How to make my lectures more effective – Part 1

As part of my study leave, I am indulging in reading books. This is something that I rarely get to do in my normal day-to-day activities, normally I will instead treat them as references, reading a chapter here, skimming a section there, following up references to articles with easier (quicker?) to digest findings.

But in a year off, I think I can make some time for some actual reading. One book that I have found very useful over the years is Bligh’s What’s the Use of Lectures? It has fantastic summaries of experimental reports on teaching effectiveness, and uses the literature to support discussion and suggestions on how we might improve our teaching. I thought a good way for me to remember the key findings would be to write some brief summaries helping me to structure courses and lectures in the future.

I am going to start out with a general summary of what lectures are good for. And what they are not. And then some discussion on how we might think about how to structure our courses around these findings, particularly when considering a course which has a traditional lecture-dominated structure.

Bligh makes a very strong argument that lectures are effective at transmitting knowledge. But – he identifies that there are actually four things that we want to achieve as educators: (1) transmitting knowledge, (2) motivating thought, (3) changing attitudes and (4) developing behaviour, as in professional behaviours, among others. What is key here is that the numerous studies that Bligh reviews identify that lectures are not good at achieving the other three objectives, and so we have to think about how we are going to do so. Of course, when Bligh  talks about lectures, he is referring to the act of lecturing, rather than the time slot itself.

As teachers, we are already somewhat aware of how we combine the different elements of our courses to achieve this – tutorials, practical laboratory classes, lectures, discussion groups etc. But I wonder whether we think explicitly about how what we set in these individual sessions contributes to the overall course structure and objectives? I know that I have been guilty in the past of quickly setting textbook questions for tutorials, without necessarily thinking about what purpose they serve. Keeping our students busy is not necessarily learning 🙂

Perhaps a useful approach when designing a course or a course component, is to apply the objectives listed above as questions. Given a specific topic or concept that we want the student to learn, then if we ask ourselves which of the four objectives we need to address and why, then perhaps that can give us some guidance as to what we need to include in our lectures, tutorials etc.

For example, what if we wanted to introduce a new programming language construct, say a “for loop” in an introductory programming course, assuming that students are already familiar with the concept of iteration and a “while loop”. We know that the practice of lecturing would be perfect for explaining what the “for loop” is, what it looks like, what problems it suits, and how it works. But – as I am sure first year programming lecturers would agree, there is very little that is engaging or effective in a traditional lecture that just does that.

So to move on to the other questions: is there anything that we want our students to think about here? Yes, indeed – we want them to think about how to incorporate this new construct into their designs, so they have to think about how to identify problems that would use this new construct, and how they would map the information in the problem to an algorithm that uses a “for loop”.

Are there any changes in opinion or attitude we want them to consider? Yes, somewhat related (but you would expect that), they should be thinking about what makes this new iteration construct different from the one they already know. They would have already established a connection between the need for iteration, and the use of the “while loop”, so they also need to think about what has changed: why would they use this new construct instead of another? How would they identify problems that should use a “for loop” rather than a “while loop”?

And what about professional practice? Although this is such a simple topic, there are already programming conventions and professional behaviours that we would want our students to be adopting. For example, we would want to introduce them to professional conventions for writing descriptive comments that explained the purpose of the “for loop” in relation to the surrounding problem. We might also want them to adopt variable naming conventions for the variables used to control the iteration boundary and increment conditions. We might also want to consider discussing appropriate usage of “break” and “continue” statements within this form of loop. (although in hindsight, this then moves back to instigating thought, …)

For such a simple topic, we have identified elements that map to each of the four objectives. So what now – our analysis, although quick and I am sure that it can be improved, has given us a structure for what kinds of questions, discussions and activities we might want to include in different course activities.  We may want to build our lecture slots around a combination of mini-lectures that cover the material that needs to be explained, and discussions and activities that help target the remaining objectives, such as worked examples and pair programming activities.

We might want to accompany this by including questions requiring practice of design, loop selection and loop application in a practical laboratory session (where we can apply collaborative or other active learning approaches), including in each question the required elements of professional practice. In our tutorials, we might want to include discussions on how to identify the need for iteration in a problem (to explicitly address problem solving approaches), and how do you know which kind of iteration construct you need. We might also want to include a discussion on “break and continue”. Perhaps.

You may disagree with my analysis above – you may want to focus on different things when teaching this concept, and your analysis of which objectives need to be addressed would be different. And this is also just one way of interpreting the results of the analysis – we all teach differently, and structure our courses differently. My point thought, is that Bligh gives us a useful framework for our analysis, helping us make our decisions and explicitly think about what each activity and element in our courses contributes to our overall objectives.

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