Lecture / Seminar

Why Lectures Aren’t Dead & How to Deal With Difficult Lectures

Not all lecturers are the same:

“To excel as a lecturer, it is necessary to find delight as a lecturer. In part, this means ferreting out what is most intriguing about the topic under discussion. It also means attending carefully to learners and seeking and sharing their enthusiasm. A great lecture is not a rote mechanical reading of notes, but a kind of dance, in which lecturer and listeners watch, respond to, and draw energy and inspiration from each other. One of the greatest pleasures of lecturing occurs when learners pose insightful questions that the lecturer did not — perhaps even could not — foresee.” – Richard Gunderman, Is the Lecture Dead?

What makes a lecture work for you? Is it like a dance? What special quality makes your favourite lecturer top of your list?

I saw one person lecture a few times and it was clear how excited they were about the subject. Unfortunately, the excitement was inward and the speaking was almost monotone. The content didn’t matter, the lecturer simply wasn’t giving the audience a way in. The most interested of lecturers aren’t always the most interesting.

Photo by dalbera

Photo by dalbera

A lecturer must find what enthuses the audience and provide an angle they can follow. With a compelling story told well, you have a good start.

Lectures aren’t dead. They’re not dying. But we are growing used to them. They are everywhere, in so many guises. Lectures are offline, online, long, short, bite-sized, basic, advanced, MOOC-based, general, specific… Lectures are talks to an audience. That covers a lot of ground.

New methods of learning and discovering won’t kill off what’s gone before. I’m tired of such a binary, either/or debate. Communication matters, no matter what the angle. Get it right and the communication moves on. The learning continues.

Get stuck and people switch off. There’s no magic answer here.

The lecture is not at fault itself, especially since the term ‘lecture’ is vague. It might be the wrong setting in some cases and there may be better ways to express some concepts. But none of this suggests the end of lectures altogether. That wouldn’t make sense. The point is to have a range of learning resources.

Think of a textbook. When you find the core reading tough to grasp, you can look elsewhere. A similar textbook that’s not on your reading list may have similar information, but be several times easier for you to understand.

I’ve faced that loads of times. A poor book (for me) was replaced by a better book. Imagine if, instead, I got annoyed at books and vowed never to read one again. That would be meaningless.

Once I got a grip of major concepts through a book that spoke to me, I’d return to the core text with more confidence. Sometimes, on the luckiest occasions, I was able to ignore the main text completely.

What has all this got to do with lectures? Well, a good lecture is a good lecture. It’s the bad ones you need to deal with.

When a lecture hasn’t worked out for you, try these things:

  • Go over the slides and see if you can recover from those alone;
  • Look for similar lectures online. Open Culture is a good starting place with Free Online Courses and Free Online Certificate MOOCs listed;
  • Use your core textbooks to read up on terms you didn’t grasp at first;
  • When you’re REALLY stuck by one or two concepts, look them up on Simple Wikipedia;
  • Speak with your classmates, the lecturer, and online forums. Basically, get a conversation going. It’ll help you see things from other people’s perspectives and it should help your confidence when talking about difficult content.

How do you deal with difficult lectures?

Of course, it’s much better when the lecture and lecturer gel with you. My favourite lecturer at uni did the dance described in the quotation at the top of this post. The energy was there, the content was clear, and much of the audience felt involved. I learned a lot about good presentation at the same time.

Not bad for a simple lecture.

Accept What You Don’t Know As Quickly As Possible

James Moos, a Computer Forensics student at the University of Glamorgan, has a simple and effective tip for when you’re making notes in lectures:

“If there’s a word or phrase you don’t understand in the lecture, write it down and look it up when you get home, and add it to your notes. It reduces that panicky feeling of not understanding anything!”

Yup. It’s that simple.

Not everything is obvious straight away (photo by Doug88888)

Not everything is obvious straight away (photo by Doug88888)

When you hear a word or a concept that makes no sense, you can do one of two things:

  1. You stop what you’re doing and feel confused. In the end, you miss more of the lecture;
    OR
  2. You happily note down what you don’t understand to look up later at your own convenience.

