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May 10, 2012

The university lecture - stereotypically involving a greying, bespectacled academic addressing an amphitheatre full of expectant students, pens poised over lined A4 paper - has long been established as one of the primary ways of learning in higher education, but how much is actually "learned" in this environment rather than merely "memorised"?

This is the question posed by Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, research fellow at the Center for Modern European Studies at the University of Copenhagen, in a post for the University of Venus blog.

"During these lectures, the teacher imparts information on a specific topic to a group of students," she writes. "What happens is known as 'information transfer': the teacher shares her knowledge with the students, who take notes and can ask questions whenever something is not clear. At the end of the session, the teacher and the students are in possession of the same amount and quality of information about the specific topic - the transfer of information has been completed."

She asks: "But is the transfer of information mediated by a teacher the same thing as learning? Learning is about the long-lasting acquisition of information, it is about remembering the information and being able to retrieve it and apply it at the appropriate time in the appropriate circumstances. Lectures can ensure the short-term memorization of information."

Dr Segesten thinks that lectures need, at the very least, some supplementary means of knowledge exchange to ensure that students learn: tutorials are one obvious example. "This is where terms such as peer instruction or (inter)active learning come from: from the need to make students engage with the information received from the teacher, to make it their own, and to apply it."

So what else is new? Dr Segesten acknowledges that she is not breaking new ground, but she has a pertinent question: if we know lectures are dated, why do we persevere?

"Inertia and money," she believes. "In order to change the teaching format from lecture-based to more hands-on student-focused learning, one needs to change the infrastructure of the university ... This change is met with resistance because of inertia but also because of the high material costs."

In contrast, there is a great deal of momentum behind the impact agenda. There is also much blood and thunder around it - too much, argues Adam Golberg, research manager at Nottingham University Business School, in a post on his Cash for Questions: social science research funding, policy, and development blog.

"I can well understand why academics whose research does not lend itself to impact activities would feel alienated and threatened by the impact agenda," he writes.

But those pursuing very applied research also have reason to feel "undervalued", he says, because it is often "very hard for them to get their stuff into highly rated (aka valued) journals".

Both groups must be accommodated, he suggests. "We need both. And we need excellent teachers. And - dare I say it? - non-academic staff too," he writes, adding that the challenge for institutions was perhaps "making everyone feel valued".

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