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How do we weigh an academic’s time? May 25, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, Musings, Teaching Idea.
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A while ago Nick Jackson (@largerama) asked of Twitter ‘What is the most worthwhile use of an academic’s time? Lecture or tutorial?’ The answer’s obvious right? Well … maybe. Wherever an apparent truism appears, particularly one with which I’d tend to immediately agree, I always try to step back and ask of myself what the alternative viewpoint might be and might I argue that case? In playing devil’s advocate, I’m seeking to challenge my own understanding. Have I missed something? Was my initial interpretation too shallow?

To the question of the lecture then. As I begin to probe in the Twitter exchange Nick captured in his subsequent blog post, is it fair to take the lecture in isolation? It is after all one aspect of a more complex environment which includes the academic and the student, the location within which the lecture takes place, the curriculum, the organisation which brings all those together (and the budget within which it must operate) plus the less tangible, but perhaps most significant element, the intent or purpose of the interchange. So let’s imagine a university or college which has one hundred mechanical engineering students and wishes them to experience a ‘Stress Analysis’ module of study over a 12 week period. It can spare a lecturer at the rate of 1 hour per week over that time. So 100 students, 12 weeks, 12 hours of lecturer time to cover content X. On the grounds of efficiency or economics, the lecture argument is an easy one to make. If lectures were swapped for tutorials for example, the group size would need to be smaller and the lecturer’s time spread more thinly resulting in each student benefiting from perhaps only an hour of lecturer support in the whole module.

Nick makes the point in his post that time spent in lectures is to some extent wasted and as the video above shows, during carelessly constructed, monotonously delivered, poorly crafted lectures, student attention inevitably wanders. In addition Nick highlights the weak pedagogical principles upon which lectures are built, which inevitably lead to a lower quality of learning. Perhaps then the lecture in which the lecturer is the most active agent in the room struggles to encourage the ‘deep’ learning1 that academics would surely want to engender in their students? Säljö2 categorised five graded conceptions of learning:

  1. Learning as a quantitative increase in knowledge. Learning is acquiring information or knowing a lot’
  2. Learning as memorising. Learning is storing information that can be reproduced.
  3. Learning as acquiring facts, skills and methods that can be retained and used as necessary.
  4. Learning as making sense or abstracting meaning. Learning involves relating parts of the subject matter to each other and to the real world.
  5. Learning as interpreting and understanding reality in a different way. Learning involves comprehending the world by re-interpreting knowledge.

Would it be fair to say that (the majority of) lectures encourage 1 to 3, the ‘surface’ approaches, whereas say, tutorials lean more towards the deeper approaches found in 4 and 5? With that in mind, does the lecture really offer enough value to the students? Although Gunderman3 contends that lectures aren’t solely about transmitting information, they should:

…show the mind and heart of the lecturer at work, and to engage the minds and hearts of learners.

But realistically, what proportion of lectures actually do that? Is it truly possible for a lecturer to bring their ‘A’ game to every lecture? Perhaps it would be more appropriate to allow lecturers to provide their own defence:

And now I’m even more convinced than ever. It’s easy to criticise without offering an alternative though, so let’s imagine more efficient or more effective possibilities other than the traditional lecture, but which make no more demands on lecturer time. Perhaps the most obvious place to start is the flipped classroom model in which a pre-recorded version of the lecture can be watched by the students, maybe even given by other lecturers. But where the gain in that I hear you say? With a pre-recorded lecture then student has the option to watch it at a time and place to suit them (perhaps more important than ever in these times where a good proportion of students take on a job to help pay for their fees), but more importantly at a pace to suit them. The twelve scheduled hours could then be used in any number of ways: tutorial, workshop, Q&A. Maybe students could be asked to ‘front’ these sessions with pecha-kucha presentations, TeachMeet– or Bar Camp-style sessions, anything where they’ve been required to interpret and transfer what they learned from the recorded lecture. And the academic? S/he decides the most appropriate format for each particular aspect of the curriculum; they act as facilitator, arbiter, coach and mentor. They do what they (should) do best and redirect student learning, helping them see misinterpretations and misunderstandings. Will that be easy? Of course not. For many academics it might require considerable personal and professional development, but with deeper learning resulting in more accomplished students as the intended outcomes, surely it’s worth the investment of time?

The lecture only ever enjoyed moderate success a mechanism for facilitating student learning and even then only under particular circumstances, but given the constraints within which it operated, other options were limited. Digital technologies have broken the shackles binding academics … will they now make the most of that freedom?

1 Marton, F. & Saljo, R., 1976. On qualitative differences in learning: I. Outcome and process. British journal of educational psychology.

2 Saljo, R., 1979. Learning in the Learner’s Perspective. I. Some Common-Sense Conceptions. No. 76.,

3 Gunderman, R., 2013. Is the Lecture Dead? The Atlantic. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/is-the-lecture-dead/272578/ [Accessed May 23, 2013].

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