Eliminate the panic and stay focused. Do number 2!

The next time you don’t get something, acknowledge it and deal with it later. It’s the best way to stop your mind from wandering and to keep your confidence intact.

Not All Contact Hours Are Equal

“Contact hours don’t mean anything unless they are high quality, and you have a real relationship with your tutors.”

This comment is from Rachel Wenstone, National Union of Students (NUS) Vice-President for higher education. She makes an important point.

A piece in today’s Guardian newspaper says that the National Union of Students (NUS) is striving for better relationships between tutors and students. To make this work, universities need to focus on more than merely the number of contact hours given.

Some comments on the Guardian website complain that students shouldn’t have their hands held and should learn to be more independent rather than rely on academics to organise their every move.

photo by Josep Ma. Rosell

photo by Josep Ma. Rosell

However, NUS isn’t looking for students to be wrapped up in cotton wool. The drive is to make contact hours count in a way that goes beyond numbers:

“The union is calling for greater transparency about the number and size of seminars and tutorials, and assurances that students’ predominant experience of higher education won’t be sitting among a sea of faces passively taking notes in a lecture theatre. It wants universities to provide much more detail about what students should expect when they arrive.” [Source]

This is a sensible next step, for these reasons:

The term ‘contact hours’ has no context in isolation, which is unhelpful

It doesn’t matter how many hours of contact time you get. The number is irrelevant.

Far more important is what takes place in that time to ensure nothing is lacking. Five hours may be adequate in some cases, twenty hours in others. Daily contact may be required for some, while once a week may be enough for others.

You need context to make sense of the situation.

Independent learning doesn’t mean a student works alone

Yes, a lot of independent work is done by the individual. But to be independent means finding your own direction, taking charge of what you do, planning ahead, asking for help when you need it rather than waiting to be told, and so on.

Independent learning is a difficult concept to define. But it isn’t about learning by yourself. The Higher Education Academy goes into depth about the term, showing that it can mean different things to different people.

I also recommend you read James Michie and a number of commenters discussing what they think independent learning is.

The word ‘relationship’ is important

Do you follow any celebrities on Twitter? Does that make you best friends with them? Of course not.

That’s why simply having contact time with a tutor is not enough, even if it’s precious one-to-one time. You need to build a strong connection over time. The more two-way understanding you can get from the experience, the more the tutor can help you and the more you can help the tutor. Both students and tutors need to be constructive in their efforts in order to make the most of that contact time. This is part of independent learning in action.

Learning requires conversation, communication, and discussion

Bringing the above points together, it’s clear that not all contact hours are equal. At least, not in terms of the raw figures. Passive contact time and active contact time are different. Both are necessary. Listening is important, and so is participating. What’s your own contact time split?

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Learning–and many of the factors surrounding it–cannot be truly measured. Contact time, however it is dished out, is not a guarantee of better learning.

And with greater numbers of people going to university, personal contact time isn’t always easily organised. Large groups often take precidence due to financial, logistical, and time considerations.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski, VC of Robert Gordon University, explains the importance of exercising caution before making any bold reaction:

“Demands for, or expectations about, contact hours could more usefully be put aside for now until we have established much greater clarity as to what works and what doesn’t. Otherwise, to quote the truly awful bureaucratic cliché, it’s just a box-ticking exercise.”

It’s understandable that contact hours are under so much discussion. With all the importance given to things like ‘value for money’ and ‘getting the best education’, contact hours are a convenient starting point. However, the focus must go further than the number of hours and, indeed, ticking boxes.

How do you view independent learning? (photo by striatic)

How do you view independent learning? (photo by striatic)

Is your university experience disappointing?

After a year at uni, Amy McMullen says she is disappointed.

