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(Lecture room at MIT by DrGandy under Creative Commons licence)

Last year I participated in the University of Oxford’s Teaching Fellowship Preparation, and after completing the course was awarded with membership of the Higher Education Academy. I chose to take the course because it gave me an opportunity to reflect on my teaching practice and to learn more about pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning. Quite a few of my colleagues here and elsewhere seem sceptical about the value of reading pedagogical theory, and indeed in the academy in general there seems to be a sense that teaching is something you learn through doing, not through studying. The rationale seems to be that our academic expertise should make us effective teachers. But as any of us who have been taught at undergraduate and postgraduate level are likely to have experienced first hand, brilliant thinkers and writers do not necessarily make great teachers. As I’m at a pretty early stage in my career (although I have taught students since 2005, so I have a fair amount of experience), I thought it would be foolhardy if I felt I’d learned all I needed to about how to teach!

I chose to write my portfolio for the TFP course on the topic of Becoming a more effective lecturer. In my reading, I had been struck by Exley and Dennick’s observation:

‘Evidence suggests that only 10 per cent of the words delivered in a lecture are recorded in the notes of the students with only a small proportion effectively learned …. In addition …, the nature of what is learned in conventional lectures is usually only of the factual and conceptual understanding variety; higher cognitive outcomes tend not to be acquired.’[1]

Kate Exley and Reg Dennick’s stark description of the inefficacy of lecturing resonates with the findings of a number of other researchers in educational theory and practice. Donald Bligh, despite writing a monograph solely concerned with lecturing, concludes that: ‘teachers should use the lecture method primarily for this purpose [assisting students in acquiring information]. If they wish to achieve other objectives they should use other methods wherever possible.’[2] A model of teaching that, in its conventional form, is considered to be poorly suited to the development of new ideas or deeper understanding of a subject as a whole is unlikely to be appealing to the teacher in the humanities. As a historian, I agree with Alan Booth that the study of history is inherently creative: ‘imaginative engagement is as essential to high-level learning as it is to serious historical writing.’[3] To help students imaginatively engage with the subject, more interactive methods of teaching such as discussion groups and tutorials would seem to be preferable to lectures.[4]

Given that lecturing is one of the most commonly used forms of teaching in universities, there seems to be a remarkable consensus within educational literature that – in its conventional forms, at least – the lecture is a severely compromised format for teaching. Dennis Fox outlines a key component of this in his discussion of ‘simple’ and ‘developed’ methods of teaching. In his article, he describes the transfer theory of teaching, a ‘simple’ method. Practising transfer theory means viewing ‘knowledge as a commodity which can be transferred, by the act of teaching, from one container to another or from one location to another.’[5] This method of teaching treats students as passive recipients of information. This makes teaching a one-way delivery process.

Well, one could argue, students do need to acquire a certain level of information in order to be able to develop their own understanding of a topic. The problem with lecturing, though, is that even when it deals with sophisticated topics, it can encourage a passive, unsophisticated expectation not just of teaching but also of learning in students. Ambrose et al. discuss the way recent entrants to university often approach their learning experiences:

Students at this stage of intellectual development believe that knowledge is something absolute, that it is handed down from authorities (the teacher, the text book), and that the role of students is to receive it and give it back when asked.[6]

Even the sophisticated lecturer, who aims to bring out ambiguities, multiplicities and uncertainties in his or her subject, can inadvertently still assume the position of ultimate authority in the lecture hall. As R. Marchand wryly notes:

In reflecting upon my own lecturing, I am troubled to recognize how often I wind up telling students what to think about the materials we have just covered – providing them with conclusions rather than empowering them to ask questions.[7]

How, then, to reconcile this problem with the fact that much university teaching still relies on lecturing? My own job title, Lecturer in Medieval History, reflects not only the ancient pedagogic traditions of universities in Europe, but also reflects a pragmatic reality. I am contractually required to provide a certain number of hours of teaching a year; a number of those hours are expected to be lectures. Even at an institution like the University of Oxford, where a low student-to-staff ratio is considered to be one of its particular selling points, lecturing remains one of the most economical ways of providing teaching in terms of both time and money spent.[8] I will return to these questions in my next post. For now: fellow teachers, do you agree with these writers? Do you enjoy lecturing? Do you think your students benefit from it, and why? I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts.


[1] Kate Exley and Reg Dennick, Giving a Lecture: From Presenting to Teaching (Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge Falmer, 2004), p. 8.

[2] Donald A. Bligh, What’s the use of lectures? (Exeter: Intellect, 2001, 5th ed.), p. 24.

[3] Alan Booth, Teaching History at University: Enhancing Learning and Understanding (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 6.

[4] Bligh, What’s the use of lectures?, p. 24.

[5] Dennis Fox, ‘Personal theories of teaching’, Studies in Higher Education 8 (1983): 152.

[6] S.A. Ambrose, M.W. Bridges, M. DiPietro, M.C. Lovett, and M.K. Norman. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010), p. 163.

[7] R. Marchand, 1999, quoted in Alan Booth, Teaching History at University: Enhancing Learning and Understanding (London & NY: Routledge, 2003), p. 50.

[8] Donald Bligh, David Jaques and David Warren Piper, Seven Decisions When Teaching Students (Exeter: EUTS, 1981, 2nd ed.), p. 112.

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