How would I teach a university course?

Student asleep during lecture

Before retiring from academia about 5 years ago, I taught a 3rd year undergraduate course in molecular virology. The question is: how would I teach it now knowing what I know and having had spent some time with ebooks and online learning?

The first thing is that I would not give lectures but use resources such as MOOC’s for course content — like the MOOC offered by Professor Vincent Racaniello, Columbia University. This MOOC provides excellent videos and quizzes on the basic aspects of virus replication and control. (Students could enrol for the course on their own.) My main contribution would be to produce an eBook to accompany this online course that would contain my personal comments, experience, perspectives and also provide additional resources.

The course would be a hybrid using the MOOC resources plus my eBook. The advantage of the eBook for a student is that they can add notes and comments — personalise it so that it comes their own study resource that is theirs forever.

I wouldn’t give lectures for the reasons listed below and I would use the student time allocation for tutorials and discussion groups.

Here are 10 reasons why face-to-face lectures don’t work:

1. Babylonian hour 
We only have hours because of the Babylonian base-60 number system, which first appeared around 3100 BC. But it has nothing to do with the psychology of learning.

2. Passive observers 
Lectures without engagement with the audience turn students into passive observers. Research shows that participation increases learning, yet few lecturers do this.

3. Attention fall-off 
Our ability to retain information falls off badly after 10-20 minutes. In one study, the simple insertion of three “two-minute pauses” led to a difference of two letter grades in a short- and long-term recall test.

4. Note-taking 
Lectures rely on students taking notes, yet note-taking is seldom taught, which massively reduces the effectiveness of the lecture.

5. Disabilities 
Even slight disabilities in listening, language or motor skills can make lectures ineffective, as it is difficult to focus, discriminate and note-take quickly enough.

6. One bite at the cherry 
If something is not understood on first exposure, there is no opportunity to pause, reflect or seek clarification. This approach contradicts all that we know about the psychology of learning.

7. Cognitive overload 
Lecturers load up talks with too much detail, with the result that students cannot process all the information properly.

8. Tyranny of location 
Students have to go to a specific place to hear a lecture. This wastes huge amounts of time, especially if they live far away from campus.

9. Tyranny of time 
Students have to turn up at a specific time to hear a lecture.

10. Poor presentation 
Many lecturers have neither the personality nor skills to hold the audience’s attention.

For the source of the above and further reading see the comments. The article was written by Donald Clark for the Guardian. By the way Donald Clark runs an e-learning company — shades of self-interest?

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