I have written and argued with colleagues about the value of a lecture for many years. However, one of my colleagues came and sat down with me the other day, and we had a great discussion about lecturing.

She managed to pin me down on exactly where I stand, and so I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.

I’m not against giving or listening to a great talk. I have done both. I’ve received awards for my speaking ability, and I’ve been inspired by talks I’ve heard over the years. In my class feedback, I am repeatedly asked to give more lectures (I deliver a few) because I am a great lecturer (I won’t).

What I’m against is lecturing. By lecturing, I mean what is traditionally done in university classes the world over. The lecturer prepares material from some source, condenses it, organises it, prepares bullet point  slides highlighting all the important points, and then stands up and talks about the points. Sometimes, lecturers will take great pleasure in saying that they won’t use powerpoint, so that makes the experience better. The lecturer then repeats this process for the requisite number of hours across a semester for what we call a module or a class. There are variations on the theme, but it is essentially a let me tell you what you need to know approach with the teacher doing all the work, and the students passively having knowledge poured out upon their heads from on high. One of the variations included the use of clickers in order to make the experience truly two way, with the students actively engaged and taking control of the learning process (should have been in marketing – could have made a lot more money). All of this is lecturing – the kind of lecturing that I think is poor as a teaching tool.

However, I have been to lectures that really make you think. Lectures that present the world in a way that causes cognitive dissonance or presents a viewpoint that I have never considered before. A good keynote does that, and they are occasional events. Presenting this kind of a talk (lecture) week after week to the same group of people, and expecting them to go away inspired and scratching their heads in thought every time they listen to you is unrealistic. To pull one off occasionally is practical, but to fill three hours a week for 12 – 15 weeks, it just doesn’t happen.

In other words, I am not opposed to occasional lectures to students that are inspiring and powerful, conveying a message that makes the students think. I am opposed to lectures that simply go over material that a student is expected to learn. There are better ways to foster information exchange, we just don’t use them. We use lectures because they are easy.



To understand. Simple enough.

I would be willing to wager (based on inside knowledge here – I’ve had the privilege of sitting on dozens of validation, revalidation, and quality assessment panels) that at least 80% of all learning outcomes use the word – understand.

We can define the word – perceive the intended meaning, significance, explanation, or cause of something. We teach it. We talk about it, or the lack of it in our students. We decry current study techniques that ignore it. It lies at the heart of what we do, bit can we operationally define it so we can measure it?

One of the first things I teach my students about the measurement of any psychological phenomenon, in the importance of operationally defining it. A good operational definition allows two observers to rate an interaction with high inter-rater reliability. Two people will return the same score when making the same observation. Sometimes you have good operational definitions, sometimes you get poor operational definitions, but you need one in order to have consistency in the measurement.

As an example, you might operationally define an interaction between two people as occurring every time their eyes met. This ignores any other kind of interaction (working together, body contact etc.) and only allows for a single item to be classed as an interaction, but you will get good, reliable measures when two raters observe the same event. It somehow feels phoney, but that’s what is done – I’ll come back to this later.

Understanding is a psychological phenomenon. It is something that takes place within an individual, and has to be inferred through some kind of observable behaviour. In formal education, we infer understanding through an assessment of some kind. There is a hierarchy of assessments that demonstrate understanding with true/false of multiple choice questions at the bottom, and oral examinations at the top (where you can probe for understanding until satisfied). The usual candidate for assessing understanding is an essay, either as coursework or an exam. However, what are we looking for when we say we are looking for understanding? What is our operational definition? How do we tell a novice marker what it is that we want them to reward?

Is what you are looking for in understanding the same thing that I am looking for in understanding? If we aren’t looking for the same cues to convey understanding in our students, which one of us is right?

According to Wiggins & McTighe, there is a matrix of 30 cells that have to be taken into account in order to represent understanding. These include such clear and precise statements as “a powerful and illuminating interpretation and analysis of the importance…” or “generally unaware of one’s specific ignorance”. Given that understanding is usually one of several attributes that are included in any good marking rubric (along with originality, synthesis, flow, grammar etc.), and each one of these attributes would be multifaceted, how many cells would we have to keep active in our working memory while reading through a piece of work. Good solid research tells us that we can only keep 5 ±2 items in our working memory at once – although I have met a number of lecturers who are particularly gifted, and insist that they can, and do keep all 1,987,392 cells of information necessary to perfectly grade a piece of work active in working memory simultaneously, in addition to their perfectly attuned scale so that they can differentiate between a 56% and a 57% on a piece of work – I’m afraid I must admit that I’m merely human, and 5±2 is my limit.

When something as ephemeral as understanding is pushed into an operational definition, the result is as phoney as defining human interactions solely as when two peoples eyes meet. Yes, you get good inter-rater reliability, but no one really believes that what has been carefully operationally defined captures real understanding.

And so we measure recall. If you can accurately recall the information that has been provided in the lectures and notes, you do okay. If you demonstrate understanding – whatever that is – you get higher grades. Might as well cut out all the reading and just go directly to MCQs.

Accreditation or Learning

I work in a university. Universities are in the business of teaching students (at least part-time). As a part of that teaching process, the learning that students undertake is evaluated, assessed, graded, and accredited. The purpose of this process is to provide a system whereby funders (parents and government), students, and consumers (workplace) can quickly evaluate the level of success attained by the person attending university.

Although the original purpose of the grading and accreditation was to provide an easily understood metric indicating the amount of learning that the student managed in university. Two fundamental problems have emerged from this simplified view of how the world works, 1) what are we measuring, and how do we measure it (the topic of a future post), and 2) how the focus of the student has shifted from learning to the metric (the grade, GPA, or degree).

