Lecture less, teach more…

I was just about to go to the shops just now, but the weather is so extreme – dark apocalyptic skies and violent hailstorms – that I thought I’d have a quick go on the blog in the hope that  things quieten down a little. I was going to write something a bit earlier, as I was up at 7am, but all that came into my head were dark imaginings about the future and I didn’t want to depress myself and everyone else going on about that. The e-astronomer has already done something along those lines anyway.

Fortunately I saw something on Twitter that is a more appropriate theme for a blog post, namely a very interesting article about the role of lectures in university physics education. This is a topic I feel very strongly about, and I agree with most of what the article says, which is basically that the traditional lecture format is a very ineffective way of teaching physics. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that lectures are inherently useless, but I think they should be used in a very different way from the way they are used now.

When I was an undergraduate, in the dim and distant past, I attended lectures assiduously because that was expected of students. To put it bluntly, though, I don’t think I ever learned anything much from doing so. My real learning was done back in my room, with books and problem sheets as well as my lecture notes, trying to figure out how the physics all went together with other things I had learned, and how to apply it in interesting situations. Sometimes the lecture notes were useful, sometimes not, but I never felt that I had learned anything until I was confident that I knew how to apply the new concepts in solving problems.

But I did find some lectures very enjoyable and worthwhile, because some lecturers were good at making students feel interested in the subject.  The enthusiasm and depth of understanding conveyed by someone who has devoted their life to the study of a subject can be  infectious, and a very enjoyable form of entertainment in its own right. That’s why public lectures remain popular; their intrinsic educational value is limited, but they serve to stimulate the audience to find out more. That’s if they’re good, of course. They can have the opposite effect also.

At Cardiff – like other universities – we hand out questionnaires to students to get feedback on lecturers. Usually the thing that stands out as making one lecturer more popular than others is their enthusiasm. Quite rightly so. If someone who has made a career out of the subject can’t be enthusiastic, why on Earth should the students?

For other comments on what makes a good lecture, see here.

What makes a lecture useless is when it is used simply to transfer material from the lecturer to the student, without passing through the mind of either participant. Slavishly copying detailed notes seems to me a remarkably pointless activity, although taking notes of the key points in a lecture devoted primarily to concepts and demonstrations is far from that. Far better to learn to use resources such as textbooks and internet sites effectively than to endure an hour’s dictation. We don’t want our students to learn physics by rote; we want them to learn to think like physicists!

While I’m on about lectures, I’ll also add that I think the increasing use of Powerpoint in lectures has its downside too. I started using it when I moved to Cardiff, but never felt comfortable with it as a medium for teaching physics. This year I’m going to scrap it. I would revert to “chalk-and-talk” if we had any blackboards, so I’ll have to make do with those hideous whiteboard things. Not all progress is good progress.

Anyway, what we’ve recently done with our new courses in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University is to start to move away from an over-reliance on lectures. One way we’ve done this is to merge some of our smaller modules. Whereas a 10-credit module used to have two lectures a week, the new 20 credit modules now have the same number of lectures, complemented by two hours of problems classes in which the students work through exercise with staff members lending assistance. Initial reaction from the students is positive, though there have been some teething troubles. We’ll just  have to wait for the examination results to see how well it has worked.

I dare say other departments around the country are making similar changes in teaching methods in response to the availability of new technologies and changes to the school curriculum. But of course its a path that other trod before. It’s good to have the chance to end by congratulating Derek Raine of the University of Leicester for his MBE in the New Years Honours List for his contributions to science education. He was arguing for a different approach to physics teaching when many of us were still in short pants. It’s just a pity we’ve taken such a long time to realise he was right.

Now the sky’s blue so I can go and do my shopping. Toodle-pip!

20 Responses to “Lecture less, teach more…”

  1. Jade Powell Says:

    I go to all the lectures and usually I don’t learn anything and think its a total waste of time. I hope they make all modules like the new ones because most of our modules at the moment have no exercise classes at all not even for theroretical. When the lecturers use powerpoint and don’t write on the blackboard everybody falls asleep.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Thanks. I think it’s fixed now.

  3. Just as an example of the “Derek Raine” curriculum here at Leicester, Special Relativity and Elementary Particles for first years is boiled down to 3 lectures of each, plus a problem solving workshop in each hosted by the lecturers (myself and Peter Maksym), and of course homework problems which are then reviewed in small seminar classes hosted by PhD students. Personally I think it works quite well, and from my point of view I prefer this to the thought of having to write and give a 20-30 lecture course on a “traditional” degree….. One downside for the lecturers is that the timetable is pretty fixed (2 lectures, followed by that problem solving workshop, followed by a 3rd lecture in which one is encouraged to review points from the workshop where students clearly struggled). But I can live with that.

  4. telescoper Says:

    I should have mentioned the reason why many departments still cling to lectures; they’re cheap. One lecturer with 100 students for an hour is more “efficient” in terms of staff time than a tutorial or exercise class.

  5. […] “… This is a topic I feel very strongly about, and I agree with most of what the article says, which is basically that the traditional lecture format is a very ineffective way of teaching physics. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that lectures are inherently useless, but I think they should be used in a very different way from the way they are used now …” (more) […]

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    “I think the increasing use of Powerpoint in lectures has its downside too. I started using it when I moved to Cardiff, but never felt comfortable with it as a medium for teaching physics. This year I’m going to scrap it. I would revert to “chalk-and-talk” if we had any blackboards, so I’ll have to make do with those hideous whiteboard things.”

    That’s interesting. What are your reasons?

