Archive for lectures

The Three Es for Lecturing

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on October 5, 2011 by telescoper

Yet another very busy day looms in front of me. I’m off to the smoky bigness of London for an examiners’ meeting at Queen Mary this afternoon, but before that I have to squeeze in my first tutorial of the year, with a group of fresh-faced freshers. Actually I don’t know if they’re fresh faced or not because I haven’t met them yet. I had my first teaching encounter with the first years yesterday morning during an exercise class on mechanics, which I enjoyed despite some teething troubles with the facilities in the room we were using. I was very happy with the way the students chipped freely in with answers whenever I asked questions, which is a good sign.

A while ago I attended a session on teaching for our new lecturers. Actually I didn’t attend most of it, I just dropped in at the end to deliver a few tips I’ve picked up from observing other lecturers. Here in Cardiff we have “peer observation” of lectures in which one member of teaching staff sits in on a lecture by another, followed by a feedback and discussion session. While I was at Nottingham it was a different system; two nominated staff members (myself and another Professor) sat in on  lectures by each of the other staff. It was a lot of work, but gave me the chance to see quite a lot of different approaches to teaching and was consequently very interesting.

Anyway, over the years it became obvious that there are some obvious basics which lecturers need to do in order to teach competently, including being prepared, talking sufficiently loudly, writing clearly (if relevant), and so on. And of course turning up at the right theatre at the right time. But there are also those things that turn mere competence into excellence. Of course there are many ways to lecture, and you have to put your own personality into what you do, but the main tips I’d pass on to make your lecturers really popular can be boiled down into the Three Es. I add that these are things that struck me while watching others lecture, rather than me claiming to be brilliant myself (which I know I’m not). Anyway, here we go:

Enthusiasm. The single most obvious response on student questionnaires about lecturing refers to enthusiasm. My take on this is that we’re all professional physicists, earning our keep by doing physics. If we can’t be enthusiastic about it then it’s clearly unreasonable to expect the students to get fired up. So convey the excitement of the subject! I don’t mean by descending into vacuous gee-whizz stuff, but by explaining how interesting things are when you look at them properly as a physicist, mathematics and all.

Engagement. This one cuts both ways. First it is essential to look at your audience, ask questions, and make them feel that they are part of a shared experience not just listening to a monologue. The latter might be fine for a public lecture, but if a teaching session is to be successful as a pedagogical exercise it can’t be passive. And if you ask a question of the audience, make your body language tell them that it’s not just rhetorical; if you don’t look like you want an answer, you won’t get one. More importantly, try to cultivate an atmosphere wherein the students feel they can contribute. You know you’ve succeeded in this when students point out mistakes you have made. On the other hand, you can’t take this too far. The lecturer is the person who is supposed to know the stuff so fundamentally there’s no symmetry between you and the audience. You have to be authoritative, though that doesn’t mean you have to behave like a schoolmaster. Know your subject, explain it well and you’ll earn respect without needing to bluster.

Entertainment. To be absolutely honest, I think lectures  are a  fairly useless as a way of teaching physics. That is not to say that they don’t have a role, which I think is to highlight key concepts and demonstrate their applicability;  the rest, the details, the nuts and bolts are best done by problem-based learning. I therefore think it does no harm at all if you make your lectures enjoyable as pieces of entertainment. By all means introduce the odd joke, refer to surprising examples, amusing analogies, and so on.  As long as you don’t overdo it, you’ll find that a bit of light relief will keep the attention levels up. A key element of this is spontaneity. A lecture should appear as if it develops naturally, in an almost improvised fashion. Of course your spontaneity will probably have to  be very carefully rehearsed, but the sense of a live performance always adds value. A lecture should be a happening, not just a presentation. Lecture demonstrations also play this role, although they seem to be deployed less frequently  nowadays than in the past. Being a showman doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and the audience will know if you’re forcing it so don’t act unnaturally, but at the very least try to move about. Believe me, watching a lecturer drone on for an hour while rooted to the spot. You’d be surprised how much difference it makes if you can convey at least the impression of being alive.

On this last point, I’ll offer a few quotes from a physicist who definitely knew a thing or two about lecturing, Michael Faraday. First his opinion was that the lecturer should not be

…glued to the table or screwed to the floor. He must by all means appear as a body distinct and separate from the things around, and must have some motion apart from that which they possess.

