This was written as part of a course I am taking (“Teaching in Higher Education”). The task was to write a reflection on my own teaching experiences. Figured I might as well publish all the reflections from the course here.
As a student, I never liked lectures. I guess that has partly been because I have had very few inspiring lecturers, and so a lecture has for me always been associated with someone reiterating the material that was already in the course literature, while standing in front of badly written powerpoint slides. Thinking back, I can recall a few interesting lectures, but most of them have not been given in a formal teaching context, but rather at conferences or other setting that have not been associated with “teaching” in my mind.
One would think that having this experience, I would jump at the opportunity to create really good lectures when given the chance to hold one myself. However, more often than not, I have not had the motivation to do this, and have given, at best, mediocre lectures in my own opinion. I think there are several reasons for this. One is that the material I have been teaching, and the settings I have done so in, have mostly been driven by outside motivations (i.e., something I have had to do, not something I have wanted to do). But I do not believe this is the only reason; rather, it has something to do with the lecture format as well.
In my own learning, I have always been partial to written texts. Because for general purpose dissemination, the precision inherent in (good) writing is important, especially in technical subjects. Mathematics and programming are of course the ultimate examples of the need to put things in writing in a very precise sense, but in general well-written text that lays out a subject well provides clarity that is hard to achieve in the lecture format. A text also means you can skip and go back at will, and the bandwidth is higher than in oral communication, and can be easily adjusted to your own pace of learning.
The main advantages of oral presentations are the interactions that occur naturally in this medium, because of the shorter round-trip time between speaker and audience (compared to a written text). Group discussions, drilling down into points that are not well understood, getting other people’s perspective all contribute to learning. However, this is difficult to achieve in the lecture format; especially as the audience increases in size.
Another problem with the lecture format is that it is inherently a format where the lecturer decides the content. This encourages passiveness in the students, who do not actively have to decide what it is they need to learn. While this is appropriate for pupils in primary and secondary education, it is entirely inappropriate at the university level, where students are supposed to take responsibility for their own learning and not sit passively and wait for knowledge to be poured into their heads. The Swedish university system is in general pretty bad at this; education programmes are structured as pre-defined package deals, at best with a few courses along the way that the students can choose themselves. It’s not that I do not appreciate the value of a more experienced teacher guiding a student in picking the essential subject matter, but it should be just that: guidance, with the motivation and planning being ultimately in the hands of the student.
So what is to be done? In my mind, the use of lectures should be limited to the absolute minimum, and it should always be considered if another form of dissemination is better. When lectures are used, their purpose should be to inspire and encourage the student to seek knowledge on their own. And the main part of the teaching process should be dedicated to the teacher guiding the students through their own learning, by answering questions and clearing up doubt and ambiguities. Doing this in practice is difficult, but then who said teaching should be easy?