Archive for teaching and learning

Teaching + Learning ≠ Lecturing

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on January 13, 2022 by telescoper
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!

Lecture less, teach more…

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on January 2, 2012 by telescoper

I was just about to go to the shops just now, but the weather is so extreme – dark apocalyptic skies and violent hailstorms – that I thought I’d have a quick go on the blog in the hope that  things quieten down a little. I was going to write something a bit earlier, as I was up at 7am, but all that came into my head were dark imaginings about the future and I didn’t want to depress myself and everyone else going on about that. The e-astronomer has already done something along those lines anyway.

Fortunately I saw something on Twitter that is a more appropriate theme for a blog post, namely a very interesting article about the role of lectures in university physics education. This is a topic I feel very strongly about, and I agree with most of what the article says, which is basically that the traditional lecture format is a very ineffective way of teaching physics. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that lectures are inherently useless, but I think they should be used in a very different way from the way they are used now.

When I was an undergraduate, in the dim and distant past, I attended lectures assiduously because that was expected of students. To put it bluntly, though, I don’t think I ever learned anything much from doing so. My real learning was done back in my room, with books and problem sheets as well as my lecture notes, trying to figure out how the physics all went together with other things I had learned, and how to apply it in interesting situations. Sometimes the lecture notes were useful, sometimes not, but I never felt that I had learned anything until I was confident that I knew how to apply the new concepts in solving problems.

But I did find some lectures very enjoyable and worthwhile, because some lecturers were good at making students feel interested in the subject.  The enthusiasm and depth of understanding conveyed by someone who has devoted their life to the study of a subject can be  infectious, and a very enjoyable form of entertainment in its own right. That’s why public lectures remain popular; their intrinsic educational value is limited, but they serve to stimulate the audience to find out more. That’s if they’re good, of course. They can have the opposite effect also.

At Cardiff – like other universities – we hand out questionnaires to students to get feedback on lecturers. Usually the thing that stands out as making one lecturer more popular than others is their enthusiasm. Quite rightly so. If someone who has made a career out of the subject can’t be enthusiastic, why on Earth should the students?

For other comments on what makes a good lecture, see here.

What makes a lecture useless is when it is used simply to transfer material from the lecturer to the student, without passing through the mind of either 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. Far better to learn to use resources such as textbooks and internet sites effectively than to endure an hour’s dictation. We don’t want our students to learn physics by rote; we want them to learn to think like physicists!

While I’m on about lectures, I’ll also add that I think the increasing use of Powerpoint in lectures has its downside too. I started using it when I moved to Cardiff, but never felt comfortable with it as a medium for teaching physics. This year I’m going to scrap it. I would revert to “chalk-and-talk” if we had any blackboards, so I’ll have to make do with those hideous whiteboard things. Not all progress is good progress.

Anyway, what we’ve recently done with our new courses in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University is to start to move away from an over-reliance on lectures. One way we’ve done this is to merge some of our smaller modules. Whereas a 10-credit module used to have two lectures a week, the new 20 credit modules now have the same number of lectures, complemented by two hours of problems classes in which the students work through exercise with staff members lending assistance. Initial reaction from the students is positive, though there have been some teething troubles. We’ll just  have to wait for the examination results to see how well it has worked.

I dare say other departments around the country are making similar changes in teaching methods in response to the availability of new technologies and changes to the school curriculum. But of course its a path that other trod before. It’s good to have the chance to end by congratulating Derek Raine of the University of Leicester for his MBE in the New Years Honours List for his contributions to science education. He was arguing for a different approach to physics teaching when many of us were still in short pants. It’s just a pity we’ve taken such a long time to realise he was right.

Now the sky’s blue so I can go and do my shopping. Toodle-pip!