Unlectures

I’ve been thinking about over structured lectures quite a bit lately.  Actually I may just be getting truly sick of powerpoint, and be contemplating rebellion.  I get that providing some kind of outline to the lecture is helpful in the production of good notes to revise from, but its also so difficult to incorporate interactive elements and for some topics, interest.

A little background on technology.  I’m using a tablet PC in lectures so can record, permanently, any/all notes taken, and I can ‘clean it up’ after the fact if necessary.  I’m also recording my lectures so can provide MP3 format files of my side of the discussion/talking.  I refuse to use the chalk boards provided in one lecture hall, mainly because I don’t want chalk dust in the fan of my computer. Or on my trousers.  I go a little loopy if required to use an interactive whiteboard, mainly because the damn things are seldom aligned properly and I cant write 5 cm from where the text is appearing.

During my postdoc I did a course on course design, and some of the activities discussed were very ‘unlecture’ in format.  Things like dividing topics up and asking groups of students to research small parts and report back to the class later in the session or at the next session.  I can see that you’d have to have good guidelines (perhaps questions?) to get the students to engage with this fully, and you’d have to have a reasonably outgoing and interactive class.  There were other activities in the course that I couldn’t see working.  For example, the chemistry that I teach has no great controversies so a decision line (where people line up across the room and try to work out where their viewpoint fits in between two extremes) wouldn’t really be appropriate.  Should I ever teach anything on the ethics of how to clean glassware, I’ll be sure to use it.

Many ‘unlecture’ formats simply would not work in the lecture theaters.  It is, uhm, difficult sometimes to get a class to pay appropriate attention and make suitable notes.  The number of students who show up to lectures without a pen and piece of paper is a little alarming. It is more difficult to get students to engage in meaningful discussion, getting suitable participation and keeping on topic is challenging for everyone in the room.  Again though, chemistry and science in general doesn’t leave too much open for discussion.  I tried recording a discussion session with students but found that the important points were lost (even with repetition from me) in the growing background chatter of the room.  Perhaps that’s more a question of training and familiarity though – it was the first time I had tried that, and possibly the first time the students had been invited to participate extensively –  second time round it could be easier.

Now that the PowerPoint are written though, teaching prep takes less time.  I could view this in two ways.  It could be an opportunity to investigate some of these other activities and try to incorporate them into the sessions.  It could also be an opportunity to do some of the other tasks that are lurking around my desk on any given day.  Things like grant writing, research, paper writing…  A trade-off I hear you say? When has it ever been anything else?

5 thoughts on “Unlectures

  1. There’s a big collection of ideas for interactive lectures (and other teaching activities) here: http://serc.carleton.edu/sp/library/pedagogies.html. The site was designed originally for geoscientists, but the teaching techniques could be modified for a lot of other disciplines.

    Also, do you know about the “clicker” technology that a lot of physicists (especially in the US) are using? I’ve seen some very effective lectures (especially on quantitative topics) that integrate clickers with powerpoint. (I teach 40-ish intro classes, and didn’t like the clickers for those, but I’ve seen them used effectively by other people.)

  2. Thanks Kim, nice resource. I was at University of British Columbia around the time they got Carl Wieman to join them – heard him talk a few times about clickers/voting systems and lectures. It seemed interesting but there were a few issues with reducing the quantity of course content to incorporate those features. Its hard when course content is dictated to you. We’re contemplating getting some but to make the initial investment worthwhile, as many staff as possible have to agree to use/try them.

  3. We (I say “we”) use the clickers and they have almost become mandatory. Useful in moderation, two questions per hour maximum and it can be used to keep a track on attendance, which is problematic in large classes. I’m not interested in them myself as I tend to have smaller classes to deal with. I was somewhat pointedly asked by one of the admin “assistants” why I wasn’t using clickers, my response was, “I would rather have a conversation with my class and interact with them.” A blank look followed. This dogmatic approach of “thou shalt use technique X for teaching” just doesn’t work, and you have hit the nail on the head here. It is horses for courses.

    Some of the topics I teach have great scope for discussion* and I only really use powerpoint as a framework on which to hang the rest of the lecture. My problem is getting the main ideas to stay locked in the brain of the students.

    *I am not sure that my lot fully appreciate the Jacques Derrida-inspired deconstrucivist discussion about how you represent structure and bonding…”yes but what do those lines actually mean? What actually is a single bond…?”

  4. @Calvinus If you use them to track attendance, I’m guessing each student gets one for the whole year? I think thats more initial investment…

    I’ve got smaller classes that I’d rather converse with, but trying to get that conversation going has been a painful process that has largely failed this year. Discussion about certain aspects of spectroscopy and chemistry in general is difficult, keeping the main ideas in their brains even harder 😉

  5. I too have smaller classes and the quality/quantity of discussion is hugely variable from year to year. That said, there are things that can be done. I was teaching IR with a snooker cues and elastic bands. If it doesn’t go well, you can always use the fat end for coercion 😀

    Not sure how you would make statistical thermodynamics interesting, mind.

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