A discussion of the purpose and styles of university lectures

Published: 2019/11/28 Number of words: 4022

The purpose of lectures
Lectures are a critical part of a student’s learning experience and so merit our attention. They are the most common method of teaching and disseminating academic information to students and are likely to remain so for many years to come. According to Brown and Manogue (2001), lectures are potentially an economical and efficient method of conveying information to large groups of students. A lecture is one of the most effective physical platforms to connect large numbers of students with their academic community.

Lectures can provide an entrée into a difficult topic, different perspectives and opinions on a tough subject and a forum to productively engage students’ mind on various research interests and topics, relevant to their individual experiences and careers.

Lectures can facilitate the process of thought provocation, critical thinking and analytical assessments of various topics in the students’ academic curricula. Lectures can provide a hint on how to learn a new topic, procedure or process. This in turn develops students into thinking professionals who can carry out highly analytical and result- oriented independent research.

Research carried out in the last 70 years at different periods and under various circumstances by Spence (1928), McLeish (1976) Dunkin (1983 and 1986), Brown (1987), Brown and Atkins (1988 and 1997) and Bligh (2000) all suggest that lectures are as effective at presenting information and providing explanations as other methods of teaching.

The basic styles of lectures
Brown and Manogue (2001) describe styles as habitual sets of responses to situations perceived as similar. Every lecturer has at least one style of lecturing which is used as regularly as possible in conveying valuable information to students. Others have discriminating styles which conform to different class and student characteristics, and decisions on which styles to use are based on the lecturer’s discretion. But, most importantly, the goal is to administer the lecture with the best style that will meet the aims and objectives of the session.

Brown and Bakhtar (1987) identified five broad styles of lecturing through cluster analysis of the responses of lecturers to an inventory and then confirmed by direct observation.

Oral Presenters: This style of lecturer rarely uses any other form of communicating other than talking. They are the least likely to employ the services of multimedia systems and writing board facilities to outline main points during lectures.

They are less likely to provide full notes to students and more likely to use a number of texts as references for their subjects.

Visual Information Givers: This type of lecturer is quite confident in using multimedia projector systems, black board facilities and other relevant audio- visual aids to provide full and detailed information to students in the class. They use diagrams, charts, graphs and other pictorial depictions to show relationships and linkages between concepts and theories for effective student learning. They also provide students with sufficient time to copy down complex diagrams.

Exemplary Performers: These lecturers are highly structured, organised and able presenters who use a wide variety of oral and visual techniques to convey information to students. When preparing lectures, this is the group that is most likely to write down headings, subheadings and brief notes rather than whole lectures. They think about, write down and tell the students the objectives of each lecture, and they inform the students in advance of the lecture topics.

Eclectic Lecturers: This category uses a variety of styles, including humour, but lacks confidence in their approach and are often disorganized. They are prone to digressing from the contents of their notes because, when preparing lectures, this group admits to having difficulty in selecting and structuring materials. They tend to write down headings, subheadings and brief notes rather than full lecture notes and they are likely to use more than one text as a source for their lectures.

Amorphous Talkers: This category consists of the over-confident types who are confident but are often ill-prepared for lectures. They forget to inform students about the objectives of their lectures and practically ignore the essential strategies of lecturing.

Limitation of lectures
Like any other methods of teaching, lectures do have limitations. They can sometimes be boring and, worse, useless if they are not achieving the purpose and objectives of the study at hand. If all lecturers do is to provide a detailed coverage of a textbook with loads of relevant and irrelevant information then students would gain more from reading a textbook on their own without any form of lecture. A rich diversity of teaching methods is necessary to avoid boredom in the classroom.

By and large, lectures do not usually provide evidence of students’ understanding and knowledge at a deeper cognitive level – that is explored in seminars, practical work and assessment tasks. Ultimately, lectures can induce passivity and compliance. But they are not necessarily passive modes of learning or authoritarian modes of teaching.

