a (summary of a) paper—it would be better to just read the paper. Talks are good for overviews and for discussions. I think lectures should have the same relationship to books as conference talks due to journal papers.

  29. Some very interesting reflections here. I teach introductory organic chemistry to year one students and maintain that chemistry is learned by active writing rather than passively reading the notes I provide. I therefore get student in the lectures to write our reaction schemes etc to promote engagement.

  30. […] Take a note from me… Having just given a lecture on probability and statistics to our first-year postgraduate students I thought I’d indulge in a bit of reflective practice (as the jargon goes) and make a few quick comments on teaching to see if I can generate some reaction. Part of the reason for doing this is that while I was munching my coffee and drinking my toast this morning – I’m never very coordinate first thing – I noticed an interesting post by a student on a blog  that somehow wound up referring some traffic to one of my old posts about lecture notes. […]

  31. […] participant. Slavishly copying detailed notes seems to me a remarkably pointless activity, although taking notes of the key points in a lecture devoted primarily to concepts and demonstrations is far from that. […]

  32. […] However, one recurring comment was that I write too fast on the whiteboard. In fact I go far more slowly than the lecturers I had at University. That brings me back to an old post I did some time ago about  lecture notes. […]

  33. […] Taking a short break from this weekend’s task of preparing notes and problem sets for the Theoretical Physics module I’m teaching this term. In  the course of putting this stuff together I remembered an old post I did some time ago about  lecture notes. […]

  34. […] I’m teaching this term.  I’ve just remembered an old post I did some time ago about  lecture notes. I won’t repeat the entire content of my earlier discussion, but one of the main points I made in […]

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