Archive for teaching and learning

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!