In my last blog post, I wrote a bit on the problems with lecturing as a teaching format. In summary, I concluded that although “lecturing is one of the most commonly used forms of teaching in universities, there seems to be a remarkable consensus within educational literature that – in its conventional forms, at least – the lecture is a severely compromised format for teaching.” The immediate question that results is: what to do about it?

The most obvious answer is to discard lecturing and teach through other, more effective formats such as small groups. Many universities already do this, particularly in the humanities. But the fact remains that most of us will probably be required to provide at least some of our teaching through lecturing; it’s an economical format for universities, allowing them to keep contact hours high. Now, no course I have ever taught is provided entirely through lectures, though I have friends (usually teaching survey courses at American universities) who have. So in trying to develop my teaching practice I have been informed by my own needs, which is to provide more effective lectures for courses that are a blend of lectures and tutorials or seminars. Your own mileage may vary.

If we consider that the lecture is first and foremost a method of transmitting knowledge (whatever else we might like to use it to achieve in terms of learning objectives), an important question is: how effective is it in that aim? Given that students retain only ten per cent of the information they hear in a lecture, it would appear that lecturing typically is very inefficient in achieving this outcome.[1] Bligh takes this analysis further, to consider what students do and do not retain, and how to promote better retention. Various researchers have found that students better remember information presented at the beginning and end of the lecture and forget what is in the middle. Interestingly, this is not necessarily affected by lecture length – the general trend is the same even when the lecture period is short. This is described as a ‘bowing effect’, and Bligh suggests it is best combated by ‘structuring lectures with contrasting approaches, novel points or surprising facts in the middle’.[2] Research also suggests that a common error lecturers make is trying to fit too much information into the time allotted. It may feel as if presenting a good deal of information is a way of maximising the value of the lecture, but in fact students learn better when information density is moderate – enough information to retain their interest, but not so much that they stop being able to process the information. Of course, the problem here is that each student’s ‘threshold’ for information varies. A general rule of thumb, however, seems to be that it is difficult for anyone to concentrate for more than 15 – 25 minutes at a time, and that a break, either through a rest period or through a change in activity style, will refresh students and allow them to better retain information.[3]

  • Improvement methods (1): using resources

An important way to make lectures more accessible is through use of resources, both physical and digital. Accessibility is a key issue here. With approximately five per cent of British undergraduates self-assessing as having a disability, the most common being dyslexia, this is a significant concern.[4] The P163 QAA Code of Practice for Students with Disabilities (1999) stresses teachers should plan and employ teaching and learning strategies which make delivery of the programme as inclusive as possible. In some cases, teachers will know in advance if their students have disabilities of which they should be aware, but in large lecture classes they may not have this information, and so some general steps to make the lecture accessible should be taken. In practical terms, this can be checking that the room is accessible, ensuring the lecturer is audible to all students, and giving permission for students to record the lecture (I have been asked to allow this on several occasions: it can, for instance, permit students with learning difficulties to forgo note writing until after the lecture).

Use of audiovisual resources and handouts can aid accessibility and are in general useful for students. Students are highly critical of poor use of audiovisual resources, but successful implementation can aid student learning. Even simply listing itemised points in the lecture on a screen as they are mentioned helps students stay focused: an easy and effective way to use Powerpoint. Use of moving images (for example, film clips) are more problematic – one might assume this might engage students, but in fact students’ ability to retain information from film is doubtful, because it can lead to information overload.[5] For accessibility reasons, making audiovisual resources available after the lecture (for instance on a virtual learning environment like Weblearn) is important.

Handouts are invaluable to the lecturer, but can be used poorly. Exley and Dennick warn that handouts can encourage a ‘spoon-feeding’ attitude, where students may feel they can not pay attention or even not attend at all if the notes are too detailed. For this reason it is not a good idea to give out the text of the whole lecture. Handouts should be integral, not an adjunct to, the lecture. It is easy to make handouts at the last minute, but instead they should be carefully thought out as part of a larger strategy. If handouts are intended to promote further thought and reading guidance, suggests Bligh, they could be handed out at the end. It seems more likely to me, though, that students would be likely to file these and forget them.[6] Instead, handouts that positively contribute to the course of the lecture seem more useful. It is helpful if the lecturer explains to students the function of the handout at the start. Exley and Dennick suggest using interactive handouts. ‘The use of interactive handouts also gives students a sense of ownership of the lecture as they insert definitions, label diagrams or insert their answers to questions.’[7] While this may be more obviously useful for science subjects, I believe this approach could be positively used  in the humanities.

