By Marcia Devlin
The research around university learning and teaching shows that didactic teaching and passive reception do not result in deep, lasting or meaningful learning for most students. It is curious, then, that despite knowing this, we persist with lecturing at students in large groups in most universities. Worse, one of the most common lecturing practices is to ‘stand and deliver’ notes and/or PowerPoint slides.
It is important to acknowledge that lectures probably worked as a form of teaching for many academics – who were, as students, particularly intellectually able, intrinsically motivated and keenly focused and clear on their educational and vocational goals, that is, to continue to pursue knowledge throughout their career through research and teaching. But it is equally important to acknowledge that this approach is not effective for the majority of students, who go on to fill other roles and pursuits outside of academia. The challenge is that the lecture persists and is assumed to be the basis of effective teaching practice when it may or may not be, depending on the student and context.
If you doubt my argument, take the time to stand at the back of a typical lecture theatre (if many – or any – students have turned up at all past Week 5) and scan the students’ screens. You’ll see Facebook, Messenger and other social media channels getting a good workout, along with search engines and search terms that may or may not be related to the lecture topic. That kind of workout happens much less often in smaller classes where the teaching is interactive and the students are co-creating their learning through being engaged and active.
It should be said that not all lecturing is bad. A lecture hall can be led by a gifted, enthusiastic, well organised teacher with outstanding communication skills, who builds and maintains rapport, shows respect for students and their learning, engages all present in activities and critical thinking, enables collaborative approaches to problem solving within the class, provides stimulus for deep thinking during and after the lecture, makes concepts come alive through examples and the use of various media, provides ‘aha’ moments for those in the room, and so on.
The challenge is that the vast majority of lecturing is not like that, which is why students generally don’t bother coming and instead either watch it online (at double speed – ask a current student) or skip the class altogether.
At Victoria University (VU) in Melbourne, Australia, we are acutely aware of the massification of higher education, the worldwide widening participation movement and the increased student diversity that this brings. We know that students’ lives are increasingly characterised by multiple and competing priorities in a distracting and at times overwhelming digital context. We understand that students want personalised, flexible learning opportunities that enable them to manage their multiple work, family, social and other commitments outside of university, while getting the most out of the financial and time investments they have made in study.
With all of this in mind, VU has radically and successfully reimagined our approach to learning and teaching by drawing on the evidence base of what works. We have, therefore, done away with large, passive lectures in first and second year and will do the same in third year in 2020. We have replaced semester-long units of study with a structure where students focus on and study one unit at a time over an intensive four-week period, in small classes of no more than 30 students, and through active, engaged, collaborative and deep learning with their teacher and fellow students. This is supplemented by both high quality online materials and wrap around, just in time, study and learning support. We call this The VU Way.
The focus is on the individual learner and their success. The impact has been extraordinary, with pass rates, grade distributions and retention dramatically improving in the units where this model has been introduced in both first and second year. This approach helps us address both our promise to be the University of Opportunity and Success, and the increasing accountability inherent in measurements of teaching and learning and in performance-based funding being introduced in Australian higher education. We hope that this approach and its extraordinary successes in terms of learning will continue to help us be competitive in a global tertiary education marketplace where transnational and globalised approaches to education are growing.
As the Australian economy moves, albeit very slowly, from a reliance on mining and manufacturing, to a new era in which new knowledge and ideas are precious commodities, universities have a critical role to play. Internationally, the role of universities is even more important as innovation, the transformation of businesses, technology and access to knowledge and education take place amid prevailing inequalities, political tensions, environmental challenges and huge economic changes.
While we tend to revere research that creates new knowledge in universities – and there is good reason to do so – we are significantly less enthusiastic about sharing that new (and existing) knowledge through our other core business of teaching. We need to be cognisant of the tendency to chase the prestige of research at the cost of effort and resource being put into university teaching quality and into university teachers.
Sharing knowledge more effectively
Many universities will be hesitant to move away from traditional modes of learning and teaching. Institutional culture, an undervaluing of teaching compared to research and the effort and the volume and breadth of the resources required to make a major transformational change in learning and teaching all probably play a part in the sector’s reluctance to significantly change teaching practices.
Of course, there are many alternatives to didactic, PowerPoint-driven stand-and-deliver lecturing that are currently used across the sector to great effect by individual teachers and teaching teams, including:
- Blended learning, incorporating the integration of modern and interactive eLearning;
- Flipped classrooms;
- Problem-based learning;
- Work-integrated and work-based learning of a wide range of types;
- Simulations and other opportunities to develop practical skills; and
- Collaborative approaches to constructing and sharing knowledge, incorporating multidisciplinary contributions from: internal colleagues (‘peeragogy’); external MOOCs; industry educational offerings; and formal recognition of prior and concurrent student real-life learning outside the classroom.
Much of what I have listed in this incomplete list will be familiar to many. There is, of course, significant innovation and outstanding teaching practice going on in pockets of the sector by individuals and small and larger teams. However, VU is the only tertiary institution in Australia to completely throw out the old way – including lectures – and truly transform university teaching and learning.
The VU Way won’t suit all institutions, and for those who would benefit from using it, the change may simply be too hard (it is certainly very hard). What is important is that the approaches to teaching used in universities must align and keep pace with the disrupted and changing contexts in which university education takes place and with the changing needs and preferences of students.
The lecture has never been recognised as the best way for the modern university student cohorts to learn. As the global, digital and societal upheavals we are experiencing continue, and we begin to see more examples of ‘the student-free lecture’ where no-one but the well-meaning, well-prepared lecturer turns up, the lecture as the staple approach to university teaching should probably start to go the way of the once ubiquitous handwritten overhead transparency. Both have probably had their day.
Professor Marcia Devlin is Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Victoria University, Australia and a Fellow of SRHE. An earlier version of this article appeared in Campus Review in September, 2019.