Does the traditional lecture still have a role in modern university teaching?

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In this post, Dr Richard Milne, a Senior Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology in the School of Biology, reflects on the role of the lecture in higher education today…

I recently received an invite to a workshop on course design, as part of a wider redesign of the curriculum for biology students. It was full of terms like ‘quecture’ and ‘flipped lecture’, reflecting a move towards making students more active in their learning, and a broader drive (which I fully support) towards increasing the teaching of skills. But it made me wonder, is there still a place for the simple, traditional lecture?

I must declare an interest here: lectures are the part of my job that I most enjoy, and, judging by my success in the teaching awards, students like my lectures too. To describe my lectures as “traditional” may be pushing it a bit, given my regular use of jokes, and powerpoints containing silly animations with guest appearances from Daleks and minor celebrities. Despite this, I don’t see what I do as very different from predecessors like the legendary (at least to those he taught) Dr Philip Smith, who simply stood and spoke brilliantly for 50 minutes, without any visual aids. It’s a traditional form of teaching that goes back centuries, but is that a good thing? One of my own lecturers when I was an undergrad used to mutter grumpily that lectures were a “medieval form of information transfer”. So have they had their day?

In discussions with colleagues concerning a new first year course we are designing, all of us reached the same conclusion: the way to teach any given topic will depend on that topic. Anything that involves skills (be they mental or hands-on) should, of course, be taught by practical or workshop/tutorial, so those skills can be practised and honed. Moreover, where the key point to be taught is an understanding of a fundamental process, like evolution or genetic drift, some form of interactivity with the class is undoubtedly going to aid in teaching. Students will grasp the topic in different ways, and get stuck on different parts of it, when they need to grasp the whole for any of it to make full sense. A flipped lecture format allows the class to focus on clearing up these sticking points, clearing the way to full understanding for everyone. All these have the advantage that the students are actively engaged, and learning skills as they go along.

Richard being presented with the Van Heyningen Award for Teaching in Science and Engineering at the Students’ Association Teaching Awards 2019.

What advantage can a traditional lecture offer over such teaching methods? Perhaps the answer lies in other media: factual TV documentaries and books are still going strong despite the rise of interactive alternatives online. Why? Because they tell a story, and that remains a powerful method by which human minds absorb information. A good lecture likewise tells a story, and it follows that those topics that remain suited to teaching by lecture are those where there is a story to be told. If you want to teach how evolution works, a traditional lecture may not be the best way. But if you want to share the story of how we get from fish to mammals, or from algae to flowering plants, then a lecture is still a very good way to do it. Information comes in a linear fashion, and if, it’s done, right the student can go away with deep understanding of that part of the topic.

So, as we move forward with new technologies, new ideas, and new methods of teaching, let us keep our minds open to all modes of teaching, from the very new to the very old. Let us examine each topic and judge the best way to deliver it. Mixing traditional teaching with innovative approaches will bring welcome variety to a student’s week, and produce a balanced approach that will deliver the very best possible teaching.

Watch a short video about what Richard thinks makes a good teacher. 

Richard will be performing two shows at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, entitled Fake News Kills World. You can see more details and buy tickets from the Fringe website

Richard Milne

Dr Richard Milne is a Senior Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology, in the School of Biological Sciences. His research work primarily focuses on plant geography and evolution, but he has strong interests in science communication, critical thinking, and how changes in how we produce our food could lead to a more sustainable future. Dr Milne obtained his BSc at The University of Bristol in 1991, and then spent half a year on an expedition to S America examining plant diversity.  He completed his PhD at the University of St Andrews in 1997, and continued to work on various research projects there until he moved to Edinburgh in 2004.

Dr Milne’s lectures are extremely popular with undergraduate students, and he was voted Most Innovative Lecturer in 2009, then Best Overall Lecturer in 2010, and this year won the Van Heynigan award for teaching in Science and Engineering. He was also shortlisted for Bioscience Teacher of the Year in 2011.

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