If you are not updating your lectures, you could be letting your students down

Stop clinging to the way you’ve always done things and work a little smarter, says Chris Moore

June 9, 2016
Maths lecture
Source: iStock

It is probably fair to say that for new students, university life is all about change.

Changing the way they plan their time, changing the way they think about the world, and changing their attitudes to learning. That change, that adaptation to meet the expectations we thrust upon them, is one we as their educators encourage from the get-go.

Although each university has its own idiosyncrasies that often reflect its institutional strategy, many expectations regarding ways of learning, time management, reflection on performance and preparedness for employment are the same across the sector. This reshaping is based (at least in part) on what we recognise as a need for students to adapt to a different learning environment compared to what they experienced in college, as well as to be adaptable in readiness for a fiendishly competitive job market.

But are we as academics insisting that students change to meet the expectations of the big bad world, while we ourselves are guilty of failing to adapt our way of working and teaching to meet the expectations of a different type of learner and a different way of doing a job once they graduate?

Our expectations are simple if you think about it. We expect students to turn up to class (on time), to do more than sit there and rely on the material on the VLE (virtual learning environment) for understanding and revision, to complete their coursework before the 11th hour (or in most cases, if submission time stamps are anything to go by, the 59th minute), to use their feedback to improve, and to study throughout the year rather than revise just before the exam period purely to pass.

But these simple expectations are also often analogous to those students have of us. They want us to inspire them and make them want to be in our class (on time), to get their marks and feedback returned before the end of the agreed marking period, and to change what doesn’t work and do more of what does work in order to give them the best experience so that they get the best possible outcomes (both academically and in terms of employability).

Essentially we expect students to change to suit the changing world, and to take our advice on what they need to survive out there.

They, in turn, expect us to facilitate that. But to do that (and here is where things get controversial) sometimes we need to be willing to change how we do what we do. And more importantly we need to just get on and do it.

There is a terrible pattern in so many job sectors of meetings that discuss a lot but achieve very little, of strategies without implementation, and of reflection without action. And higher education is no exception.

I often have conversations with or meetings attended by colleagues that include utterances of “I just don’t have the time”, or “what we’ve always done is…”, which is inevitably followed by inaction or procrastination of that which needs to be done. Lectures go unchanged, assessments go unreviewed, and processes and guidelines remain the same year after year (ironically these are often centrally controlled ones that struggle to change to adapt to those pockets of innovation our institutional strategies claim to encourage).

But this superglue-like adherence to the way things have always been, to the detriment of the time available to do those things justice, not only has an impact on the student experience, but also on the fragile work/life balance that so many of us struggle to maintain.

We leave processes such as timetabling, workload planning and review meetings until the last minute, despite frequently telling our students how important it is to keep on top of things. We keep programmes exactly the same as they have been for the past five years despite student feedback suggesting some tweaks may be in order, and then feel put out and hard done by when the same responses come the following year and student performance is worse.

We put off updating our lecture material or changing the way we deliver it, and then wonder why the class is half-empty by week three. We set enormous exams with long essays at every level, then complain that we have so much marking to do and that what students have written is subpar. And we provide lacklustre feedback on coursework because there was no time to give more, owing to the size and number of submissions and the rapidly approaching marking deadline, and then we lament the lack of improvement on the next assignment.

Simply put, there comes a point where our reluctance to make changes because of the time it takes to do so results in a perpetuation of having no time, because we are clinging on to the things that need changing in order to meet the expectations our students have of us, and that employment will have of them. Surely as this difficulty to maintain standards and meet evolving expectations repeats itself year after year, we should consider perhaps trying something new on the off chance it works better than the approach we’ve relied on for so long?

Maybe we need, on occasion, to work better not harder, if only to claw back some of that time on the weekend we lost to all the things we didn’t have the time to do during the week when we were actually being paid to do them.

Read next: Academics work two days a week unpaid 

As important as it is to encourage students to adapt to higher education and change their attitude to study by coming to university to learn and not simply to get a degree, we must also be mindful of our own resistance to adapting to an ever-changing field of play. There are a whole host of different ways of going about even the simplest of tasks that eat up our time in and among the fun parts of the job. We just have to be brave, take a leaf out of our own books of “wisdom for students”, and take the time to try something different and adapt ourselves to a new breed of learners.

You never know – maybe that idea you’ve toyed with trying but were too afraid to test out because it’s “not the way we’ve always done it” might just save you a headache later on and make your students better learners and colleagues happier bunnies.

But you won’t know until you try…

Chris Moore is senior lecturer in anatomy at the University of the West of England.