The key features of a lecture
Students learn from lectures by listening, observing, summarising and note-taking. Baddeley (1996) identified four key features of lecturing, derived from studies of human information processing. Its key features are: intention, transmission, receipt of information and output.

According to Baddeley (1996), the lecturer’s intention may be based on the broad purposes of coverage, understanding and motivation.

Sometimes the intentions are well manifested in the language and voice of the lecturer, at other times they are innate and simply displayed in the content of the notes and materials given in the class. The students’ intentions may be based on the broad purposes of note- taking, acquiring information, deepening understanding and developing interest. (They may also have other intentions in attending lectures.)

Because of a high likelihood of confusions of intentions, it may be appropriate to spend time in exploring with students what their intentions are for any lecture so that an effective style to accommodate such intention can be adopted.

Lecturers send messages verbally, non-verbally and through the use of audio- visual aids. The verbal messages may consist of statements of objectives, definitions, descriptions of signs and symptoms, examples, exceptions, explanations or comments. The ‘extra-verbal’ component is the lecturer’s vocal qualities, hesitations, stumbles, speech errors and use of pauses. A lecturer has the responsibility to transform appropriate and high- quality information as failure to do this may convey messages that only distort the main message students are interested in hearing.

What students perceive is essential to the function of what they already know and what they actually want to know. Students’ attention usually fluctuates and it is difficult for lecturers to make students maintain the same level of focus and attention throughout the duration of a one-hour lecture. After 20 minutes there is a marked decline in attention followed by a peak of attention just before the lecture ends (Biggs, 1999; Bligh, 2000).

More important than the immediately observable responses to a lecture are the long-term changes in attitudes and understanding which may occur in a student. Outputs are not only a set of notes that may be understood and, if necessary, restructured and learnt, they also consist of reactions to the lecture and the lecturer. It is likely that a student’s attitude towards a subject and towards lecture methods is influenced markedly by the quality of lecturing he or she experiences as well as by the student’s own personality characteristics.

Skills of lecturing and presentation
George and Manogue (2001) identified ten practical skills necessary for delivering an effective lecture. In a simple model to represent how students learn from lectures, George and Manogue argue that students learn by listening, observing, summarising and note-taking. Their work describes a model for developing the best combination of skills for lecturing and they identified a process consisting of intention, transmission, receipt and output phases which are the key features of this model.

Developing a particular lecturing skill and improving on it increases the effectiveness of lecturing but, as in all practical tasks, it is useful to identify the skill that, if improved, is likely to have the greatest consequential effects. Improvements in preparing lectures and in explaining are likely to have the maximum impact on students.

George and Manogue identified the following as the key skills for delivering an effective lecture.

  • Preparation
  • Opening
  • Explaining
  • Presenting information
  • Narrating
  • Comparing and Contrasting
  • Design and use of audio- visual aids
  • Responsiveness to the audience
  • Varying student activity
  • Summarising

Preparing lectures: Although there is no specific study on one best way for lecturers to prepare their lectures, studies of teaching in schools shows that there is a strong relationship between subject knowledge and teaching competence (Bennett and Carre, 1993). Successful teachers plan, not by deducing methods from objectives, but by taking account of student understanding, other student characteristics and the resources available.

In the absence of tangible empirical research, lecturers have to depend on experience and incorporate all the necessary ingredients of lecturing such as purpose, content, organisation and the use of audio-visual aids.

Purpose of lectures: It is now very important to state the purpose and aims of a lecture (learning outcomes) and to state them to students at the beginning of any lecture. There is a danger of specifying too detailed a set of objectives which then become a straitjacket rather than a guide.

Equally dangerous is to have no clear purpose so one presents a set of ambiguous findings.

Content of lectures: Selecting the most appropriate content that fits the purpose of a lecture is not an easy task. It is actually more beneficial to the students to explain, to provide understanding, than to report detailed findings. Too much content militates against learning. Evidence reviewed by Bligh (2000) shows that students recall and understand better presentations that are based on essential principles and a little detail than those containing much detail.

