All talk talk talk? Learning to love lectures part 1

Term’s probably underway or about to be underway for most history students now, so it is a good time to think about the ways in which you’re taught at university. For history students, lectures are probably the most obvious form of teaching you encounter. But what are they and why do we do them? Should we even be doing them, and should you be attending? In this post, I’ll try to break down the reasons for the lecture, then a follow-up post later in the week will look at some techniques for getting the most from lectures.

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What is a lecture? At its simplest, it’s an oral presentation on a particular topic from your tutor – or “lecturer” (see what we did there?) – given to the whole class. They tend to be the focal point of any given module, and they are often the thing people remember first about a course. A good rule of thumb is that lectures are where ideas get introduced, and seminars are where you get to break those ideas down.

Lectures are where you see the most people – staff and students – so they can be highly social occasions too. It’s not a perfect format, and some academics think the lecture is outdated and should be replaced – I’ll talk about this a bit later, and Claire will be posting on the other blog strand aimed at lecturers on this very topic in due course. But there are still many positive aspects to the lecture, and it’s good to have a bit of background info before you get into a new term.

Where do lectures come from?

They come from the mists of time – or at least the medieval university (the image at the start of this post is from the mid-fourteenth century). Yup, that’s right, your university education will be in large part based on a teaching form developed before the printing press. They have evolved somewhat – modern lecturers are not likely to be reading a classic text aloud, pausing occasionally to give some contextual gloss, and you’re more likely to have some kind of supporting apparatus, but the basic point of getting a bunch of students in a room to listen to their teacher talk at them is still the same.

What is the lecturer trying to do?

Often, lectures are conceived as being overviews or introductions to a subject by a specialist in that subject – in terms of history lectures, this often takes the form of introducing the key factual detail about a subject, and how this particular subject has been interpreted by historians over time, and where these interpretations have differed. Getting students to consider different possibilities and understandings is an important part of any lecture. It’s also an opportunity to make sure all students are starting from the same place with a new subject – which is particularly important when everyone will have done different things at school.

Lecturers are not trying to tell you everything about a subject – there’s just not the time to do that – but they will probably want you to go beyond the ‘facts’ to think about familiar topics in a new, critical way, as well as introducing you to areas which you’ve not covered before. Lecturers want you to engage with the topics they’re teaching, and lectures are how that engagement starts.

Some lecturers will give you a pretty good steer as to what their interpretations of a topic are – others will be less direct, but as our aim is to train you to develop and support an argument, you’d better believe we have our own opinions on these debates!

What format does a lecture take? What should I expect from a lecture?

This really depends on the lecturer, and the subject they’re covering. The most basic format, and the one that I certainly experienced as an undergrad at the end of the 1990s, is a lecturer comes into the lecture theatre and talks at you for an hour (or 50-55 mins, most likely – given the demands of most university timetables) whilst you take notes. In the twenty-first century university, you will find some variations on this – the lecturer may use audio-visual material, they may write on the whiteboards, they might ask you to participate in a Q&A, increasingly they will have a PowerPoint and a handout to support what they’re saying, you may be asked to use a clicker in order to respond to questions  – but the basic format of lecturer talks, student soaks up information is still there. How you soak up that information in a way that’s useful will be covered in another post.

Are lectures the best way of learning?

It’s true, lectures are essentially old-fashioned and didactic – the lecturer stands at the front, deciding what you should know, and students receive this passively. Most lectures are close on an hour long, which is a very long time to concentrate, particularly if you’re not interested in the subject, or your lecturer is, er, less than dynamic. Not everyone learns best by being talked at, and even if you do learn well that way, you have to work to keep your focus.

For lecturers, it can be hard to get the right balance between sufficient explanatory detail and information overload. How do I condense this amazing subject to which I have dedicated my working life into one single lecture?! Am I pitching this at the right level? And how do I make sure students have understood my key points?

Why do we carry on giving lectures then?

The answer to this would depend on who you talk to. There is an obvious efficiency element – more students are catered to by one lecture than by one seminar. To give an example, on the first year history survey courses at Exeter, around 150-250 students are expected at each lecture, whereas a seminar is made up of 12-15 students. That’s a big difference, both in terms of dynamic, and what kinds of tasks are suitable. Most second and third year courses will also have a couple of seminar groups and a lecture for everyone. At a time when universities are conscious of student contact hours, getting bums on seats in a lecture hall is an efficient way of upping contact time.

That’s not to say the best reasons for keeping lectures are the apparently mercenary ones. There are strong pedagogical reasons for keeping lectures too. It’s a good way of making sure all students are starting with the same basic information on a subject – even if all the students on a course read the same textbook (assuming  there is a suitable textbook and everyone does all the reading!), they will interpret it in different ways, they will highlight different points and come to different conclusions. Although  students do pick up on different things in lectures, the fact that the lecturer is guiding them through the subject does cut down on variation.

If students are already familiar with the topic, listening to a lecturer talk it through gives them the chance to clarify and challenge their ideas to date. In my experience, students like the security that lectures give them – moving beyond the lecture into a subject through independent study is far more daunting. This comes back to the point that a lecture will never be able to tell you everything about a subject but should be a springboard for students to develop their own ideas. That’s a big step up from what you’re asked to do at school, and so we all need to think about ways to help you use lectures without you coming to rely on them.

How do lectures fit in with seminars?

