Alternatives to Lectures?

It’s probably fair to say that the act of lecturing has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. The purpose of a lecture was to chart a course through a subject for students, transmitting key points of knowledge, explaining difficult concepts, getting students to question, schooling them in the ways of experts in the discipline in question. For lectures to be effective students had to listen hard and they had to take notes

Lectures existed because there was no other way that the learning process could happen. With no photocopiers and no computers the only way the interaction between expert and novice, teacher and student, could take place, was orally.

With the advent of photocopiers and eventually computers and printers, it became possible to give students “handouts” to supplement the lectures. Distant learning now became possible and institutions like the Open University adopted a model where most of the learning occurred independently through the study of high quality booklets. This learning was supplemented with a small number of tutorials.

As digital technologies evolved, it became possible to add video into the mix and so we now have the resources to establish the perfect learning environment: one where the student can learn by listening, writing, observing and even interacting with each other and with software. (And of course through work placements.)

So what’s the best way to teach? I think the best way, if there is one, will be discipline specific but an approach that is overly dependent on students attending lectures and taking down notes is not going to be very effective and not because I’ve anything against lectures per se. The recent ISSE report indicated that only 15% of students review their lecture notes “very often” while 34% review their notes “often”. No matter how good the lecture is and no matter how good students are at taking notes, failure to review those notes means that most of their learning is done through cramming. And material learned through cramming is rapidly forgotten.

Ultimately this whole debate is not really about whether lectures are obsolete or not; it’s about asking what approaches to teaching can we adopt that force/incentivise/encourage (choose your own word) students to study consistently throughout the semester.

But there is a background to this. Lectures require a lot of space and space is expensive. And, when you have too little space and too many students, timetables become sub-optimal and learning suffers. So reducing our reliance on lectures makes sense.


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