Explaining: Explaining is the key skill in lecturing and one of the two
most important skills in teaching (the other is questioning). Common types of explanations in lectures are Interpretive, Descriptive and Reason-giving. These correspond roughly to ‘What?’, ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’ Together with explanations based on ‘When?’ and ‘Where?’ they may be used to quickly assemble a framework for a lecture, an explanation or a talk.

Improving clarity: Clear explanations are upon knowing precisely what one wishes to explain to whom, transmitting the explanation and checking, when possible, whether the explanation has been understood. According to Land, (1985) and Brophy and Good (1986), effective explanations use names and labels rather than pronouns, precise pointing at diagrams and naming of parts, simple definitions, simple sentences, emphases of key points, apt examples, guiding images, metaphors, analogies, repetition and paraphrasing of key points and clear transitions from one subtopic to the next.

Generating interest: The key to generating interest is expressiveness supported by the use of examples, a narrative mode of explaining and
the stimulation of curiosity. All of the features can raise levels of arousal and attention and thereby increase the probability of learning from lectures.
Brown and Atkins (1997) argue that interest in a subject is more likely to influence students’ attitudes towards the subject than marked changes in achievements. Expressiveness includes enthusiasm, friendliness,
humour, a conversational style, dynamism and even charisma. It is based largely on eye contact, gesture, body movement, facial expression, vocal inflection and choice of vocabulary.

Persuasion: Persuasion is the basis of attitude change. The order and
qualities of presentation do have an effect on an audience so one might as well be aware of the processes and use them to good effect. In lecturing, persuasion depends in large measure on the use of rhetoric. Atkinson (1984) and Cockcroft & Cockcroft (1992) provide analyses of rhetorical devices. Of these, the most relevant to lecturing are the use of pairs of contrasting
statements, asking rhetorical questions then pausing, the use of triple statements, pausing before important points, summarising with punch lines and the use of powerful metaphors and analogies.

Design and use of audio-visual aids: The design and use of audio-visual aids share features with explaining. Their primary purpose is to increase clarity and interest and thereby improve understanding. Broadly speaking, aids may be used to confirm and reinforce the main points of a lecture, as an explanatory device in their own right, as an exemplar or as a stimulus for discussion and thought. Visual aids should be easy to see and audio aids easy to hear. Audio-visual aids have been shown to improve learning in higher education but some of the findings may be due to novelty effects (Clark & Salomon, 1986).

Audio-visual aids: Audio-recordings, video-recordings and films can be effective ways of developing understanding but their excessive use can
induce sleep. One should indicate which features of the aid should be attended to. If possible, one should pose questions (advanced organisers) for the students to answer whilst watching the audio-visual materials, give them an opportunity to discuss briefly the materials and then summarise the main
points and link them to the relevant parts of the lecture.

Visual aids: Most lecturers know that visual presentation of key processes, procedures and information deepens understanding of the topic for both lecturer and student. Illustrations, diagrams, bullet points and summaries
should be simple, brief and readable from the back of the class.

Handouts: The larger the group, the more important handouts become. There are five types and each has advantages and disadvantages. Outlines provide a one-page summary of the lecture and some annotated key references. Interactive handouts contain skeletal notes and diagrams that the students have to complete during the lecture. These can be reduced versions of the slides or transparencies used, with space for the students to write their own notes. Key information handouts provide complex diagrams, references, quotations, formulae, proofs, etc.

Full handouts are virtually a transcript of the lecture. Unfortunately, many students assume if they have the handout in their files, they have the knowledge in their heads. Tasks and problems handouts state the tasks or problems that are to be used in the lecture so that students do not have to refer to the slide or transparency that the lecturer is using. Evidence from experimental studies (Hartley, 1994) and experienced lecturers suggest that interactive handouts are better than comprehensive handouts for aiding recall and understanding.
Source: Adapted from Brown and Manogue (2001).

Generic student audience: Learning approaches
Approaches to learning generally focus on what students do when they go about learning and why they do it. It focuses on identifying and understanding how to broadly categorize a student’s approach to learning when present in any lecture environment. The basic distinction is between a deep approach to learning, where students are aiming towards understanding, and a surface approach to learning, where they are aiming to reproduce material in a test or exam rather than actually understand it.

