Take talk to a new level

June 1, 2007

The lecture is evolving from a simple speech and slide show into a dynamic process that involves students in active learning, says Stella Cottrell

Lectures are not what they used to be - and they are changing faster than ever. There was a time when lecturers could enter a room, deliver their piece and exit with a sense of a job well done. Information had been uttered, students had listened, notes had been made. Some lectures were brilliant and inspiring; others were a dull chore for all concerned.

At universities where attendance at lectures was compulsory, it became apparent that students rarely absorbed much of what they heard and made poor notes. In the 1990s, schemes such as supplemental instruction were devised to encourage groups of students to pool their lecture knowledge to help them gain a complete set of notes. Elsewhere, study skills tutors impressed on students the need to "make sense" of lecture material rather than aiming to transcribe every word uttered. That advice still holds good where students make notes, but it is often resisted.

What is different now? One major change is growing awareness of the heterogeneity of the student body. A variety of needs has been made manifest by larger class sizes, working students, broader social and international participation, the requirements of students with disabilities and better understanding of individual learning preferences.

Lecturers have adapted. For example, it has become commonplace to provide back-up lecture material for some students with disabilities and, increasingly, for all students. The latter approach is not simply more inclusive: loading notes on to a website can be quicker than directing students to a few e-mail addresses. And if it is done well, it can promote better engagement with the subject. Lecturers are increasingly aware that students are used to receiving information in soundbites and that their attention fades quickly. It is no longer unusual to use activities, short discussions, mini-problem-solving exercises and other tasks to divide lecture time into manageable chunks. In most cases, lecturers now provide visual backup to their verbal presentations. Although lists of bullet points predominate, some lecturers use wonderful combinations of text, image, DVDs, audio material, simulations and web links.

A second and complementary change is students' growing expectation of "personalised learning". For nearly a decade, schools and colleges have been using individual learning plans, differentiating class activity to suit specific pupils' needs, and using information technology to assist personal approaches to learning. Increasingly, students arrive at university assuming that such personalised approaches to learning can be accommodated and that all learning opportunities will be dynamic, involving them as partners. This puts pressure on traditional university methods of teaching, especially lectures. Moreover, students who have grown up used to having information at their fingertips via the internet can find it frustrating and pointless to sit for an hour simply listening to material that could be accessed electronically. If attendance at lectures is compulsory, the case for this requirement has to be made well, and more than "information delivery" is now expected.

Lecturers are rising to the challenges posed by such changes. Technology, interactive exercises and social learning such as group work and collaborative online discussions are used to support lectures and enhance learning. As a result, the format of the lecture is more varied and less predictable. In addition, it is harder to say quite where a lecture begins or ends. For some students, it may begin with a short podcast synopsis of the lecture, which is used as a teaser to stimulate ideas in advance.

Paper, audio or web-based problems may be set to start the cognitive juices flowing before a formal lecture slot and to enable more meaningful use of interactive exercises within the lecture. Lecturers may provide summary notes, a podcast or group activity immediately following a lecture to boost recall. Lectures are becoming part of a more integrated process of building students' understanding of the subject rather than a series of discrete events.

But whatever the approach taken, students still need to be supported in developing the relevant study skills. At a very basic level, students may prefer to highlight the support material provided at lectures. This strategy has its uses but is generally a more superficial activity than making sense of lecture material in their own words. The additional advantages of making notes in cursive script to assist memory are lost when text is simply highlighted or cut and pasted to construct a personal wiki.

Although students appreciate materials as backup to lectures, they are not always skilled at using these to best effect, especially if they receive them all at once. In at least one instance, students presented in advance with a semester's lecture notes and web-based information were left overwhelmed and demotivated. The material had to be reorganised, reissued with clearer directions, and the students provided with guidance on information management.

As more sophisticated approaches to lectures are introduced, and as the nature of the lecture changes, the study skills required are also changing.

Students now need more than just good note-making skills if they are to make the most of their lectures.

Stella Cottrell is a bestselling study skills author for Palgrave Macmillan.
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