How to make my lectures more effective – Part 2

This is the second post in a series, attempting to summarise the key features from  Donald Bligh’s book: What’s the Use of Lectures?

In the first post, I really just covered what the purpose of lectures is – or in other words, what can be effectively achieved by lecturing – and therefore, if you think about the different things that you want to achieve, you can work out whether you should be lecturing, or doing some other activity, perhaps still in a lecture theatre, or in a tutorial or a laboratory.

In this post, I want to specifically target some key ideas that Bligh mentions regarding how to structure your lectures – when you do give them. Bligh talks a lot about memory, and this is key: we need to understand how memory works in order to work out whether students will remember what we tell them. Bligh describes several approaches that we can follow that will aid memory – and make our lectures more effective.

The first is making the lecture meaningful to students. As Bligh describes:

“One of the most important factors affecting memory is the meaningfulness of the what is to be remembered. By this I mean how far it fits in with the ideas the person already has.”

One things to think about here is the introduction of new terms. Short-term recall of new terms is not very good, so it is difficult for students to take notes using new terms until they have placed them in context. So introducing new terms should be limited in a single lecture, and as far as possible, the new term should be explained with reference to terms that the student already understands. This should be followed by repetition, to allow students time to adjust to the new term. The same goes for new concepts – along with the idea of repetition, although in this case, it is not really repetition of the explanation of the concept, but perhaps more so, inclusion of multiple examples that help relate the new concept to existing concepts that the students already understand.

The next approach I would like to mention is organising the subject. This may seem trivial, but being able to understand the organisation of your course helps students understand and identify the relationships between terms/concepts. Presenting a clear outline and a summary help signpost how new information fits with existing knowledge, which helps the students not only understand but also remember correctly. This is not just a matter of listing the slide headings from your power points, but thinking about the structure in terms of concepts/information presentation, and explicitly linking new information back to existing knowledge that may have been covered earlier in the course, or even in the curriculum.

The next topic that Bligh covers is one that I agree with very strongly, rehearsing the material. This doesn’t mean rehearsing your lecture, although sometimes that can be a good idea, but giving students the opportunity to rehearse or retrieve the information shortly after the lecture presentation. Some research indicates that it is important to do this within 30 minutes, so incorporating an active learning component of some kind within your lecture to review the new material could fit well here. Strategies that Bligh mentions here include buzz groups, silent revision, short tests – essentially anything that gives the students opportunity to activate and apply their learning. The research that Bligh reviews indicates that opportunities for rehearsal greatly benefit long term recall of new information.

The final point I will mention here in this post is feedback on learning. Bligh’s take on this can be summarised by: “Students’ learning of cognitive and motor skills is normally better if they know how well they are doing.”, with the feedback that is received (either positive or negative) having more effective the sooner it is acquired after testing. Interestingly, Bligh reports that, at first, positive and negative feedback are both equally effective. However, persistent negative feedback leads to a decline in memory tasks, while persistent positive feedback leads to an improvement. The impact of the feedback we give for an individual assignment should not be taken in isolation…


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