The original work on approaches to learning was carried out by Marton and Saljo (1976). Their study explored students’ approaches to learning a particular task. Students were given an academic text to read, and were told that they would subsequently be asked questions on that text. The students adopted two differing approaches to learning. The first group adopted an approach where they tried to understand the whole picture and tried to comprehend and understand the academic work.

These students were identified with adopting a deep approach to learning. The second group tried to remember facts contained within the text, identifying and focusing on what they thought they would be asked later. They demonstrated an approach that we would recognize as rote learning, or a superficial, surface approach. Source: The Higher Education Academy, UK.

The deep approach to learning
Simply stated, deep learning involves the critical analysis of new ideas, linking them to already known concepts and principles, and leads to understanding and long-term retention of concepts so that they can be used for problem solving in unfamiliar contexts. Students are strongly encouraged to adopt an approach that promotes a deeper cognitive learning experience.

Ramsden (1988 cited by Morgan 1993) has summarised the aspects evident in the learner, according to each approach. Firstly, the deep approach correlates with an intention to understand. Specifically there is a focus on what is signified, for example: the author’s arguments; there is the occurrence of relation and distinction between new ideas and previous knowledge; the relation of concepts to everyday experience; the organisation and structuring of content and an internal emphasis on learning, including the idea that learning helps the learner construct their view of reality. These aspects suggest a subject- focused approach with learning having an intrinsic value for the learner.

Deep learning ultimately promotes understanding and application for life and students are able to retain and put to use a higher percentage of what they learnt during their academic experience.

Specifically the deep approach to learning offers a better form of sustainable learning experience and is characterized by the following:

  • it looks for meaning, focusing on the central argument or concepts needed to solve a problem;
  • it promotes active interaction, distinguishing between argument and evidence;
  • it makes connections between different modules;
  • it relates new and previous knowledge;
  • it links course contents to real life;
  • emphasis is internal, from within the students.

Encouraging a deep approach to learning
Biggs (1999), Prosser and Trigwell (1999) and Ramsden (1992) identified proactive measures that can encourage an institutionalized approach to entrenching and encouraging a deeper cognitive learning culture among students. These were reflected in the report the Institute for Interactive Media and Learning, Sydney, Australia. According to the writers the given steps can greatly enhance the process described above and it will ultimately engage students to learn in a more robust and result- oriented academic environment.

  • Designing assessment which rewards students for understanding, making connections, etc.
  • Encouraging active engagement with learning tasks, e.g., students are engaged in inquiry or creative production, explore complex issues, problems or case studies of practice.
  • Bringing out the structure of the subject explicitly and encouraging students to make connections with (or challenge) what they already know.
  • Giving students opportunities to discuss, debate and compare their understandings with each other and with the teaching staff.
  • Giving students opportunities to gain qualitative feedback, especially but not only on their assessed work, rather than just giving marks or grades.
  • Giving students reasonable opportunities to make reasonable choices about what and how they will learn.
  • Aligning learning objectives, teaching and learning approaches and assessment to assist students to achieve the learning goals.
  • Helping students to perceive clear goals and standards for learning.
  • Designing the subject in a way which matches students’ prior knowledge and learning skills and helps students to develop further.
  • Using student-focused teaching approaches which emphasize changes in student understanding, and help students to become aware of critical differences between their prior understandings about the subject matter and new understandings or ideas which the subject is seeking to develop.
  • Teaching in ways which encourage students’ intrinsic interest – showing your enthusiasm.

The surface approach to learning
In contrast to deep learning,surface learning is the tacit acceptance of information and memorization as isolated and unlinked facts. It leads to superficial retention of material for examinations and does not promote understanding or long-term retention of knowledge and information.

According to Lublin (2003) students who take a surface approach tend not to have the primary intention of becoming interested in and of understanding the subject, but rather their motivation tends to be that of jumping through the necessary hoops in order to acquire the mark, or the grade, or the qualification.

