Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Compleat Lecturer – a concise guide to the art and craft of lecturing

The Compleat Lecturer – a concise guide to the art and craft of lecturing

Bruce G Charlton - 2014

This (not yet finished, to be added-to) mini-book is intended for those who take traditional lecturing seriously, and who believe it is the best and most practical method of teaching most groups of higher education and undergraduate students for most of the time.

The primacy of lectures in a course of undergraduate-level study has been recognized in universities and colleges for many hundreds of years, and nothing has happened to change this fact.

In a nutshell, lecturing should be done in structured courses; but such that the audience of students perceive each individual lecture as a here-and-now, one-off, learning event.  

Properly done, lectures can provide most students with structured knowledge and understanding – although they cannot, of course, provide a training in skills (only some form of one-to-one apprenticeship can do that).

Lectures are the most ancient form of the ‘mass media’ – because they are a one-to-many method of communicating. A perennial question is one to how many? I will argue that for the educational purposes (as contrasted with entertainment or mental stimulation)  there is something like an absolute maximum size for lectures; which depends on how good a lecturer, how well-designed the lecture theatre, and the motivation and discipline of the students. This maximum is about two hundred – but (in general) most lectures by most lecturers to most students ought to be no more than about one-to-a-hundred.   

A hundred students in a class is actually a very large number, and keeping classes down to this size (and only as big as this in a well designed venue) would not be regarded as a constraint by a serious educational institution – however few education institutions are serious about education. 

So there is often pressure to push above this class size by means of audio-visual technology in vast or multiple venues: these are fake lectures or pseudo-lectures, and have nothing to do with real education. Watching TV is not the same as being at the theatre; and hearing an electronically amplified voice is like listening to the radio compared with a live singer.

But I am jumping ahead…

The lecture: the first mass medium

The lecture was the first method of amplifying teaching  from apprenticeship situation of one to one (or a handful of people). Something of the sort seems to have been used in Greek, Roman and Byzantine civilizations – but it was founding of the early Medieval Universities mostly in the 12th century in places like Bologna, Padua, Salamanca, Paris and Oxford, when the lecture became the main focus of higher (post-school) teaching.

In the early centuries, before the invention of printing and the availability of cheap books, the lecture was usually given slowly, as a form of dictation – and a student’s lecture notes were therefore a copy of the manuscript book from which the lecturer was reading. At an advanced level, the lecture was a commentary (exposition, clarification, discussion, expansion) of a classic text which would slowly be worked through line by line.

As books became more widely available, at least in libraries, the lecture evolved into a personal distillation by the lecturer of knowledge from a variety of sources – with advanced students amplifying this by further reading. These lectures were not always read out, nor were they always given at dictation speed – but the delivery of a lecture could be enlivened and tailored to class response by elements of improvisation on the part of the lecturer, and the making of notes necessarily became a more engaged and creative matter – a matter of extracting, summarizing, constructing.

Such a semi-structured lecture – with a skeletal plan, but room for extempore features, systematic yet active and somewhat unpredictable - seems to me the ideal and best form of lecturing, as both lecturer and student are most engaged, and there is no possibility of switching to ‘autopilot’ (which may easily happen when a lecturer is simply reading aloud from notes and a student passively transcribing them).  The mind of both lecturer and student are engaged, and education is very obviously going on in the here and now; learning and insights are actively happening in the classroom.

This type of lecture served as a vital introduction and orientation to what would have been a bewildering rage of sources – sources typically too advanced to be easily comprehensible to the beginner. So, the lecturer course would give the student a structure of knowledge and understanding  upon which he could build by private study – however, most students have probably always relied heavily upon their lecture notes (so long as the lecturer is doing a good job).

Lecture Theatre design and usage

Lecture theatre design is very important – and many lecture theatres are unfit for purpose.

For small classes, the specifics of a lecture theatre are relatively less important, but as the size of the class increases the design becomes more and more important; until with large classes (above about 100) only the very best designed lecture theatres are adequate.

It is necessary that the audience in a lecture be in audio-visual contact with the lecturer. In general, the closer the physical proximity of lecturer and audience, the better – for big classes this means that the lecture theatre must have a steep rake.

This means the audience must be close enough, and the acoustics good enough (including no background noises – reasonable sound-proofing) to hear what is being said without artificial means of amplification. The use of microphones may sometimes be unavoidable for some lecturers and some venues, but this should be discouraged and the usage of amplification regarded as exceptional - since electronic reproduction interposes a psychological barrier between lecturer and audience.

Sight lines are also vital – all members of the audience need to be able to see the lecturer, so that eye contact is a usual or at least a possibility. Again – this implies that for large classes the lecture theatre must have a steep rake – so that everyone can see clearly. This means the lecture theatre should be well lit, with plenty of bright lights especially at the front where the lecturer and writing boards are located . The level brightness should be like a kitchen than a gloomy bedroom (technically, about 400 Lux would be about right – but this seems to be very rarely attainable). It also means that the ‘house lights’ should be kept on for most of the lecture – with the whole room illuminated so everybody can see everybody else. The practice of showing slides on a screen in a dark room should be kept to a minimum (if not eliminated altogether).

