In an earlier post, I questioned the usefulness of lectures for students, particularly in my own subject, chemistry. I got some interesting responses, including several from former students who said that they thought that lectures were very important. The original post was motivated by what I perceived to be a rather negative response to my lectures over the past year by some of the classes I have taught.
Anyway, it has led me to think (again) about lectures, but this time lecturing style, and what might work best for 21st century students.
When I was first appointed to a lectureship, in the late 1980s, lecturing was a simpler business than it is now. You prepared your notes, and then turned up for you lectures and wrote the notes again on the blackboard, explaining them as you went along. I used to find that I almost always used 4 pages of my handwritten notes per lecture. Diagrams, if needed, could be given out as handouts, and because everyone was constrained by the speed of writing, there was no danger of covering too much material, or of going too fast! Because I wrote clearly and explained everything, my lectures were well-received. Those were the days!
When I started making the switch to PowerPoint (around 2000 I think), I thought it was a definite step forward. Apart from not needing to write everything on the board every time, you could put in as much or as little detail as you liked, and diagrams were no problem. The switch was a gradual one, and actually I only finally converted everything to PowerPoint this year. Initially my lectures were ‘all PowerPoint’, but it soon became clear that they needed to be supplemented in some way.
So now most of my lectures consist of a PowerPoint presentation, with examples and exercises being done on the board to illustrate and explain the lecture material. The question is, is this suitable for today’s students? It’s actually quite hard to find out, because even if you ask the students themselves, you don’t always get clear answers. So I asked a relatively recent ex-student for his views, and they were illuminating. He pointed out that with the instant availability of video content on mobile devices as well as laptops, today’s students are immersed in a video world, and may not respond well to lots of text, or be prepared to listen to explanations that are longer than ‘sound bytes’. They are also more likely to take the view that if the information has already been provided, as in a set of slides that can be downloaded, then there is no need to do any more than read through these slides and attempt to learn the material just before the exam. If that is the case, then they miss all the ‘value added’ material that comes from the lecturer’s explanations! And maybe, by recording the lectures and making the recordings available, the situation is made worse because the notes and recordings can be reviewed any time.
So I am faced with the question, should I reinvent my lecturing style for a 3rd time, and if so, how? Should I try to include video clips where possible (which may be easier in some areas than others)? And then there is the issue of students and their attention span. Is 45-50 minutes continuous lecturing too long? Should I subdivide the lecture time into, say 30 minutes lecture and 20 minutes problem solving? The class sizes are usually too large to adopt a more ‘tutorial’ style approach.
Anyway, there is still some of the current academic year to go (and still some lectures to give), so these questions and considerations are for next year. I’ll revisit this topic if and when I have reached some conclusions.