Why do students take a surface approach?
According to Biggs (1999), Prosser and Trigwell (1999) and Ramsden (1992) students often adopt a surface approach to learning because:

  • assessment rewards students for taking a surface approach – e.g., exams can be passed through the rote learning of facts or lists of information;
  • students do not receive adequate feedback on their progress;
  • the subject is taught in a way which does not make clear its overall structure or the connections between topics, so it is harder for students to make these connections;
  • the subject does not take students’ prior knowledge into account, so students are not able to engage meaningfully;
  • the subject contains too much content for the time available – lots of topics are covered but there is little time to engage with new material more deeply;
  • teaching is teacher-focused and emphasizes transmission of information;
  • teaching encourages cynicism, anxiety or other negative feelings about the subject.

Discouraging a surface approach
The Institute for Interactive Media and Learning at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia, using the works of Biggs (1999), Prosser and Trigwell (1999) and Ramsden (1992), identified four broad approaches to discouraging a surface approach to learning, which are:

  • Matching the level of the subject and the pace at which it is presented with students’ prior knowledge. Because of the uses of surface approaches to learning in previous subjects, many students will not have the expected prior knowledge at the start of a subject.
  • Ensuring that assessment tasks are aligned with the desired learning response (e.g., reduce success for rote recall of theories and facts and the chance for question spotting). If students believe assessments are just machinery for deriving grades, they will jump the hoops and in return they will get their qualifications. A deep approach is excluded.
  • Keeping the workload to a level that allows students the wider exploration of ideas and the development of interest that characterizes deep approaches to learning.
  • Matching actual and desired administrative requirements (e.g., does the system punish late submission more than it punishes error?).

References and Bibliography
BADDELEY, A. (1996) Your Memory: A User’s Guide. Harmondsworth, Penguin.

BIGGS, J. (1987) Student Approaches to Learning and Studying. Hawthorn, Vic: Australian Council for Educational Research.

BIGGS, J. (1993) What do inventories of students’ learning process really measure? A theoretical review and clarification. Brit. J. Ed. Psych. vol 83 pp. 3–19.

BIGGS, J. and TANG, C. (2007) Teaching for Quality Learning at University. (3rd ed) Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

BRADFORD, K. (2001) A paper on the Deep and Surface Approaches to Learning and the Strategic Approach to Study in Higher Education; based on Phenomenographic Research.

BROWN, G. A. & BAKHTAR, M. (1987) Styles of lecturing: a study and its implications, Research Papers in Education, 3, pp. 131–153.

BROWN, G. & MANOGUE, M. (2001) AMEE Medical Education Guide No 2, Refreshing Lecturing: A guide for lecturers, University of Nottingham, UK.

CLAXTON G (1998) Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind; why intelligence increases when you think less London; Fourth Estate

ENTWISTLE, N. (1981) Styles of Learning and Teaching; an integrated outline of educational psychology for students, teachers and lecturers Chichester: John Wiley (0 471 10013 7).

LUBLIN, J. (2003) Centre for Teaching and Learning, Good practice in Teaching and Learning, Deep Surface and Strategic Approaches to Learning.

MARTON, F. and SÄLJÖ (1976) On Qualitative Differences in Learning — 1: Outcome and Process Brit. J. Educ. Psych. 46, pp. 4–11.

RAMSDEN, P. (1992) Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge (0-415-06415-5).

RAMSDEN, P., BESWICK, D. and BOWDEN, J. (1989) Effects of Learning Skills Intervention on First Year Students’ Learning Human Learning 5: pp. 151–64.

SÄLJÖ, R. (1979) Learning in the Learner’s Perspective: 1: some commonplace misconceptions. Reports from the Institute of Education, University of Gothenburg, 76.

The Institute for Interactive Media and Learning at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia: http://www.iml.uts.edu.au/index.html

The Higher Education Academy, UK (http://www.engsc.ac.uk/learning-and-


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