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Print headline: Don’t let your students down by refusing to update your work

Reader's comments (7)

I don't know where you're working, but I don't have ANY colleagues like that. Everyone around me is working hard to keep students engaged, update lectures, keep on top of research, fill in endless 'monitoring forms'; going to numerous workshops on how to use the VLE in a more exciting way (all of which really means create an online version of the class you're already doing live). We're worrying about how our NSS numbers come out, about REF 2020, about university leagues tables...I don't see anyone sitting around saying 'the way we've always done it...' But I DO wish the universities themselves would do that. They used to just hire people they trusted and let them get on with the work. That doesn't happen anymore. They endlessly monitor every move, every peice of research, every student experience, every module questionnaire, etc. The implication in this article that lecturers are lazy and unwilling to work hard to motivate their students is pretty insulting from my point of view, and certainly doesn't fairly reflect what I see happening around me every day.
Probably worth asking, but what are they trying to get you to do with the VLE that the perception is "create an online version of the class you're already doing live", because it sounds like they're doing it wrong if that's the case. Use of TEL should be complementary and engaging, not a replacement or duplication of what people already do well. If you feel my implication was that lecturers are lazy - far from it. Clearly if everyone is working so hard they aren't being lazy, and the academics I know certainly aren't lazy. What I'm trying to get across is that if we adapt the way we work a little, maybe academics won't have to work as hard, yet still get the student engagement and outputs they (and we) need - that way you're free to innovate, not wishing you could but don't have the time.
Chris; without wishing to appear insulting (and I'm not trying to be) much of what you write on one level is a little obvious and on another level a little naive. I can also understand why 'peewoddin' is more than a little miffed by your suggestions that we, as deliverers of what students pay for, have neglected their interests. As a general tenet much of the mess that HE is in is as a result of too much change too quickly, and too often in the absence of sufficient thought and/or reflection. Many of the changes that the sector has been forced to embrace have been without sufficient grounding and have been, or are, the babies of pedagogic experts who need a platform to justify their existence ... please tell me you are not another of these depressing individuals; who endlessly drag us to development meetings which do nothing other than expand a scripture that, frankly, we don't trust. In my view students don't like experimentation and see through it easily. Whilst I agree that we should all be able to make adjustments where appropriate (the obvious bit) we should also be permitted to avoid change which, in our professional view, is little more than experimentation (the naive bit). 'Peewoddin' quite rightly points out that - 'They used to just hire people they trusted and let them get on with the work' - and they did; with a lot of creative teaching resulting from that trust. The sector should have stuck to that principle and fought off the infiltration of our profession by 'back office' experts. We should have retained the right to negate any new initiative which we didn't believe in, in favour of listening and then concluding, where appropriate, sorry, this is not for me. There is some great teaching and learning going on Chris ... often by colleagues who have a little more than a room, a white board, a pen, an updated academic credential, an interest in their discipline and a group of interested students ... perhaps you should just try and look a bit closer.
Hi Descartes (and Peewoddin): You are (both) absolutely right that there are some fantastic teachers, and I can honestly say that my own department fits that description very well. A colleague of mine gets nominated for an inspirational award every single year by their students, and is very well deserved of it. My main point throughout this blog was that although there are pockets of tradition that still serve us well, the time factor of hardworking academics makes modifying those traditions, or coming up with (and more importantly, implementing) new ideas for teaching, assessment, heck even administrative processes, something far more frequently left until it is too late to get around to do. And this is invariably because the workload and processes (yes, many of them institutionally enforced) strip us of that time we would like to innovate. But if we take the time to try something new, to modify even the way we do something traditional, then we might suddenly find we have the time to do the standard things better. There is the argument that we should be allowed to do this that and the other to prevent change we don;t approve of or see evidence of the success of, but that simply isn't how institutional policy works. So instead I try to come up with other ways of doing that which we have been asked to do them, which not only aims to improve the student experience, but to make my life easier so I can continue to enjoy the teaching part of the job. Consequently those who are afraid or unwilling to try the new ideas they have, or want to continue the way they have always done something because they might not see the benefits another approach might bring them, are exceedingly busy and stressed - and that is eventually going to impact on the students. Being fantastic at delivering teaching might not be enough. And working as hard as you can is certainly not the end goal of us all - but best of both worlds by experimenting (but thinking it through)? Now that could work for both our students and us.
Hi Chris, I started reading your article with interest, expecting to find some suggestions on how/what to change to be a more effective teacher, but I'm not sure your article really achieved this. You do suggest we should (1) avoid leaving things to the last minute, which is something I do try to achieve, but at times the 'to do' list is so long, this is impossible to (2) to update lectures - most of us do (3) to set shorter exams - in practice we lecturers don't have much influence over this, and in any case, essays are a useful assessment tool in my field and the ability to write well is an important skill for our students to have.
Hi Julia, This first one was intended as more of a thought provoker, to encourage academics who have maybe had an innovative idea to take the time to pursue it rather than let it pass them by because it takes less time to keep doing things the old way than try something new. But I do intend to submit another in the next week or so that does have some examples of things I've tried in my own practice - I'm wary of 'tooting my own horn' or suggesting my way is the best way. But at least sharing new ideas can lead to adoption or adaptation of them. In regards your list, I do see where you're coming from - updating is almost always done. But is the way it is presented at the time or provided afterwards updated, or just the content? And though it does depend on the field, essays are not the only for of writing, and one not often directly applicable to the working world - there could be other forms that are more appropriate for certain levels of university, and certain fields than others. But hopefully we can discuss this is later entries. If you want to see some bits and pieces in the meantime, feel free to pop over to my website to the teaching section - www.cp-moore.com
I will check out your website, thank you

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