Of the other more minor factors the most important – and most neglected - is ventilation. Lecture theatres simply must have a good flow of cool air – a warm, stuffy, humid lecture theatre may become so soporific as to render a lecture futile. Therefore it is better for the lecture theatre to be a bit too cold, than too hot (students can always wear coats).  

Taking lectures seriously means building enough lecture theatres of the necessary size, and designing them to be effective environments for learning.  And there is no need to reinvent the wheel – simply find and copy the best examples.

Any good lecturer or good student will be able to say which are the best – and bad lecturers and bad students should have no say in the matter at all.

One lecturer per course

The syllabus of a qualification such as a degree is organized into units called courses – and as a generalisation it seems to work best when each course is given by a single person. The reasons are probably psychological – but the psychology seems to constrain the educational possibilities.

Lecturing requires some stability; the lecturer and the class need to get to know each other – and in particular the class needs to trust the lecturer. Until this trust is established, the student will experience an inner resistance to learning which is hard to overcome. The first couple of lectures may be entertaining or they may be dull, but they are seldom very ‘educational’ in a useful sense – it is later in the course when some solid knowledge is likely to be transmitted.

Therefore one-off lectures should be avoided, and multiple (team) teaching likewise avoided. Also, lectures should be given reasonably closely together, at least once a week – to assist and accelerate this process of getting to know each other; as well as bonding the class into a psychological unit, so they develop a kind of group personality.

(Discovering the distinctive group personality of a class is one of the things which keep lecturing fresh and enjoyable – just like people, no two classes are alike, and some are quite delightful.)

Lectures should be the focus of course design

Academic teaching is done is courses; and courses will normally be based on lectures – in the lecture room is where most of the education happens, in real time, between actual human beings; and the educational institution needs to emphasize that it is the students responsibility to be there.

Over the past few decades there has been an erosion of the primacy of the lecture, and dilution of the necessity for attendance at the lecture. This is sometimes done by lecturers themselves who damage student engagement by discouraging them from making their own personal lecture notes by ‘handouts’ and online provision of lecture notes and slides (even worse, advance provision of these materials), by audio-recording and filming lectures – in sum, doing everything possible to render secondary, optional and subordinate the actual lecture.

More recently lectures have been subverted by university management, administration and professional educationalists – we seek a mode of ‘education’ which they can monitor and control (even if it does not education) – therefore want to see all course materials pre-written, scripted, recorded, planned and audited.

But sabotaging the lecture is just subtracting the major educational medium; and not replacing it.

There will always be some people who cannot or do not wish to get to a particular lecture, or course of lectures; and they can retrospectively be provided with material by which they can make up for missing the lecture by private study. But this must not be at the expense of the majority who do attend the lecture, nor at the expense of the effectiveness of the lecture.

Otherwise we will simply have degraded the educational experience to such a low level that there is equality between those who attend and those who do not, those who pay attention and those who do not, those who actively make notes and those who sit daydreaming or covertly engage in social networking… There will be complete equality when the lecture is a compete fake and at the point of zero education.  

So if a lecture is as good as it should be, anyone who misses the lecture will be significantly disadvantaged -  and it should take three hours of private study to make up for missing a fifty minute lecture. Furthermore, most students are not capable of learning by reading as effectively as they can learn by listening, watching and creating their own set of notes.

How enjoyable should lectures be?

Lectures should be enjoyable, but that enjoyment is a means to the educational end – and not an end in itself.

If a lecture is not minimally enjoyable, then students will find it difficult to pay attention and learn. But the enjoyment must be of an active and engaged kind – lectures are not supposed to be enjoyable in the kind of ‘sit back and enjoy it’, passive fashion in which television or movies are enjoyed.

Indeed, as I will discuss further later, lectures can only work if students are prepared to put in some work. Those who sit as far away as possible from the lecturer, who talk among themselves, and who (nowadays) engage in browsing the internet or social networking are an active menace to effective lecturing – the whole atmosphere is poisoned by such people, an intense and focused environment cannot be created nor sustained.

The worst possible environment is a compulsory lecture of unmotivated and undisciplined students who simply look to the lecturer to while away the time as pleasantly as possible, or use the lecture theatre as a place to meet friends, show off – or as base for their bodies from which their minds can inhabit some other place and engage with other people.

Then again, many college and university lecturers dislike and resent teaching – more than ever in the past, because real good teaching has sub-zero professional value – and promotions and stats are given wholly to research and administration (people given official awards for ‘teaching’ are invariably administrators, not teachers).

So, the current situation with respect to lectures is probably very bad indeed in most places and for most of the time; since administrators are subverting lectures, lecturers don’t want to give them, and many students do not want to attend them - and if they do attend them, they do not want to make an effort.

This is simply dishonest, a fake pseudo-education. I shall say no more about it.