Alternative lectures gain ground

Published Nov 04, 2013

Is it now time to scrap the traditional lecture altogether?

Peer instruction, teaching sessions and project-based courses are crowding out lectures as more motivating and participatory forms of learning. Nevertheless, Jan Scheffel is beating the drum for alternative lectures.

Peer instruction is a compelling form of education, but in some students' experience it can be "stressful", says Jan Scheffel, a professor at the School of Electrical and Systems Engineering. (Photo: Håkan Lindgren)

“I don’t think the lecture as a form of teaching should be given up. It offers the students the possibility of encountering an inspiring authority in a particular subject,” says Scheffel, who is Professor in the School of Electrical Engineering at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

The traditional lecture form has surely had its day.

Lectures, however, must capture the attention of - and motivate - the students who attend, he believes. Consequently, he does not have much time for the traditional form where the teacher’s lecture is based on PowerPoint slides that are not even distributed to the students as handouts afterwards.

“That’s probably the worst form of teaching – pure one-way performances. The traditional lecture form has surely had its day. This is something I wholly accept.”

Here he cites the presentation guru Bengt Hemlin: the lecturer must be more interesting than the students’ own thoughts.

“This simple statement is a wise one since it shows what the challenge is. Here the students sit with their minds occupied by the things that happened at the weekend, and I have to compete with all that,” Scheffel says.

“Peer instruction is an interesting form of education, but it can be perceived by the students as being stressful and it isn’t necessarily motivational. More of an interaction is needed for deep-rooted learning to be achieved.”

Raising the interest level through reality-based problems

Effective course design includes several different elements for learning, he believes. Teaching sessions, exercises, laboratory sessions, project work and discussion groups all have their role and, there too, the lecture form can have an important place.

Students use paper sheets with different colours to show if they have understood.

“Several of my colleagues have developed alternative lecture forms. As for me, I use reality-based problems. In the course Engineering Science, which contains a lot of mathematical modelling, I attempt to engage the students through using problem solving which comprises interesting question formulations from everyday life.”

Examples include: how a human population grows, how fast a raindrop falls and the strength of the wind against a vehicle on the motorway.

“We then discuss together what is required to solve the problem and prepare the strategy. And it’s interesting then for the students to take on board a new theory in order to be able to use it as a tool for solving the problem.”

Sheets of paper with different colours for feedback

So that he can be sure that the students have understood properly, the students provide feedback during the lecture by answering multiple choice questions concerning the steps towards the solution of the reality-based problem. Scheffel shows four statements, marked with different colours, where one of them is incorrect. The students have time to consider for a minute or two; then they hold up a paper sheet with one of the colours.

“If I look out over the lecture hall and see a sea of green, where green is the correct alternative, then I can be satisfied. However, if I see a mix of colours then I haven’t succeeded in my task but must go back and explain things better. Given that I then discuss in some detail the different alternatives, even the students who have misunderstood are able to keep up,” he says.

The lecturer must be more interesting than the students’ own thoughts.

This method motivates the students not to fall behind during the lecture since the students reward themselves with the right choice of colour, he believes.

Besides lectures, the course also includes teacher-led mini-group work where the students operate in groups of three to solve a problem.

“It resembles peer instruction to the extent that they listen to one another and contribute to each other’s learning. Then the assignments are graded according to the understanding they demonstrate, not according to whether they have calculated the right answer by a few digits.”  

More pedagogy seminars

Material within the course theme that is not covered by lectures or exercises are placed in homework tasks, which are then peer-marked anonymously by the students during the week’s assignment exercise.

“If I look out over the lecture hall and see a sea of green, where green is the correct alternative, then I can be satisfied,” says Jan Scheffel.

“This method on the one hand implies an additional learning opportunity for the students and, on the other, facilitates things for the course co-ordinator. The course is concluded with oral presentations, where the subjects are selected randomly on the basis of a previously provided list,” Scheffel says.

All in all, the seven-week course in Engineering Science is fairly intensive for the students, he concedes, but at the same time the pass rate is high.

“We can produce almost 90 per cent of students with passes. Unfortunately, in some contexts, one has to almost apologise for this state of affairs. Critical voices claim that this shows the course is too easy,” he says.

Today it is a requirement, under KTH’s appointments procedure, that all teaching staff have academic teacher training comprising at least 15 higher education credits. And many good pedagogical ideas are, in fact, stolen taken from others, Scheffel says.

“The idea of the sheets with different colours is something I myself picked up from a teacher from Linköping during a pedagogy seminar. That’s why I believe it would be a good idea if there were more opportunities for acquiring such inspiration; for example, through pedagogy seminars being given regularly together with a lunchtime roll or sandwich.”

Magnus Pahlén Trogen