Wednesday, April 03, 2013

More on lectures

Previous post: Sliding towards a conclusion

So a lot of lectures and presentations are done badly. Overuse of slides and visual aids is part of that. The fact that often people who are good at academic work and research are often not so good at the performance aspect of public speaking is part of it too. But what if the problem is more fundamental than that? Maybe the lecture itself is an archaic and inefficient way of transferring knowledge.

It's difficult to concentrate on a monologue for a full hour. How often do you do that in your everyday life? It's difficult to concentrate on a monologue for two minutes, as you know if you've ever been stuck in conversation with the sort of person who's prone to them.

It's difficult to take in new information in real-time like that, since most people need to reflect on difficult concepts in order to understand and absorb them - but in a lecture if you stop paying attention for a moment you miss something. Sometimes you miss something that means it's impossible to catch up and you don't understand anything that's said for the rest of the hour. Unless you record it - but then why not just have the recording and skip the live performances?
In my personal experience, lectures were the least efficient way of learning I could have imagined. I often left knowing no more than I did at the start.

What was useful for me was studying the handouts and textbooks afterwards, when I had the space and time to think without having to listen to someone talking at the same time (surely that's a challenge to anyone's multi-tasking abilities?). What was also very useful occasionally was going to see the lecturer during office hours to ask for clarification on any point I couldn't fully understand on my own. Tutorials and problem classes were good too.

But the lecture itself seemed irrelevant, a waste of everyone's time. Judging by the amount of sleeping, reading,whispering, texting etc going on, I wasn't the only one to feel that way.For many students, the lecture seemed almost a form of religious observance, as though attendance was what counted, as though knowledge (or credit) would be magically absorbed just by being physically there.

An alternative model could look like this: lecturers provide or recommend materials for students to study in their own time (could be online courses, might be a chapter from a textbook for first-year undergraduates learning the basics, maybe some relevant papers or review articles for more advanced years or postgrads). This would be followed by small-group tutorials for questions, discussion, detailed explanations. All of which would mean more when everyone present was familiar with the material.

This might even help us move towards real learning, instead of the current exam-driven model where the lecturer reads stuff out, the students write it down, memorise it, and write it all over again in the exam.

It's not just undergraduate teaching though. The lecture in some form can be found in research-group meetings and journal clubs, and at academic conferences as well. It even exists in industry and business, where often the standard format for meetings is someone delivering a presentation (usually accompanied by the dreaded slides). It's such an established way of doing things that it's difficult to imagine these occasions without someone standing up and delivering a lecture. But is it the best way?

My experience of these meetings is that the most productive time is the ten or so minutes at the end for questions and discussion, especially in smaller groups. Where people actually interact with each other, where real engagement and understanding take place. Imagine if the full hour could be like that.

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