Lectures: are they still useful to students?

Just over a month ago, I posted on the subject of Chemistry lectures, and discussed how they have changed during the time I have been giving them. Having recently finished a block of lectures to our second year students, I have been doing some soul-searching about whether this is still a teaching medium that is appreciated by students, and whether it is one that works for them.

I really tried to ‘pull out the stops’ for these lectures, giving my usual PowerPoint  notes, but also plenty of examples on the board, and this year, my ‘innovation’ was recording the lectures which I provided for the students to download after the lectures had taken place.

And yet, the attitude of many of the students in the class seemed to be (at best) to show only a small amount of interest in what I was trying to explain. I frequently had to quieten them down (even though they knew I was recording the lectures), and when I asked a question about some aspect of the lecture material, it was usually met by silence and puzzlement. OK, so the topics were difficult, but surely that is all the more reason to concentrate and try to get the most out of the lecture!

The fact that some students seem to regard lectures as an opportunity to chat to their friends, and to pay scant attention to the lecturer, leads me to question how useful they think the lectures are to them. And yet, for explaining complex subjects to a class, they still remain the best approach that I can think of.

My remaining lectures this academic year are mainly for more ‘mature’ students – potential trainee teachers, so I don’t expect the ‘talking’ problem with them, and in the past these classes have taken my lectures seriously. But I feel that I need to come up with a strategy for next year, and would be interested in people’s views on the usefulness of lectures, and if anyone else has experienced the ‘change in attitude’ that some students seem to display now. (I should say that I have been teaching university chemistry courses for nearly 23 years, and that the’ issues’ that I am talking about here have only become issues in the last 2 years at most!)

6 thoughts on “Lectures: are they still useful to students?”

  1. Rob,
    I feel for you. I don’t have this problem and I’d like to think that I wouldn’t stand for it. If students are truly that disinterested and disrespectful not just of you but their peers then the lecture environment is better off without them. I have made this point to isolated disruptive elements in the past. Have you tried simply stopping and making it clear that you won’t continue until they stop, the peer pressure should do the job then. These are University students we are talking about. However, for me that’s not the real issue of your blog. What is the alternative to the formal lecture?
    Are we ready for the leap to presenting the lecture online in screencast or videocast format in advance and making the timetable slot an interactive social event?


  2. Simon,

    I also won’t stand for disruptive behaviour, but I’m not that good at dealing with it, simply because it’s only recently become an issue. Also, (and this may sound like an excuse), university lecturers are not trained to deal with this kind of thing! In future I may adopt the ‘stop’ approach, but I’m still concerned that it happens at all, and I am trying to rationalise the reason for it.

    I like the idea of the screencast/videocast approach, although I wonder if the ‘silent majority’ of students might feel short-changed by it!

    Something else that I have tried, which works reasonably well, is to lecture for about 30 minutes and then have an interactive class problems session. Maybe attention span is a factor in all this, and the students we teach now are not used to concentrating for 50 minutes?

    Thanks again for your reply and support!

  3. Rob,

    I share you concerns. This year has been the first year that I have needed to stop repeatedly in lectures to a given cohort (the first year this time) in order to prevent talking getting out of hand. Are we at the point where formal lectures should be abandoned in favour of a multi-media, microblogging, interactive extravaganza? Is the current vogue for multi-tasking depriving the current generation of students the ability to concentrate on one thing for a protracted period?

    Ideally we need to train a new generation to think critically and solve problems. The problem, as I see it, is how to disengage our students from a culture where “the answer is on the web” and encourage them to practise the use of their “little grey cells”.

    I could go on… but I have some marking to do!

  4. Stephen,

    Thanks for your reply, and it’s reassuring to hear that I am not the only one having this problem!

    I am also wondering along the same lines about an alternative to lectures that would be better suited to today’s generation of students.


  5. Having developed multimedia teaching since 1993 and using it extensively, I do not believe that we are at the stage of replacing teachers. At the university level, there are never any discipline problems. They listen or leave. However today students have at their finger tips loads of material. Most students only do what the teacher tells them to do, and it is great that students can get a quick overview of a topic from Wikipedia etc. But the one-on-one teaching experience trumps all methods in my opinion. The student-teacher dialogs are essential. I also think that peer learning is helpful. Nonethesless, internet teaching offers a lot from very boring and poor to excellent short clips of knowledge. So the two go hand in hand, but one and one teaching is always the best approach. I have some short clips on my blog

  6. Unfortunately it is not my experience that ‘At the university level, there are never any discipline problems. They listen or leave.’ Instead, they attend, but many don’t engage and instead talk to their neighbours, send SMS messages, or even use things like Facebook if the lecture theatre has WiFi! Maybe it’s better where you are! We seem to have a serious non-engagement problem which has to be dealt with in some way.

    Thanks for the link which I’ll certainly find useful.


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