  • Improvement methods (2): lecture organisation

The structuring and organising of the lecture is profoundly important. The two major ways of organising a lecture are: the hierarchic form and the problem-centred form. The former is ‘consists of a classification, with its criterion as the heading. In other words, different points of information are grouped together with a unifying feature as a heading’.[8] This classic form has tended to be my general approach. Bligh’s suggestion of the problem-centred form is more unusual, at least to this historian. Unsurprisingly it is a fairly common form in the sciences, as it features introducing a problem and attempting to solve it. This can be more successful in engaging students’ attention, and is a good way of integrating student participation. While ‘problem-solving’ is not really a feature of the history discipline, debating issues and questions is, so this style could be usefully adapted to fit the historian’s needs. Hierarchic forms tend to make it harder to see the connections between topics, and so can result in unsophisticated and inflexible student thinking.[9] The teacher should instead try to review and make connections to previous work in a process known as ‘activating prior learning’. That is, the structure of the lecture should remind students of what they have learned previously – and teach them to apply that knowledge to what they are learning now. This encourages them to be active, rather than passive, learners.[10]

  • Lecturing and my teaching philosophy: preliminary thoughts

The work thus far has helped bring into sharp focus a problem in my teaching of which I had previously only been hazily aware. Although I consider my lecture technique as it stands to be fairly good (an impression my student evaluations corroborate), compared to other styles of teaching I have always had some unease with lecturing as a method. I now see that this is because the conventional lecture format does not blend well with my overall teaching philosophy. The models of teaching that have most resonated with my own values focus on the teacher as facilitator. I am drawn to an ideal of teaching that features a co-operative relationship between teacher and students, tailored as far as is practical to individuals’ needs, and that guides rather than directs students. Teaching should be, at least in my discipline, ‘an essentially facilitative process, based upon mutual exploration of the subject matter and of what it means to be a historian.’[11] (Emphasis mine.) I have found Fox’s description of ‘travelling’ to be appealing for this reason, with the teacher as expert guide to fellow travellers, who helps them learn from the landscape but is also invested in the shared experience of teaching and learning, and who is open to the possibility of learning from students’ opinions and perspectives.[12] These goals always seemed hard to achieve in a lecture format, as I tended to view it as based around a ‘transfer’ method of teaching, and that the best I could do was to make this transfer as lively and varied as possible. Reconsidering how to conceptualise the lecture has, however, made me more confident of moving beyond this relatively humble goal. Or, as Exley and Dennick put it: ‘conventional lecturing appears to be ideally suited to the acquisition of factual information and conceptual understanding. However, it is very possible and probably desirable to create a richer lecturing environment in which the students can carry out a variety of active and interactive learning tasks.’[13] Lecturing can, with some imagination, deliver more than I expected.

[1] Exley and Dennick, Giving a Lecture, p. 8.

[2] Bligh, What’s the use of lectures?, p. 41.

[3] Various studies summarised by Bligh, What’s the use of lectures?, pp. 42 – 56.

[4] J.K. Seale, E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice, (Oxford: Routledge, 2006), p. 9.

[5] Exley and Dennick, Giving a Lecture, pp. 147-51, Bligh, What’s the use of lectures?, p. 87, p. 103.

[6] Bligh, What’s the use of lectures?, pp. 144-7.

[7] Exley and Dennick, Giving a Lecture, p. 108.

[8] Bligh, What’s the use of lectures?, p. 70.

[9] Bligh, What’s the use of lectures?, pp. 70-4.

[10] Exley and Dennick, Giving a Lecture, p. 48.

[11] Booth, Teaching History, p. 62.

[12] Fox, ‘Personal Theories of Teaching’, p. 156.

[13] Exley and Dennick, Giving a Lecture, p. 6.