The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

1.2 Inherent problems with the traditional lecture

Notwithstanding the apparent benefits detailed above, newer approaches to teaching and learning, such as problem-based learning, are increasingly being introduced on the grounds that, even for an equivalent investment of staff time, the learning outcomes of students are far improved. The use of techniques that aim to generate a greater amount of student involvement is of course nothing new. Tutorials, seminars and other variations on student-centred learning have long been used to complement lectures. However, the justification for abandoning or reducing the number of lectures on a course typically focuses on two criticisms: that lectures are a poor medium, first for conveying information and second for developing student understanding.

Conveying information to students

Are lectures an efficient means of conveying information to students? According to Miller (1956), the average number of items that can be held in short-term memory is 7 (±2). Therefore, if students do not have significant time to process new information one of two things happens, either previous information is displaced or the new information is lost. Lectures which proceed quickly simply do not give students sufficient time to process information. Similarly, the ability to concentrate for an hour or so while taking adequate notes is not something that can be taken for granted. Indeed, listening and note taking can be mutually exclusive activities, especially for more inexperienced students. It cannot be assumed that an hour-long lecture will result in an equivalent sum of learning taking place within a student’s head.

This problem can be compounded by the problems of a crowded curriculum. As new theories, research findings and policy initiatives emerge, space has to be found within the syllabus to accommodate them, and not always at the expense of existing content. If more and more content is crammed into a series of lectures it may encourage the lecturer to do little else but talk from the front from start to finish. The logical consequence of such practice is that the pace of lectures is forever quickening to ensure that the expanding syllabus is covered. A lecture could hardly be considered successful if it 'covered' the appropriate part of the syllabus and yet students retained little of what was said or were not guided in their private study.

Students are also more likely to remember information when it is structured in a logical fashion and if it is demonstrably meaningful to them. This again highlights the important of context to learning. Students need to comprehend why they are being taught what they are and how they will subsequently be assessed on it.

Developing student understanding

To judge the 'success' of a lecture, it is important to identify its intended learning outcomes. Learning outcomes are often specified in module or course descriptors or handbooks. However, caution should be exercised in judging the success of a lecture against them, since these parts of the documents have often been prepared to meet university or QAA requirements, and compliance in this process by lecturing staff does not necessarily mean that the specified learning outcomes are the most appropriate or are even the ones that the lecturer would choose to identify.

In addition, whilst a lecture's success should be judged in terms of what students gain from it, it does not follow that lectures which students consider successful are necessarily good lectures. Students may prefer lectures that allow them to take notes which can be used directly in preparing for examinations or other forms of assessment. If their objective is to maximise marks subject to a time constraint, or to minimise time commitment subject to achieving a target mark, then this will almost certainly be the case. Similarly, a lecture might be very entertaining, and for that reason popular with students, and yet be a poor learning medium for students. Students are also likely to show a preference for the teaching format they are familiar with, as is equally the case with lecturers.

Assessment is clearly an indicator of student learning and hence of the success of lectures. But even if it were possible to separate the contribution of lectures from other learning media to assessment performance, the assessment itself may not capture the extent to which students have acquired and developed an understanding of the subject matter. To gauge this it is necessary to consider a theory of learning first developed by Marton and Säljö (1976a, 1976b) and since elaborated by Ramsden (1992), Biggs (1987, 1993) and Entwistle (1981). In these studies an important distinction is made between surface, strategic and deep learners. Surface learners are characterised as focusing on memorising words, formulae and theories rather than building relationships and connections. Surface learning is encouraged by:

  • A heavy workload;
  • An excessive amount of course material;
  • A lack of independence;
  • Assessment methods that emphasise recall and create anxiety;
  • Poor or little feedback on progress;
  • A lack of interest in the subject.

Deep learners seek to relate theory to practice in a range of different contexts. They are able to organise their impressions into a coherent whole rather a set of disassociated facts or formulae. Deep learning is encouraged by:

  • Teaching methods that build on students' existing knowledge and experience
  • Active involvement by students in their learning
  • Students having choice over content and study methods;
  • Long-term engagement with the subject

Strategic learners will adopt whichever approach they believe will maximise their grades. If they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the form of the examination rewards memorisation of disparate facts, they will adopt a surface approach. If they believe that the examination will reward a holistic understanding of key ideas and how these apply in different circumstances they are more likely to adopt a deep approach.

Most students cannot be so readily pigeon holed, displaying characteristics from two or more categories at any one time and may change their preferences over time. Nonetheless, this theory exemplifies the potential shortcomings of a wholly didactic model where it is assumed that what is not said is not learnt. The purpose of this chapter is not to debate at length the merit of this model (further reading references are provided at the end), but to establish that the intention of any economics course should be more than simply to allow students to adopt surface-learning strategies that promote the accumulation of transient non-contextualised knowledge.

Finally there is the issue of the diversity of ability and prior experience of students. This is especially a problem at level 1, where lecture groups tend to be larger, where some students are new to the subject and others have A' level Economics and/or Maths or equivalent, and where exit routes can vary from Single Honours Economics degrees to degrees where no further economics will be studied beyond level 1. How can a traditional lecture cope with diversity? To which students should the lecture be pitched? What back-up support will be necessary for the weaker students and what additional learning activities will stretch the stronger students?