Today I did something humbling. I logged into the Monash Uni online lecture recording system, and listened to myself giving a lecture. Urgh! Does my voice really sound like that? Hang on, I think what I just said there was not entirely accurate. I say “actually” a lot. Wow, Chris, that was a really, really bad joke. Strangely enough, many of the 200-odd students in the room laughed.

The undergraduate university lecture has come in for a hammering in recent times. The momentum is all for ‘active-learning strategies’ - inquiry oriented learning, problem based learning, collaborative learning, group work, POGIL, IBL - and the list goes on. And I am personally one of the many who have espoused this, reforming lab programs and reformatting our classroom activities in first year chemistry. There’s no question in my mind that learning is enhanced when students not only absorb the answers to questions, but are pushed to come up with the questions that need to be answered.

Death By PowerPoint: The didactic lecture (Me talk. You listen.) almost certainly has inherent problems. It’s foundation lies in the idea that the teacher is a fountain of knowledge, and that by some as-yet-undefined and mysterious process of brainwave osmosis, that knowledge is transmitted to students purely by talking at them for 50 minutes, non-stop. And for the past couple of decades, this has routinely gone hand-in-hand with a smorgasbord of PowerPoint slides, cluttered with even more information to be absorbed.

That might sound like an extreme case, but there’s a LOT of that going on in our lecture theatres. At the same time, there are many lecturers who are mixing things up: showing short video clips, telling contextual anecdotes, promoting Q & A, and telling jokes, presumably better than mine.

What future for The Lecture? Burgeoning enrolments and blossoming cohorts ensure our classrooms are bursting at the seams, and the business model of universities means this is not going to change any time soon. Small group tutorials and lab classes, and the beneficial learning environment they enable, are increasingly being squeezed out by ever tightening budgets. It seems that lectures are here to stay – how else to deliver content to our army of young minds?

There are alternatives of course – our content can be delivered online. Learning management systems (eg. Moodle, Blackboard, etc.) not only host our materials, they incorporate discussion forums, facilitate quizzes and host our gradebooks. Multimedia options are playing a greater role, for example short, online videos have quickly gained popularity in recent years, as software packages like Camtasia have emerged to make producing such things incredibly easy.

I have heard many people speculate that within a few years, lectures will simply disappear. Yet despite all of the new and technology-enabled methods for delivering learning materials and programs, our own focus groups and polling in chemistry suggest students still value the lecture. Late last year  ~500 first year chemistry students were polled to gain their perceived value of face-to-face classes. Not surprisingly, our small group tutorials are very popular, but what did surprised us was how popular our lectures are. Students clearly see lectures as playing an important role in their learning, whether they attend in person, or watch and listen to a recording elsewhere, at a time of their choosing. In contrast, our more interactive 'workshops' did not rate as highly.

"I found lectures/workshops/tutorials to be an effective way to learn about chemistry."

So if lectures are here to stay … If we are to accept lectures are valued by students, maybe we don’t need to change anything? Maybe 50 minutes of Me talk. You listen. is enough? Personally, I don’t buy that. The way that the modern student engages with information is changing, and technology is enabling us to do some cool things in the classroom (eg. clickers, digital inking, class polling, snap quizzes). In chemistry, we have been bringing back the ‘lost art’ of demonstrations, which at some point got phased out to squeeze in that extra couple of PowerPoint slides! I'm not suggesting we all have to be circus performers, but we should be thinking outside the box, and looking for the best way to engage our students' minds for that 50 minutes.

Perhaps more importantly, a lecturer is a human being. I think students like the fact that a real person fronts up and shares their knowledge in a large, group forum. They deliver expert knowledge, share their research, tell their nerdy jokes and anecdotes, and students identify with that. And with that I urge my lecturing colleagues to embrace their own style and approach, whether that is by using carefully crafted PowerPoint slides, by digitally inking a tablet, or by sporting a bucket of chalk in Theatre S13. Oh, and have fun - it's infectious.
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