Spoonfed, lazy and bored witless

Lectures alone can't sustain the spirit of academic inquiry, says Micha el Bush
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The Independent Online
A trend in British universities is to reduce undergraduate teaching to a course of lectures. Tutorials, seminars, course work are all swept away. Under this regime, the student's only requirement apart from attending lectures is to sit an exam at the endof the course. The universities, pressured by research-assessment and a greater student intake, seem to have settled on a system that will give staff more time for research and teaching. The old restraints have been cast off. Now the number of st udentsadmitted to a course depends on the size of the lecture theatre.

What the new device has done, however, is to reject all that was good and to preserve all that was bad in the traditional system. When students are simply expected to attend lectures and sit an examination, how can they be educated, deprived as they are of the opportunity to produce course work, the incentive to make inquiry under informed direction, and personal contact with their teachers?

True, this system is not without benefit, excusing the student the labour of producing course work and staff the task of assessing it. But none of these benefits has an educational value. They simply make life easier for the parties concerned.

What is left is the lecture. The occasional lecture can be an inspiration, but what good can lectures do when they are expected to present the rudiments of a course? An hour's lecture is too long for the human concentration to endure, so it switches on and off, missing at least half the content. As lectures are normally given only once, a student has no chance of picking up what has been missed. If a lecture is followed by others on the same day, week after week, how can it have any intellectual effect?When giving the occasional lecture, staff stand a chance of providing a stimulating performance. But this is less than likely if they lecture twice weekly in the same course.

The lecture system fails. All it does is give students some clue to the questions that will appear on the exam paper and ready-made answers to them.

The traditional system also relied heavily on the hour-long lecture. It accounted for at least 50 per cent of most courses. Moreover, the tutorials and seminars did not necessarily work well. Individual supervision allowed a commendable focus upon the student's work but required an army of research students who might have little knowledge of the subject, little experience of teaching and little interest in the undergraduate. The group tutorial cannot deal adequately with the student's written work. For it to succeed, discussion has to be generated in the manner of a seminar.

The principles upon which the seminar rests, of provoking thought through discussion and of making students orally articulate, are commendable. The problem is putting them into practice. Seminars often fail because students refuse to participate. Consequently, the tutor is required to fill the void with an off-the-cuff lecture. Or the seminar can become no more than a dialogue between the tutor and the student assigned to introduce that week's topic, with the rest of the class a bored and passive audien ce, saying nothing and yawning prodigiously.

Moreover, because course work has been permitted no part, or very little part, in assessment, students have little incentive to take it seriously. The defectives of the traditional system would propose that, while far superior to the new device, it requires urgent reform.

Cogito, ergo sum may be a philosophical nonsense, but, as a means of expressing the aim of university teaching it is not a bad motto. Universities should prefer teaching methods that promote critical thought and creativity, and ban methods that encourageassimilation and regurgitation. This would rule out the dependence on lectures.

Modem technology has provided an effective substitute for the traditional lecture. Cassettes came and went with little use by university teachers. CD-roms, however, would allowdepartments to design and present programs that avoid the pitfall of providinganswers in lectures and offer an informative framework to a subject which makes the discovery of answers feasible. With this in place, lectures could be preserved as an occasional stimulant.

With their lecturing gone, what do the lecturers do? Staring at a screen is a solitary activity.

Group discussion, if it works, generates thought as intellects compete or co-operate. But for seminars to work they have to be organised - a task for the lecturer. The best means of getting into a subject is to try one's hand at it. At the centre of eachcourse there needs to be a set of projects that the student is encouraged to tackle by proper direction and sufficient reward.

The lecturer's task would be that of project supervisor. The student would be perceived as someone expected to make discoveries, essentially by means of projects worked out in libraries and laboratories, and who proves him or herself by completing a series of assignments which will be appreciated for their novelty as well as for their competence.