Conventional wisdom nowadays suggests that one should take breaks in lectures to stop students losing concentration. I’m not sure I agree with this, actually. It’s certainly the case that attention will flag if you persist with a dreary monotone for an hour, but  I think a lecture can have a natural dynamic to it which keeps the students interested by variation rather than interruption. Faraday also thought this.

A flame should be lighted at the commencement and kept alive with unremitting splendour to the end…I very much disapprove of breaks in the lecture.

Finally, here is one of my all-time  favourite physics quotes, Faraday’s take on the need for lectures to be entertaining:

..for though to all true philosophers science and nature will have charms innumerable in every dress, yet I am sorry to say that the generality of mankind cannot accompany us one short hour unless the path is strewn with flowers.

Well, that’s all I have time for, but please offer your own tips through the comments box if you feel so motivated!

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Take a note from me…

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on December 14, 2010 by telescoper

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 coordinated 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.

I won’t repeat the entire content of my earlier discussion, but one of the main points I made was about how inefficient many students are at taking notes during lectures, so much so that the effort of copying things onto paper must surely prevent them absorbing the intellectual content of the lecture.

I dealt with this problem when I was an undergraduate by learning to write very quickly without looking at the paper as I did so. That way I didn’t waste time moving my head to and fro between paper and screen or blackboard. Of course, the notes I produced using this method weren’t exactly aesthetically pleasing, but my handwriting is awful at the best of times so that didn’t make much difference to me. I always wrote my notes up more neatly after the lecture anyway. But the great advantage was that I could write down everything in real time without this interfering with my ability to listen to what the lecturer was saying.

An alternative to this approach is to learn shorthand, or invent your own form of abbreviated language. This approach is, however, unlikely to help you take down mathematical equations quickly…

My experience nowadays is that students aren’t used to taking notes like this, so they struggle to cope with the old-fashioned chalk-and-talk style of teaching that some lecturers still prefer. That’s probably because they get much less practice at school than my generation. Most of my school education was done via the blackboard..

Nowadays,  most lecturers use more “modern” methods than this. Many lecture using powerpoint, and often they give copies of the slides to students. Others give out complete sets of printed notes before, during, or after lectures. That’s all very well, I think, but what are the students supposed to be doing during the lecture if you do that? Listen, of course, but if there is to be a long-term benefit they should take notes too.

Even if I hand out copies of slides or other notes, I always encourage my students to make their own independent set of notes, as complete as possible. I don’t mean copying down what they see on the screen and what they may have on paper already, but trying to write down what I say as I say it. I don’t think many take that advice, which means much of the spoken illustrations and explanations I give don’t find their way into any long term record of the lecture.

And if the lecturer just reads out the printed notes, adding nothing by way of illustration or explanation, then the audience is bound to get bored very quickly.

My argument, then, is that regardless of what technology the lecturer uses, whether he/she gives out printed notes or not, then if the students can’t take notes accurately and efficiently then lecturing is a complete waste of time.

I like lecturing, because I like talking about physics and astronomy, but as I’ve got older I’ve become less convinced that lectures play a useful role in actually teaching anything. I think we should use lectures more sparingly, relying more on problem-based learning to instil proper understanding. When we do give lectures, they should focus much more on stimulating interest by being entertaining and thought-provoking. They should not be for the routine transmission of information, which is far too often the default.

Next year we’ll rolling out a new set of courses here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. The express intent of this is to pare down the amount of material lectured to create more space for other types of activity, especially more exercise classes for problem-based learning. The only way to really learn physics is by doing it.

I’m not saying we should scrap lectures altogether. At the very least they have the advantage of giving the students a shared experience, which is good for networking and building a group identity. Some students probably get a lot out of lectures anyway, perhaps more than I did when I was their age. But different people benefit from different styles of teaching, so we need to move away from lecturing as the default option.

I don’t think I ever learned very much about physics from lectures, but I’m nevertheless glad I learned out how to take notes the way I did because I find it useful in all kinds of situations. Note-taking is a transferable skill, but it’s also a dying art.


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Lecture Notes

Posted in Education with tags , , , on April 25, 2010 by telescoper

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.