Research vs Teaching Lectures

I was at a rather nice seminar the other night and as I was listening (and understanding a fair bit for once!), it did occur to me that much of each slide was probably obscure to those outwith the direct field.  Perhaps I only noticed because I’d spent most of the day on some lecture prep so was thinking about clarity on slides and including the key points.  It got me thinking about different types of lectures.

Obviously in undergraduate course, the key point of lectures is to convey information and define the scope of a course to enable students to cover relevant material when they study.  Carefully phrased that, because we could have quite a debate about the point at which students actually learn the material and hence whether lectures are about teaching (and causing learning), or conveying information.  Anyway, if you’re preparing a lecture, you take some care to ensure that everything on the slides is understandable and if not immediately so, will become understandable with a little work.  In that way, a lecture is a lot like a good documentary – it takes you through the necessary concepts steadily, building up the key points.

A research lecture is a different idea entirely.  Firstly the audience is far more varied and a certain level of suppositions is required to pitch the lecture correctly.  Secondly, the speaker is unlikely to please everyone with specialists wanting all the juicy details, and the PhD students only vaguely knowledgeable of the field requiring more tutoring in the key concepts.  Perhaps the speaker can’t win and shouldn’t try – everyone takes something away from the talk, even if just ideas on how to do a great presentation.  I almost feel like that’s more like watching the news on TV – things are reported, new concepts explained but the expected level of knowledge of each topic is probably higher.

Obviously I’m aware that both types of lectures are designed for different purposes, but should they really be so different?  Isn’t part of promoting ones research about making it accessible to a wider audience?  And there is a question of luxury – those who research in more obscure areas have to work harder to compel an audience than those who research in more accessible, ‘on the beaten track’ areas.  Isn’t part of publicity about teaching people why they need your ‘product’?

2 Replies to “Research vs Teaching Lectures”

  1. I’m assuming you’re referring to the seminar by that ‘well known solid state chemist’? I thought about posting something on a similar theme, and will do so later. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Interesting. Thanks. Thought you might be interested in this extract from our course documentation: “…many students at the start of their university careers misunderstand the role of lectures within the course and therefore don’t get the full benefit from them… Lectures are not the method by which you should expect to learn most of your factual information. …So what are the lectures for? Most of the lectures are intended to focus your mind, point you towards the topics you should be studying in detail through independent reading, and inspire your interest.

    Lectures are like the glue that fixes together the different parts of your learning, bringing ideas together to form a coherent understanding…”


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