Lectures, what can we do with you?

Earlier this week I was chatting to a colleague (@KateWilkinson19) on Facebook about the meaning of life. We digressed onto our marking load, and how it always seemed to come at once. Well that quickly turned a casual Sunday afternoon chat into a full-blown debate on all things teaching and learning within the university setting. Fortunately, we are both geeks, and love learning and understanding.

Afterwards, I decided to copy and paste the whole Facebook chat transcript (well minus a few words I decided were not appropriate; we are quite passionate about this) into www.tagxedo.com to get a word cloud.debate with Kate_301212_3

For those of you who haven’t played with this toy before, it takes a document and presents the words randomly muddled up in location and colour, but with their size reflecting their relative number of usages within the document. So the larger the word, the bigger it will be. As it was a Facebook chat transcript, our names have come up the largest.

One thing that surprised me was the next largest word. Our discussion had turned it’s direction onto this quite late, and yet it still came up as the most used word. Seeing the word printed so dominantly in the middle of the word cloud got me thinking more about it.


Lectures have been an anchor of university education since probably anyone can remember. If we think of teaching and learning at university, we will no doubt envisage a lecture theatre…most probably with the lecturer (an oldish chap, probably grey hair, maybe even no hair on top, some patches on the elbows of his tanned jacket, socks and sandals maybe???!!?!?) staring at his notes and reading aloud to a field of students frantically trying to write down everything the lecturer is saying, and everything that is on the slide/projector/blackboard.

The problem with lectures in this way is that they just don’t work. They are not the fortress of optimal learning that we once believed. Everything the lecturer says and shows does not magically load into the student’s memory, ready for recall in that 3 hour exam at the end of the year.

Activity of the audience

A great talk at the SSAT National Conference 2012 had Professor Eric Mazur provide an entertaining and thought-provoking keynote (2). Within this, he discusses the theory of learning and demonstrates a number of tools that can be used.

Screen Shot 2013-01-01 at 00.46.25

Specifically, Prof. Mazur provided a reference to an interesting piece of research undertaken at MIT (3) that was centred around developing a wearable sensor for long-term assessment of electrodermal activity. According to the authors, electrodermal activity is thought to “reflect activity within the sympathetic axis of the autonomic nervous system and provide a sensitive and convenient measure of assessing alterations in sympathetic arousal associated with emotion, cognition, and attention” (3). The strength of this link between electrodermal activity and emotion, cognition, and attention, is unknown to me (it’s not something I’ve read much on). However, going with the assumption that what has been published is valid (that’s for another discussion!!!)…

The figure that got the attention of those in education was the one to the right (taken from (3)). It shows the electrodermal activity of a university student over seven days, a time which included a number of classes (lectures), labs, homework or study times, TV watching and sleep.

The focal point of the interest was the almost non-existant signal recorded during classes. These have been reported as being traditional lecture based classes with the faculty member presenting information, whilst students listened. It can be seen that a substantially larger signal is seen when the student undertakes lab sessions and study time away from class.

How much thinking and learning actually takes place within a lecture setting?

Gary Strickland (@SciAggie) wrote a great reflective piece entitled “When and Where Do We Really Learn?” earlier this week (1). He discusses how it was after reading a book, and subsequently reflecting on it, that he began to learn the information that was presented; he wasn’t learning whilst reading…”It was when I was scribbling at an equation or taking a walk with the dog that I had those moments of understanding” (1). This leads to two interesting points: (a) we learn whilst doing or reflecting, and (b) we need the information to reflect on.

Something else that came out of Prof. Mazur’s talk was when he asked the audience (who were all involved in academia) “how do we learn?”. They entered their answers onto electronic devices, and Prof. Mazur was able to create a word cloud with these answers. The biggest, and therefore most frequently used, word was…PRACTICE…we learn by practicing. Well that isn’t a surprise is it!

The problem now is…where does the lecture come in when we think about practicing? It doesn’t. Students can’t practice in a lecture. When being told something for 45-120 minutes, it doesn’t magically get stored onto our brains.

So let’s get rid of lectures then??

There are two stumbling blocks with this thinking. The first is that universities don’t want to. To do so would cost more money. Remove lectures, and you need to replace it with more smaller classes, which means more teaching time, and therefore more staff. Lectures are a very cost-efficient way to “teach”. The second stumbling block is that lectures might ACTUALLY be good….

This is something I have been thinking about for a while, and it got re-ignited since my discussion with my colleague, and reading Gary’s blog. To be able to reflect and practice, we first need something to reflect on and practice. We need some information, instruction, or guidance, to be able to take on into our own learning time.

Does this come from lectures? I don’t know.

But I think there might still be a place for lectures if we structure them well. I think they need to be more about garnering the interest of the learner, as opposed to the presentation of all the information they need to know. How many times have you watched a documentary on TV and wanted to know more. Why can’t lectures be like that? After all, getting the interest of the student is the hardest part. Get them on your side and you become a team of learners, working together.

If lectures are to be the location for this, then great. BUT the focus of learning needs to be taken away from the lecture setting, and into a more learning-friendly environment, one that encourages practice and reflection.


(1) When and where do we really learn? Gary Strickland (2012). StricklandScience.weebly.com

(2) Professor Eric Mazur keynote at SSAT National Conference 2012

(3) Poh, M.Z., Swenson, N.C., Picard, R.W., A Wearable Sensor for Unobtrusive, Long-term Assessment of Electrodermal Activity IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, vol.57, no.5, pp.1243-1252, May 2010.

7 responses to “Lectures, what can we do with you?

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  3. It’s interesting how this awareness is spreading throughput the sphere of education. Progressive educators have been saying for over a century that learning is most effective when it’s active and not passive. Primary teachers normally work through ‘activity & experience’. Good secondary teachers have woken up to the fact that ‘chalk & talk’ fails to engage or inspire most students, especially when it’s badly done. It’s good to see that this awareness is spreading to higher education. It’s vital that students of all ages are seen as co-creators of their learning and not as Gradgrind’s empty vessels. GF

    • I totally agree. I do feel there is one major hurdle at university that is not seen as much at the lower levels. And that is number of students. It is common to have over 150 students in a module (some even as high as 400). As such, the lecture was born as a medium to provide information to the students who would then go and learn on their own, maybe with a seminar in a smaller size led by the lecturer (or even a phd student). If we want to make things more “hands on” and about exploring, understanding, getting the students to join the dots themselves, this requires, on the surface of it, smaller group sizes.
      However, remove a lecture and replace it with smaller sizes means multiplying the time spent by the lecturer in class (let’s say a class size of 25 is OK [although this is on the large size], this means that for every one hour lecture removed, this would be replaced by six 1 hr seminars for a module size of 150 students).. Assuming lecturers are already working to max capacity (I said assuming!!!!), this requires more staff, which means more money spent by the university….despite the same number of students paying the same amount of fees.
      There are some very creative lecturers out there who are trying new things and sharing their experience. Some are even learning how to make the lecture a productive learning environment (ie Eric Mazur). But until we learn and share, and people buy into this, we won’t adapt. And off people to buy into this, they first need to realise and understand that what they are doing is not optimal….and THAT is going to be hard.

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