“…university comes with a whole set of issues that leaves many students thinking that it was never really worth it in the first place.”

photo by Kalexanderson

photo by Kalexanderson

Not everyone enjoys their uni experience. There are loads of possible reasons why this happens. Some may have a bad time while they’re there. Others will not have expected their time to be the way it turned out.

Amy explains that she and her friends believe that “if we had known what university was like before we applied, we would definitely think again and consider if it was worth it”.

She suggests that things could be different if she had taken an internship or some work experience for a year.

I hope things get better for Amy and that she feels more enthused as she moves through her degree. I wanted to make a few points and offer some advice in the hope that you can feel happy about your choices now and in the future.

I’ll start each point by referring to one of Amy’s comments in her piece.

“I pay the same tuition fees as someone who does a science subject, yet I have less than half the contact hours.”

Contact hours are not important.

Seriously.

At least, not important in the context of making university (and its cost) worthwhile. Contact hours aren’t a measure of worth or a measure of quality. What matters is ensuring you have enough contact time with academics.

If you don’t think you’re getting reasonable access to your tutors, have a friendly chat with them at first and see what you can all get out of it. Failing that, speak to your course rep or Students’ Union about your issue. If a large group of people on your course agree that you’re not getting enough contact time, work together on solving the problem rather than simply complaining amongst yourselves.

“Even more disheartening is realising that I could have learnt most of the syllabus content by spending a few days in the library and using a good search engine online.”

This is where ‘self-learning’ comes into play. My last post looked at taking a 4-year degree in a single year. Some of the top unis put entire courses online for the public to devour. You really could learn most of the syllabus content in a short time. And with library access, you can go deeper. Much, much deeper.

And that’s the point. I like to think of lectures and reading lists as starting points. Taking the analogy one step further, you’re given sign posts in these lectures so you don’t get hopelessly lost. Amy talks about agonising over another essay (yes, we’ve all been there), so learning the syllabus content is not the whole picture.

Everything you need is out there. A formal setting isn’t necessary for learning. A drive to find out more is necessary. If the basics only take a few days in the library and a bit of Googling, imagine where you can go from there.

photo by hatalmas

photo by hatalmas

“I often wonder if it would have been a better idea to get some hands on experience via internships or work experience full time this year.”

You still can. If you already know what career path(s) you’d like to pursue, that’s brilliant. You can find relevant part-time work while you study, use a different part-time role to develop transferable skills, or get involved online in your spare time. Get blogging, connect with people in the field, and join professional networks.

If you aren’t sure about future plans, work on what you enjoy. Many university experiences are useful long after graduation. And they don’t need to be related to the degree itself.

For instance, Amy has written her piece for The National Student. And she had written several articles before that. I’m guessing it won’t be her last.

I don’t know what Amy’s plans are, but getting her writing out is a great start. Even if she finds disappointment in some aspects of uni life, writing for student papers and getting involved in various extra-curricular activities can equal great experience.

The fact that Amy has done this in her first year is awesomeness. That gives at least a couple more years to achieve more. Much more. Stuff that won’t gain extra marks or improve the degree award, but stuff that will benefit in other ways. Better ways, even.

“Obviously my first year at university has been a learning curve in learning to live independently, meeting new people and discovering myself. It’s easy to forget the real reason we applied here – to get a degree.”

It’s funny, because independent living, self-study, networking, and discovering yourself are all possibly more important than getting that degree. Again, looking back at my previous post, the degree is less important than you. You have so much on offer to help you to develop, to explore, to learn, to challenge yourself, to network, to ask questions, to engage, to enjoy…

Loads of this stuff can be done outside the confines of university. Academic study isn’t the only option. But it’s still a great option. With so much available around you (physically and mentally), like-minded people (hopefully), and time on your hands (occasionally), a lot is convenient at the very least! I still hope the experience goes beyond mere convenience though.

Comparisons are easy. But you end up comparing an ideal scenario with your current reality. That’s not reasonable. Life isn’t like that and the grass always looks greener.

Make the most of your time at uni. Getting a degree is just the start of it!

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photo by Chi King

photo by Chi King