Are you reaching those at the back?

Some academics routinely lecture to hundreds of students, but is this still the best way to teach? Tariq Tahir ponders the future of the lecture in an era of mass higher education.

January 10, 2008

It is 36 years since Donald Bligh wrote What's the Use of Lectures?, a book that was both a critique of teaching at the time and a guide to turning the lecture into more than a 50-minute monologue.

The concerns he raised about the role and style of the lecture have not only persisted but have been amplified by swelling student numbers that mean academics regularly address hundreds of students at a time.

Such is the scale of the modern teaching venue that increasingly the lecturer is seen as part-teacher and part-performer, able to inform and entertain in equal measure. The University of Leicester has even gone as far as employing an acting coach to help lecturers take their student audience "on an emotional as well as intellectual journey".

But there are signs of a backlash against mega-lectures. Universities are looking at more sophisticated and effective ways of teaching undergraduates. Technology and new pedagogic styles are leading academics to rethink the nature and purpose of the lecture.

This is in line with what is happening in the US, where lecture groups of 1,200 are not uncommon. American students and their parents are increasingly unhappy with such giant and impersonal scenarios, and many universities are looking to reduce lecture sizes in response.

Derek Cox, professional development co-ordinator (academic practice) at the Staff Development Centre at Leicester, is adamant that 400 students is the maximum acceptable size for a lecture group.

"There are some things that can make life very, very difficult," he says. "In some universities they have overspill rooms with the lecture transmitted on CCTV. It's dreadful because as a teacher you have to stand in the one place where the camera is on you.

"We've known about the weaknesses of lectures for God knows how many years. One of the bits of advice we give in our postgraduate certificate of academic practice is: 'If you are going to be reading out a text, then why are you bothering?'

"The idea that a good lecture was something that filled up 50 minutes without a pause is going, because we know that people can't listen for more than 20 minutes.

"If you have an old-fashioned assumption that because you have taught it then they have learnt it, you are living in cloud-cuckoo land."

Those at the sharp end are divided on whether the size of lectures makes a difference.

Bruce Charlton agrees with Cox that the size of lectures does matter. He believes that the Quality Assurance Agency should collate and publish figures on lecture numbers, as is done in the US. "My lecture sizes have gone up tenfold in the past decade, from 16 to 160," says Charlton, a reader in evolutionary psychiatry at Newcastle University's School of Biology and Psychology. "This makes a huge difference. Essentially, third-year teaching has gone from sitting in a room with a small group of people to a lecture theatre. It's the same kind of teaching we give in the first year.

"When you've got 100 or more people, it's difficult to keep eye contact. In a number of lecture theatres, you can't make yourself heard and you can't see people at the back."

Still, whatever the benefits of new teaching technologies such as podcasts, e-learning and even texting they are unlikely to replace lectures anytime soon. This is borne out by the fact that universities are still investing heavily in large state-of-the-art lecture theatres.

The University of Essex recently built a lecture theatre that has the capacity to seat 1,000 people, one of the biggest of its kind in the UK. Crucially, the space is designed to be flexible and to meet a variety of needs; the room can be divided into two 500-seat auditoria, and seats can be folded away to provide space for examinations or presentations.

"Ordinary lectures will be delivered predominantly in the two 500-seat modes. But we can have a 1,000-seater theatre that can be used for special lectures and to hold degree congregations," says Andrew Nightingale, director of estate management at Essex.

"I think universities across the board are looking at how they utilise their teaching space. There are other ways of delivering lectures to large numbers of people now. It does not have to be done in one particular location," he says.

Berry O'Donovan, deputy head of learning and teaching at Oxford Brookes University's Business School, agrees. "I don't think that size is the issue, it's the pedagogical approach you take that really matters," she says.

"It can be difficult teaching large class sizes, and for some students it can be overwhelming. But by using new technology and by breaking up into smaller groups for discussion, large lectures can be made to work.

"One piece of technology being used is a hand-held device called a clicker that allows a student to give anonymous replies to questions posed in large lectures. We have been using them for the past couple of years and they allow for an element of interactivity," O'Donovan says.

The interactive lecture is now seen as the future, with students no longer merely the passive recipients of information.

James Wisdom, a higher education consultant and visiting professor in educational development at Middlesex University, says the lecture should be an event that makes an impact.

"A lecture really has to be something special. As a bog-standard method of teaching, it's not really that effective. If the students do not get the opportunity to debate, think, process, discuss and work with the material, then the material loses a massive amount of its value," Wisdom says.

Robin Clark, senior lecturer at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Aston University, uses clips from Hollywood films to illustrate points in his lectures on management, alongside more orthodox methods.

"You have to remember that different people learn in different ways. Some students actually quite enjoy lectures - I think we can't forget that," says Clark, who recently became one of the Higher Education Academy's national teaching fellows.

"But certainly with all the technology that's around at the moment, there are other students who would prefer to learn in other ways. As lecturers, we have to take steps to incorporate different methods.

"In one class I don't really do much lecturing at all, but we have an assignment associated with a movie. We extract things that we are trying to get across in terms of learning outcomes."

According to some academics, however, the lecture has become too formulaic, with little scope to fully utilise the talents of a charismatic teacher.

"It's almost become a script that could be delivered by anyone," says one education lecturer at the University of Glasgow.

"The standard thing now is to break up the lecture by getting students to form groups. But for all we know, they could be gossiping about what they did down at the union last night."

It seems unlikely, however, that most of today's students, paying up to Pounds 3,000 a year in tuition fees, would waste precious contact time with academics gossiping about their social lives. In fact, they are more likely to complain of a lack of face-to-face time with academics.

Universities are wrestling with ways of providing this personal contact in a way that will benefit students while making best use of academics' time and university resources.

Certainly in the arts and humanities, few institutions still base teaching solely on the traditional model of lectures delivered as lofty soliloquies, followed by tutorials modelled on the Spanish Inquisition.

Other methods, many using the power of modern technology, are being used to deliver key parts of universities' syllabuses. Potentially, this leaves lecturers free to do what they do best: creating a sense of occasion by inspiring, contextualising and directing students' studies.

"If we are moving towards mass higher education and if we are going to be dealing with very large numbers the question is, 'Can the lecture survive in that context?'. The answer generally seems to be that, yes, in some form or another it will," says Helen Perkins, director of the Society for Research into Higher Education.

"But it needs to be managed better to be successful. No student who has access to the internet - which they all do - and who is increasingly using all sorts of e-learning tools is going to turn up to a huge lecture theatre to listen to somebody present a paper they could have read online. So obviously what the big lecture needs to do is to add more value to the content, and I think it is doing that."

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