    • telescoper Says:

      The main reason is that I tend to teach more theoretical courses. I think it’s much more instructive for the student to see a mathematical analysis or derivation *happen* rather than being revealed to them as a complete thing. The latter tends to make students think of derivations as things to be memorised rather than understood.

      I also think it’s good for students to make their own notes of things like this. There can be a tendency using powerpoint to go to fast to allow students to make notes, and if you hand out written notes the students just go to sleep. I’ll be making notes available after the lecture but not before or during.

      • Adrian Burd Says:

        I’m in total agreement. I do use powerpoint-like things for undergraduate survey-type courses where many of the students only wish to see pictures of charismatic megafauna. Powerpoint presentations allow me to use that interest to help get over ideas and concepts at the same time. For the more theoretical courses I teach, I use the blackboard (we still have one or two left, though there is pressure to move towards using smart boards) for the same reasons as Peter expressed.

  7. Bryn Jones Says:

    I rather like lectures as a form of university teaching.

    My view is that the main problem with lectures is that the contact time between lecturer and students is too limited. There is sufficient time in lectures for the lecturers to present the material in a basic way, but there is usually insufficient time for the lecturer to go through enough problems in detail in class to develop the problem solving skills of the students. There is too little time to transmit the culture and thinking behind a subject. That was always the problem I encountered when lecturing. I’d have done a lot better had I had more time to explain the same amount of course material better.

    There are other problems with university teaching. One of the greatest of these is that the standard of teaching is fairly mediocre. There are multiple causes of this, and the lack of respect in academia for teaching compared with research is one of them. Academics try to spend as little time on teaching as they can, in order to prioritise research. This is in turn a consequence of the way universities get money.

    Another cause is that many academics fail to analyse teaching tasks adequately: they fail to analyse what needs to be explained and to think through how to do it. Then when things go poorly, students are blamed, not the lecturer.

    Of course, problem classes can help a lot. However, these are often farmed out to other people to teach, with minimal information being passed on about what the course involves and what the students have already been told.

  8. Interesting post, thanks. I am curious to hear how you get on without ppt. How do you stop the blackboard/whiteboard sessions from being just a transcription exercise though? Do you give a handout of the derivations as well?

    Are you allowed to do get students to do problems during your lectures? Then don’t have to change the timetable?

    I attempted: handouts with prescribed sections to read before lecture, followed by clickers quiz in lecture, then problem solving during lecture.

    Lots more fun than usual format. Hopefully students learnt more by being more active.

    I think only about half the students actually did the reading.
    Also the class was only about 40 students in a bigger lecture theatre so I could get them to sit in alternating rows and go round talking to them during problem solving. Wouldn’t always be possible.
    Was surprisingly slow going with the problem solving.

    I definitely recommend the clickers (personal response systems) though.
    Interested to hear experiences/recommendations.

    • telescoper Says:

      As I said in the post I think taking notes is an important part of the learning process, and a skill in its own right. However, it’s important that the students aren’t frantically involved in writing down loads of material. I think the way to do this is (a) to plan each lecture carefully so you don’t try to cram too much into it and (b) focus on the essentials with plenty of applications and explanations.

      I like to ask questions during lectures and always seem to get plenty of responses, which is pleasing. Sometimes I leave a 5-minute break for the class to figure something out, but actually I prefer not to interrupt the lecture for too long for that. In some of our new modules the sessions are in 2-hour blocks which are usually done by having a lecture, followed by a short break, followed by an examples class although the timing allows for more flexibility than this should the lecturer wish to use it.

  9. John Peacock Says:

    Leaving aside what my students may think of my efforts in the lecturing department, I’m quite clear that lectures were frequently a very good thing in my own education. I’d sum up the reason for that as being that they tell you what you don’t need to know. Textbooks are by their nature comprehensive and often fail to distinguish wood from trees; printed notes / ppt share this deficiency. But to get through a sensible amount of material in an hour, you have to cut back to the bedrock of the key ideas and eliminate inessentials. With the logical superstructure of the subject thus exposed, the student can move on to the other equally vital bit, which is getting to grips with the microstructure of the subject by problem-solving and tutorial discussion. But if you concentrate too much on these low-level tasks, I think you risk losing direction. If I were to criticise my own education, it would be that it actually could have done with even more of the big-picture stuff. But of course Peter went through the same system and reached the opposite conclusion…

    • telescoper Says:

      I think this demonstrates the most important point: that different students learn in different ways, so we need to deploy as many different teaching styles as possible to help as many of them as we can.

      • Monica Grady Says:

        Interested to hear how you would rate the OU method: specially written text books, programmed timetable for reading the relevant chapters, each chapter containing worked examples and self-assessment problems for discussion at monthly tutorials. Complemented by written assignments, marked by tutors and also discussed at tutorials. Pro (for the lecturer): lecturing is carried out at the comfort of ones own desk, rather than in front of a class of hung-over undergraduates. Con: teaching materials assessed and edited to death by other course team members, and a vast department called ‘Learning and Teaching Support (LTS)’ that removes difficult words from our careful prose. LTS also has a mission to remove all references to, and pictures of, DWBM – Dead, White, Bearded Males – from our course materials. A mountainous task in physics!

      • telescoper Says:

        I can’t comment, as I’ve never experienced the OU style, except for watching the old TV programmes when I was a kid.

      • Anton Garrett Says:


        If you want to annoy LTS, tell them that they are doing exactly what the Nazis attempted with so-called Aryan physics, only today they are trying to remove the influence of DWBMs rather than Jews.

        Declaration of interest: I am 50% DWBM.

      • telescoper Says:

        An especially difficult task in thermodynamics:


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