Monday, 14 March 2011

Getting the most out of lectures

When the students pay £9000 per year in fees alone, they're going to expect stonkingly good lectures. Though quite frankly, anyone who thinks 'they only pay £3000 now so they're not getting my best' shouldn't be teaching.

But what is a good lecture? It surely isn't just packing as many facts in as possible (I refer you to previous quotations of the opening paragraphs from Hard Times in evidence). Being knowledgeable isn't enough either: I remember being lectured by a very wise man who handed out his entire lecture on tiny type-script sheets and proceeded to read it out, word for word, very slowly.

You've got to be aware of your audience. How much do they know? How do they think about the material in hand? Have they read it, and/or understood it? How do they relate to it. It's not just 'what they need to know' but 'how they need to think around it'. We always say that a lecture is never The Answer but an introduction to some of the questions - which might be very frustrating for paying customers but is very fruitful for academics (and I include students in this category). Seminars are meant to explore the ideas, and sometimes do.

Anyway, George Watson at the Times Higher Ed. has been thinking about this subject. Here are some of his aperçus:
Edward Gibbon:  "The most idle will carry something away, and the more diligent will compare the instructions which they have heard in the school with the volumes which they peruse in their chamber."
you have to forget what you are told. A lecturer cannot think about technique as he lectures: he can think only about what he is saying. In other words, advice must be absorbed to the point that it is taken for granted. 
Some of my colleagues have the amazing skill to discourse interestingly and at length without notes. I can't do that as I have the brain of a distracted goldfish with a lot on his mind. I prepare massive sheaves of notes which I then ignore unless I'm lost and panicking - they're a prop and provide a structure. I don't build in artificial little activities ('take two minutes and discuss with your neighbours what Lacan would say about Winstanley') but I do ask questions of the audience and ask them to interrupt me whenever they want: the idea of delivering 'stuff' to a passive group is revolting. And fashionable: they'd like to replace us with DVDs and online video, as though education is just consumption.

Who are the good teachers you remember, and why?


Nasher said...

Having just returned home from a lecture I felt I would be bold and reply to your blog.

I looked around the room after realising I had switched off after listening to the lecturer read two chapters of the book I stayed up half the night last night to read, (this I blame on you because after reading your blogs about students turning up having not read the text's I would rather loose a nights sleep than do that). Upon my glance around the room I noted the person sitting next to me was writing her essay notes for a different module and the couple next to her (new lovers) were both asleep. A couple of girls in front were playing OXO, the girl next to them was playing solitaire on her I Phone, behind me I could hear a couple of lads discussing their Friday night binge drinking session whilst comparing who had vomited the most and across the classroom another student was actually reading the text so I guess that was ever so slightly related to the lecture. Apparently not just me who had switched off then???

Perhaps it was just the late night reading a complete novel so I was tired, or perhaps the lecture was mind numbingly boring. I was amused to see that even the lecturer delivered the lecture with eyes closed for the majority of the time as well. Perhaps that is why the game playing, chatting, texting and sleeping went unnoticed.

I have to say I prefer another lecturers style when he taps the table with his pen to wake the very same student who was sleeping today, or when he just announces to the texter that he can leave if he would rather be o his phone or best of all when he shouted, oh yes shouted at the chatting students to shut up or LEAVE. Bravo more like him methinks

The Plashing Vole said...

Hello Nasher. Thanks for this - it's not far off a short story - very evocative (of my time at university too, except for the phones, which were restricted to rich businessmen at that point).

I'm glad to say I don't recognise the style of either of these lecturers so can't think who they are.

I used to specialise in witty (I thought) comments for texters, but there are so many and it's so blatant that I've given up. I do also wonder whether if we lectured more interestingly, fewer people would text. As you say, dull delivery leads to inattention. I don't think we should be Gervais-style 'chilled-out entertainers', but we need to assume a certain level of interest and attract the curiosity of the students.

What I don't quite get is why people turn up if they've no intention if listening/joining in. Stay in bed!

Anonymous said...

The best teacher I ever had was in secondary school. She always believed in me and made me realise I could do it.

I think its partly due to her I'm even in HE never mind thinking of a MA!!!