Higher Education: Don't just lecture me, teach me something: Eric MacFarlane sympathises with undergraduates' complaints

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BAD lecturing is one of the biggest barriers to quality in higher education, according to a two-year survey of attitudes to undergraduate learning, which will be published by the London Institute of Education. The institute has obtained responses from 3,500 lecturers and students who were asked to identify indicators of quality and then to assess their institutions against these indicators. Reluctance to encourage persistently poor teachers to resign was most often mentioned among a range of obstacles.

These findings are unlikely to come as a surprise to anyone working in higher education, least of all the consumers. Certainly, they confirm the impressions I have gained from talks with undergraduates from a range of subject backgrounds. They produce examples of particularly bad experiences.

Bottom of the heap is the slipshod and incompetent lecturer. Hesitant and ill at ease, this pedagogic pretender is habitually late to arrive and early to depart, presumably a deliberate strategy to curtail a task for which there is no commitment or enthusiasm. Faded notes, scruffy handouts and out-of-date overheads underline the general lack of effort. Unstructured and unprepared, the lecture carries no conviction. Frequent student objections and questions punctuate the presentation. The lecturer's responses are embarrassing: convoluted and contradictory explanations degenerate into muttered protestations that the point is of little consequence anyway - 'not something that you really need to know about'.

Equally ineffectual, if somewhat less reprehensible, is the real-life version of the professorial caricature. This is the scholar who combines a national, perhaps international, research reputation with a total inability to communicate. Voice and lecturing manner are as monotonous as a Sahara landscape. The material is pitched well beyond undergraduate understanding. Diagrams and illustrations are too complex and elaborate, overheads flash on to the screen with the speed of a cartoon animation.

Student response is blank incomprehension: much eye-raising, exchanged mouthings of bewilderment and hopeless shrugging of shoulders. No visible reaction by the lecturer, a remote and detached figure at the rostrum, eyes fixed on an unseen horizon. A few student questions eventually surface. Genuine bemusement greets the level of ignorance revealed. There follows a repetition of the material not understood. Same explanation; same pace; same non-communication.

The outcome is inevitable: the audience declines, then disappears; the absorbing world of the lecturer's research reclaims sole proprietorship.

Not all bad lecturers are incompetents. Some exude confidence and self-importance. Arriving briskly, these people begin their lecture on the move and are quickly firing on all cylinders. They pick up at the precise point at which they broke off their previous monologue, assuming complete student recollection and mastery of earlier work. The urgent manner and high-speed delivery are a constant reminder of the importance of 'getting through the syllabus': one senses that anyone delaying this process - by asking a question, for example - will receive short shrift.

Audience control is impressive. Any sign of inattentiveness is immediately detected and stifled with a frown of impatience. 'I appreciate that you'd prefer to be elsewhere,' appears to be the message. 'So would I. But since you've opted for this course and it's my misfortune to have to take it, perhaps you'd be good enough to pay attention.'

At the end of their presentation these lecturers depart as briskly as they arrived, to pursue a punishing schedule of other commitments that leaves them incommunicado until the following week's lecture.

The catalogue of lecturing inadequacies was depressing. It was, however, balanced by equally detailed descriptions of staff who gained widespread respect, even admiration. The most popular lecturers are those who, regardless of age, have a genuine interest in students and their perspective on the world. They are never too busy to listen and can hold their own, over a coffee or pint, on most topics of student conversation. In the lecture theatre they are natural communicators, with a relaxed style of presentation that avoids jargon and academic pretentiousness.

This type of lecturer has often worked outside education and uses this wider experience to good effect. In small group situations discussion flows easily and a range of strategies encourages the more self-effacing students to join in. Even in the formal lecture, where the group is much larger, students are constantly invited to engage directly with the subject - to jot down individual responses to specific points, to break into sub-groups for discussion, to give short prepared presentations on specific topics. The relaxed atmosphere encourages participation. Students are confident that the points they raise and questions they ask will receive a fair hearing.

While it was acknowledged that the member of staff to whom one relates naturally as a person has a head start in the popularity stakes, students did recognise other types of good lecturer.

There was widespread approval of the 'thorough professional', who is organised, well prepared and skilled in all aspects of information presentation. With this member of staff the syllabus is comprehensively covered, each lecture forming a logical part of a sequence and supported by clear, relevant overheads and neatly presented handouts. Students can experience the lecture without taking notes, knowing that the salient points will have been recorded in the handout. This lecturer's confidence and effectiveness stem not primarily from personal charisma or a particularly close relationship with students, but from a clear appreciation of students' needs, an orderly mind and thorough preparation.

Then there is the truly outstanding lecturer, the inspirational enthusiast who constantly brings a subject alive through the immediacy of first-hand experience of its everyday applications and with entertaining anecdotes and perhaps personal accounts of meetings with gurus and experts. Rather than attempting to cover every detail of the syllabus, this lecturer explains fundamental concepts and principles and provides insights and examples that arouse interest, deepen understanding and encourage students to read and explore for themselves. The best moments make students realise, perhaps for the first time, what people are talking about when they refer to the excitement and pleasure of learning.

The writer is a former principal of Queen Mary's College, Basingstoke, Hampshire, and now works at the University of Surrey as a member of the Enterprise in Higher Education team.