Teaching + Learning ≠ Lecturing

Iontas Lecture Theatre, Maynooth University

The main purpose of this post is to encourage you to read a piece written by a second-year student at the blog run by Phil Moriarty of Nottingham University entitled Death of the Lecture: Musings of a second year student as it provides at least some first-hand reflections from a current student about the difficulties being faced by a student. So, go on, or as they say round here, gwan. Read it.

I couldn’t resist making a few tangential comments of my own.

First, on my philosophy of teaching (such as it is) which is largely formed by my own experiences both as a student many years ago and as a lecturer for many years since then. When I was an undergraduate I didn’t get much out of the lectures I attended at Cambridge and my attendance dropped off a bit as my course went on (though I still attended most). This was because the majority of lectures just involved transparency after transparency being put on and taken off the overhead projector, with students frantically writing down as much as they could but with little time to think. I think that’s what people nowadays call a “traditional” lecture. I agree with Phil Moriarty that these are pedagogically useless. If there ever is a return to normality, the New Normal – to use a very hackneyed phrase – should not be based on this as the primary mode of teaching.

I think this form of non-teaching evolved because it is cost-effective, but academics have gone along with it largely because lots of them actually enjoy standing up and talking about their subject; sometimes it’s difficult to get them to stop. As a matter of fact, that applies to me too. I enjoy talking about physics and astrophysics. I like to think that I can at least communicate some enthusiasm for the subjects through lectures, but I do realize that this does not necessarily make me a very effective teacher.

But in many ways I think the “traditional lecture” described above is a straw man. Many lecturers actually use the traditional format (50 minutes with a class in a large room) to do much more than I’ve just described. When we had to switch teaching online I bought a blackboard and did my lectures from home using it. I know a lot of people found it quaint that I adopted this “traditional” approach but I think explaining mathematical concepts through examples works well via a chalkboard and by standing up I could put more energy into the session than I could if sitting at a screen.

The point is that nowadays we provide students with many more resources to back up this kind of activity – besides my sessions the students get tutorials, and besides the live sessions they get printed notes, problem sets to do on their own, various online resources and of course video recordings. Having all that allows the lecturer to free themselves from the task of delivering material and instead try to cultivate understanding. I never lecture verbatim from notes; I prefer to cover the material in a complementary fashion, expanding on the bits I think need most explanation and/or are most important.

When I was a student I found I learned best not by attending lectures but by reading textbooks and doing problems. That’s just me though. Over the years I realized that different students learn in very different ways. The most important thing for teachers to do is to provide as many ways as possible for the students to learn so they can use what works best for them. In some respects I think of higher education as being more like a smorgasbord than a set menu.

But there lies the difficulty. There is now so much extra material available that many students find it hard to know where to start, just as when you arrive at a buffet table: it might look appetizing but you might not even know what’s in many of the dishes. There needs to be some structure, especially in the early years of a degree to help students find their own way to navigate the more independent methods of study required in an undergraduate degree.

The question for me is not whether lectures have a role to play in the New Normal – I think they do – but what is the best way to incorporate them in a blend. More importantly we need to do a lot more to help students develop their study skills and structure their time so they can learn most effectively. There was no time to do this when the pandemic forced us to change and we were given few resources to assist in the task, but it’s going to be necessary in future as we move inevitably to a more flexible future. Timetabled lectures do of course provide a structure, but there’s almost certainly a better way. As one concrete proposal, I’d call for a vastly expanded induction programme for new students focussing on study skills and other aspects of learning to put in place for the benefit of future intakes.

Like most universities, Maynooth University has a “Teaching & Learning Committee”. I sometimes wonder whether there is as strong a connection between these two words as we’d like to believe. At any rate, switching teaching online does not necessarily mean that learning goes with it!

2 Responses to “Teaching + Learning ≠ Lecturing”

  1. Thanks for this post, Peter — I’ve passed on the link to the student in question. I am very pleased that their post has generated this level of engagement and discussion.

    I share your love of old school blackboard technology and my videos for our Quantum World module here at Nottingham rely heavily on a literal chalk-and-talk approach. As you say, a much higher level of energy and enthusiasm for the subject can be put across this way. But I also think there is particular value in students seeing us develop the maths as we go along — slip-ups included — rather than being presented as a “fait accompli” in nicely rendered LaTeX embedded in a PowerPoint slide. (Although that too has its place!)

    I also share your concerns about the question of structure vs choice — it is too easy, as the student’s post points out, for undergraduates to feel swamped by the range of resources and activities available to them. Less may indeed be more under these circumstances.

    I’ll write a response to the student’s (and your) post next week. Thanks again.

  2. […] colleagues, and was also highlighted and discussed by Peter Coles at his In The Dark blog: “Teaching + Learning ≠ Lecturing“. I thoroughly recommend that you take the time to read those posts in full, but the central […]

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