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University principal questions the value of lectures

THE traditional lecture as a way of teaching university students has been attacked by a leading principal.

moving WITH THE TIMES: Professor Ferdinand Von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, believes a rethink is needed.
moving WITH THE TIMES: Professor Ferdinand Von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, believes a rethink is needed.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski, of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, said some lectures were of poor quality with many students not even bothering to turn up.

He also suggested university buildings were still being designed with large lecture halls when the future should revolve around smaller groups or interactive ­digital learning.

A recent study in the United States revealed that students taught principally through traditional lectures have a higher failure rate and learn less effectively than students taught through a range of methods.

Mr von Prondzynski said: "The concept is simple enough - a lecturer stands in front of an often large group of students and delivers a monologue on his or her specialist topic.

"Students take notes and then at some later point there is an examination, during which the students will try to recreate the lecturer's approach to the subject. If all of that works, the student gets a degree."

Mr von Prondzynski said a great deal of lecturing was "better than that", but some was not.

"Truly interactive lectures are still rare, and nowadays many student don't turn up at these events at all," he added.

"Still, this is a resilient form of teaching, and even now new university buildings will typically contain fairly inflexible lecture theatres. But is that justified?

"Certainly in the internet age it can be seriously questioned whether lectures are needed where their purpose is simply to disseminate basic information."

Mary Senior, Scottish official with the UCU union that represents lecturers and support staff, said lectures could still provide an imaginative way of introducing and transmitting knowledge to large numbers of students.

But she added: "Lectures are not simple stand-alone options. They must be combined with small group classes such as seminars, tutorials, lab-based activities as these are often the best way for students to learn. Small group activities are much more resource-intensive than lectures, so universities need to increase their commitment and current levels of investment in staffing and teaching-related infrastructure to deliver more of these."

Robert Foster, vice-president of education for student body NUS Scotland, said universities could do much more to develop student-friendly teaching practices.

He said: "Traditional lectures are not necessarily making the most of our students' learning potential. We know that getting the opportunity to discuss subjects in small groups benefits most students far more than lectures do.

"Yet, lecturing still forms the core of our universities' teaching practices. We could be using both students' and lecturers' time in a more productive way."

Last week, Westminster Universities Minister David Willets said traditional university lectures were no longer good enough for today's students.

His comments came after new figures showed many undergraduates were skipping sessions because they found them a waste of time.

The Student Academic ­Experience Survey showed students attend about 12 hours of lectures and seminars on average each week out of a total of 13 hours provided by their institution.

Half of those who skipped sessions said they did so because they did not find the lectures very useful, while two-fifths said it was because the notes were available online.

Just fewer than one-third said they missed lectures because they could not be bothered to attend.

Mr Willets said: "The days where the academic experience is simply sitting in rows with 500 other people - taking notes from slides on a screen that you can access online on your laptop - universities now have to do far better than that."

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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