I’ve just been reading an article in The Observer about university lectures, where two academics debate their pros and cons. And a few weeks ago I read a blog post by classicist Mary Beard on the same subject.
I was a full-time undergraduate science student at St Andrews University between 1990 and 1994. We had very variable lectures. Some were massive, hundreds of students in the lecture theatre, particularly in earlier years before students specialised for honours. Others were smaller, often a few dozen students, or even in the case of one of my honours courses just me and the lecturer!
The biggest problem I had with the traditional large-room university lectures is that they varied hugely by quality of lecturer. With an experienced lecturer they could be a lively stimulating experience, inspiring the student and communicating ideas effectively. Although the student could still end up at times fleeing from the room, running to the nearest academic bookshop to buy a textbook so they could further understand the subject! I remember doing that after the very first cosmology lecture in my first year astronomy course with Dr Carson. But with poor lecturers, especially beginning ones, it could be very different.
In my second year computer science course a new lecturer, not long after finishing his PhD, was assigned to teach the C programming course. In many ways this was the most fundamental course that we studied that year, the one we would need to understand best of all to be able to prosper in the subsequent honours years. And the lecturing was appalling. The new lecturer mumbled all the way through, and did not project himself to the class, who were only sitting a foot or two in front of him. We couldn’t understand what he was teaching, and we were not learning how to do C programming. As always loads of us had to rely on textbooks, me buying Kernighan and Ritchie to teach myself. But we should not have had to do this. In many ways I’d have been better if I hadn’t sat through those lectures – and I never missed a lecture in any course – and just taught myself.
Indeed the experience was so bad that it led to a student rebellion in the 1991/2 Second Year computer science class. A few students, me included, acted as spokespersons for the whole class, and sat through a debate (which was quite intimidating) in the John Honey building with all the computer science staff, putting our concerns. I think they took on board what we were saying, but by then it was too late for that year of students, and masses who should have carried on to honours computer science switched to other subjects instead. As a result there were only 3 honours students in my class: 2 single honours, 1 joint honours with another subject. That was the lowest number of computer science honours students at St Andrews for a very long time.
Another bad experience with lectures is where the lecturer – and this happened in one of my senior honours computer science courses – forbade us from taking notes, saying we would get the lecture slides at the end. He was really insistent about this. And of course he didn’t give us the slides, until we went round and demanded them, explaining he had promised them, and had told us not to take notes. He’d completely forgot about it. Well again what was the point of sitting through those lectures? Did we really engage properly with what he was saying?
After leaving St Andrews I started studying history part-time with the Open University. I couldn’t even attend many tutorials held locally at Dundee, so was managing on my own at home. And although the teaching there had to be primarily through pre written course books, I found it to be of generally a much higher standard than the variable lectures in my science degree.
Now small seminars, they’re a totally different matter. I’ve sat through excellent examples of those, including in teaching context, in my postgraduate history Masters at Dundee University. There you can have good quality interaction between teacher and students. But the numbers must be small. Even with a relatively poor lecturer the students can help to stimulate the discussion.
But I guess I’m not a fan of traditional one to many lectures!