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Is the Lecture Theatre a Thing of the Past?

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When you think of attending university, you may think of lots of undergraduate students sitting in a lecture theatre, listening to a member of staff discussing the topic that they are teaching. The lecture theatre is an integral part of university education where students are all in the same room, engaging with a certain topic. For me, as a Teaching Associate in Psychology, teaching lectures is a large part of my role. I have taken lectures in many areas of psychology, including personality, cognition, and neuroscience, just to name a few; and every time I deliver a lecture, it’s a different experience for everyone. Some of my lectures have been quite small, with only 20–30 students but some of my lectures consist of potentially 350 students and the way I deliver each lecture can differ greatly depending upon the numbers.

I have some lectures where I am really prepared with notes and have activities strictly set for my students to complete; and I have other lectures where I tend to have multiple activities that I can ask my students to complete, but these activities will depend upon how the students are feeling that day. I often find that if the students are restless (for whatever reason) then they may need an activity that does require some level of discussion with each other. Asking students to sit in silence for two hours normally does not work.

When I first started lecturing, I found it quite difficult to stand up in a room full of students but now, this is something I can confidently do. I think the most difficult thing for me is to try and understand how the students would learn best in a lecture situation. In a two-hour lecture, for example, I will talk for a while and then will ask the students to discuss certain topics or take part in poll activities (using resources such as Vevox). This just breaks down the amount of time I am talking but will also give the opportunity to provide the students with some informal feedback on their learning. The first lectures I ever gave were mainly just me talking and I very quickly picked up that students tend to lose focus after 20–30 minutes, so activities are needed to refocus everyone (including me). At the point, I started to adapt my teaching approaches to be more engaging. 

In 2020, the way I deliver lectures changed quite quickly. Due to the lockdown and UK government guidance, delivering a large lecture of 300–400 students was not possible in lecture theatres, and all in-person teaching within universities was stopped. Universities had to move all teaching online very quickly and had to find the resources to ensure that students received a great learning experience, despite being in lockdown. 

So, this brings the question as to whether universities will ever go back to having large in-person lectures or whether technologies such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom are here to stay for the long-term. I have had discussions with students this year that have provided both sides of the argument. Face-to-face lectures, for some people, are the only form of social contact that they get during their university education and taking these away can have a detrimental effect upon mental health. Some people also find that they study better in a more face-to-face educational environment so again, not having this facility may have negative effects for some students. On the other hand, having lectures online means that there are no issues with room sizes or room bookings (the more logistical side of planning lectures) and it also allows the lecture to be accessible for those who cannot physically be there in person. 

Delivering a lecture via an online platform can still be seen as a lecture and successful pedagogical approached can still be used. For the lecturer, they are still preparing the material and are still delivering the lecture, just not in the conventional way of a lecture theatre room. I have found that while I have had to make some minor changes in the way I deliver my online lectures (such a removing videos), I can still generally use the same techniques as I would if I was sitting in a room and I have found that group work is still possible online. For me, there is the advantage of Microsoft Teams having a chat box where students can chat with each other during the lecture. When this is managed effectively, I have found that students do get involved more with the lecture because it does not involve physically speaking or putting a hand up in front of a fully lecture theatre of students.

My experiences have also suggested that there are more benefits of delivering live online lectures rather than pre-recording lectures (but other colleagues may disagree and that is fine).  I currently record material using Panopto that introduces students to online activities and recording these on-demand actives can give students more flexibility in when and where they learn. In the past (before COVID-19), I have been in situations of teaching online classes and have had no option but to record lectures. This was suitable for that situation as we had students from all over the world in different time zones, but for me,  I do enjoy still having the students on the other side of the computer while I’m talking.

Whatever your views are, it’s good to have an understanding that as lecturers we may need to be adaptable to change in the way that we teach and use our pedagogical techniques. For now, with the ever-changing government guidelines, we can’t guarantee that we will be teaching fully online or fully face-to-face for specific lengths of time.

Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. 


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