Again, this depends on the course. It’s not always possible to neatly pair lectures and seminars together so that you move from an introductory lecture to a seminar where you get to go through things in more detail. It would be great if that was possible, but several things often conspire to prevent it:

  • Lecturers don’t get to set the timetable.
  • Your seminars might not always be led by the lecturer, particularly on big survey modules.
  • Often a course will develop  a concept gradually, so you will end up coming back to particular points across multiple lectures and seminars.

That said, most lecturers I know prefer to keep a clear link between seminars and lectures where possible, because we recognise it’s good to give students an opportunity to tackle the ideas raised in their lectures directly. Look closely at your class schedules to see what fits in where, and if you’re confused about how your lectures and seminars are meant to interact, double check with your tutor.

 The job of the lecturer

Essentially, our job is simple – to present information to students in a way that is accessible and allows them to take their studies further. Unsurprisingly, different lecturers have different approaches to this, and students have different expectations of what lecturers should be doing.

What you can legitimately expect of lecturers:

  • That they will turn up to your classes, on time and prepared.
  • That they will explain a subject to you in enough detail for you to learn something new.
  • That they will make you want to go and find out more about a subject.
  • That they will help you work through the more complicated aspects of the course.
  • That they will explain the major historiographical issues and debates linked to your subject.
  • That they will be up to date with the scholarship and the major trends in the field.
  • That they are comprehensible and clear – if you can’t hear them, or they’re speaking too quickly, let them know!
  • That they stick to their time-limit & don’t overrun.

What you can hope for but should not demand:

  • That they’re endlessly fascinating and engaging all the time.
  • That they provide you with a useful handout and/or PowerPoint.
  • That they make these available online, possibly even before the class.
  • That they use a variety of materials to illustrate their lectures.

What you should not expect:

  • That they will ‘teach’ you as you were used to at school.
  • That once you’ve heard the lecture, that’s all the work you need to do.
  • That they will hand over their lecture notes in their entirety.
  • That they will make things dead easy for you to understand straight off.
  • That you will enjoy all lectures equally.
  • That all lecturers will have the same approaches and style.

Two (or more heads) better than one?  Lecture teams

Often, in your first year, you will find yourself on a big module taken by pretty much the whole year group which covers a massive topic – at Exeter, we have one module that goes from the Fall of Rome to the Enlightenment, another that goes from the Enlightenment to the present day, and a third ‘foundation’ module which looks at what being a historian actually involves (yes, history students are historians too!). Other universities have similar modules, which you should be able to find out about from their websites. These modules have several hundred students on them, and are taught by a group of lecturers, rotating in and out, so you as students have to get used to a number of different lecturing approaches and styles within the one module.

This can be unnerving, but there are a few things you can do to make the experience a bit less daunting:

  • Familiarise yourself with the lecture team at the start.
    • Use staff profile pages to see what people’s interests are.
    • Check out their photos online so you know who you’re looking for.
  • Keep the list of who is giving which lecture somewhere accessible.
    • That way, you know who to expect before you get to the lecture theatre.
    • This is important if you want to go over points raised in a lecture in an office hour or by email later.
  • Try to keep it straight in your head who is who.
    • This is important if you need to chase up a point with a lecturer either in an office hour or after the lecturer – it’s always nice when students are able to address you personally.
    • When it comes to module feedback, getting lecturers straight is important, as you want to make sure your comments are directed to the right person.
  • Don’t expect lecturers to provide exactly the same support – we have different opinions on how to teach history as well as different opinions on history itself. A quick example might help:
    • I have some colleagues who put a lot of factual detail on their PowerPoint slides, and then print these off for students to annotate. That’s an approach with clear merits, as students can use the slides as a basis for their own notes, and can quickly see when a point was made during the lecture.
    • In contrast, I provide a detailed handout, and my PowerPoint is almost entirely comprised of images. This is partly because that format best suits the topics I cover in lectures, which tend to be about long term cultural change, rather than things with lots of names and dates and facts. Mainly, it is because I have found students understand my lectures better if they are not worrying about catching names and dates, but have time to think and to make notes on how to interpret the broader points which I have been making. Printing off the PowerPoint slides for students does not really support my lectures in a helpful way.
  • Following on from this, don’t write off a whole group of lectures by one person because you didn’t like their style in comparison to the previous lecturer.
    • This is particularly important when you’ve got lecturers coming in to do different lectures on a module – if you’ve got used to Dr A’s upbeat delivery, and then Prof B turns up and is far less dynamic, you might be tempted to sack off those lectures.
      • Try to resist skipping lectures, for whatever reason – even when lectures are not compulsory, or if they’re recorded, get into the habit of showing up. Your focus should be on the content, not the delivery.
      • You will get used to the different styles, and it is great training for later studies and your future career when you will have to deal with all kinds of people’s presentation styles.

     

Hopefully, that’s given you some insight into the wonderful world of lectures, some of the pros and some of the cons, and given you a bit of a heads up as to what to expect. I’ll be posting later in the week with some practical tips on getting the most from your lectures. In the meantime, have a think about lectures yourself. If you’re a new student, what’s worrying you about lectures, and what do you think sounds exciting? What thoughts do established students have about the lecture format? Let us know what you think…

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About drskbarker

Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. Interested in all things early modern, European, news & print-culture and higher ed teaching related.

5 thoughts on “All talk talk talk? Learning to love lectures part 1

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