One of the underlying principles in motivational psychology is the fundamental difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation (from a learning perspective) is the internally generated motivation that drives us to engage in learning and studying something out of our own, real interest. It is my grandson’s interest in dinosaurs, or my son-in-law’s interest in cars. My nephew’s interest in sporting statistics, or my friend’s fascination (or possibly obsession) with train engine names. These are interests that I don’t really understand, but drive the individuals to read, study, and understand information about their interest. My nephew has never been tested on his sporting stats knowledge, but I think he would pass a test with flying colours.

Extrinsic motivation is the motivation to do something because of some external driver. In the learning domain, it is learning something for some other reason that wanting to know it. Learning for a reward, or learning for grades, a degree, or a good GPA. It is not learning for the sake of learning, but learning to satisfy some other motivation.

The bedrock principle is that intrinsic motivation leads to real engagement, where as, extrinsic motivation does not. Extrinsic motivation leads to a level of engagement that will satisfy the extrinsic goal – which for some students means to pass, or just get a degree.

Our learning system has ended up producing many students who have real, intrinsic motivation, but not an internalised interest in learning a subject or simply acquiring knowledge, but an intrinsic motivation for acquiring grades. The learning becomes a side-effect of getting grades. The level of engagement is determined by the acceptable level of grades for the individual. Gaining the accreditation is the real goal.

And do we feed this? I would say that we do.

I read with interest Audrey Watters disappointment in the teachers and vendors at the ISTE convention playing for the gimmick in education. Something shiny and new that will catch the students attention for a few minutes (extrinsic motivation) and possibly get them to engage in learning (not likely). In Jones’ MUSIC model of student engagement, the ‘I’ stands for interest. He presents extrinsic motivation as situational interest, and intrinsic motivation as personal interest, and warns educators to be careful in their use of gimmicks (situational interest) to try to engage students. It doesn’t work unless the interest becomes personal (intrinsic). We had a discussion in our University LEG (Learning Enhancement Group) about the ‘I’ in Jones’ model, and I found it interesting that there was a discussion about the judicious use of gimmicks in teaching. The discussants were almost evenly split between those with a psychology background (hence, a level of psychological literacy) and those with different backgrounds. Those not from psychology were adamant that Jones was wrong to suggest that gimmicks don’t lead to student engagement in learning, while all those with a psychological background who kept pointing to the evidence that clearly states that the motivation has to be personal (intrinsic) or engagement doesn’t happen.

It was reported last week that students didn’t respond well (learning wise) to text messages sent to them with positive messages about education (extrinsic motivation). If we want to move our students from a focus on accreditation to a focus on learning, we need to find out how people learn. We need to move from the scholarship of teaching (with gimmicks and tricks) to the application of scholarship of learning.

Learning by doing

From John’s blog about project learning, how cool is this.

One of my students was talking me after watching Clifford Stoll’s TED talk about his experience of learning in high school. In is science class, there was a closet with a few old geiger counters that had been used sometime in the past. They were having a lesson on the radioactivity of various different material, and when a couple of them asked about using the geiger counters to run around the school measuring everything they could think of, the teacher explained that they didn’t have time. Obviously, there was other content that needed covering, so instead, the students went to the library, and using the computers there, did a google search to find out how radioactive common, everyday materials are.

Clearly insightful and more engaging.

Is there a crisis in HE?

A crisis can be defined as a time of intense difficulty, or a time when important or difficult decisions must be made. Are we at that time in HE, and if we are, what is our window of opportunity for making decisions that will alleviate the difficulty we are in?

I actually do believe that we are in a time of crisis – a time of prolonged difficulty when important decisions must be made. It is prolonged because of the conservative nature of the institutions we belong to, and changing course across the sector is a very long, drawn out process. The reason I believe that it is a crisis is because the upheaval that surrounds us s moving at a pace that we can not or are unwilling to match. Below are the reasons that I think we are in crisis. Most of what I am writing about doesn’t apply to you, because if you are reading this, you are probably aware, and are trying to do something about it. I’m talking here about HE as a sector, not the champions trying to make a difference.

Expansion of the Academy

The first point of strain is the massification of HE. In The Classic Slum Roberts wrote that the experience of WWI exposed the working poor to another way of life, and increasingly, people were no longer satisfied with their place in society (at least the poor weren’t). WWII increased that dissatisfaction, and led to a significant increase in young men (and eventually, young women) looking for a way into the middle classes. Universities began to seriously expand, both in numbers, and in the number of students admitted in the 1960s and 70s. This trend has continued, almost unabated, for over forty years.

During that forty years, teaching has become more efficient in order to deal with the large numbers. Thinking and discussion spaces have disappeared to be replaced by ever increasing lecture spaces. More and more students are now listening to a single lecturer – epitomised by the new xMOOCs where the lecture theatre has become almost limitless in size. Assessment has been streamlined with memorisation and recall coming to define learning. Innovation in teaching is defined in many instances as introducing something to the assessment that is not an essay and a final (or mid-term and final). Exams are increasingly objective (read MCQ), with a brave few opting for short answers. Not very satisfying, but pragmatic solutions to class sizes that routinely number in the hundreds. Those who resist this movement to efficient teaching end up looking prematurely aged and haggard as they struggle with the massively increased workload in teaching – along with the other expectations of a career in academia.

Research, Research, Research…

The academy was founded for learning and scholarship with teaching at the core. Only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century did the production of knowledge (research) become entrenched as a core part of being a university’s mission. Since that time, the reputation of a university is largely defined by the excellence of the research that it produces. The primary career path is through publication esteem and grant capture. If you were to name the most important foreign institutions that you could think of, they would invariably be prestigious research institutions. The assumption of the general population is that a good reputation as an HE institution means good teaching and learning. However, we (those of us behind the curtain) know that institutional reputations are based principally on research.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does result in a couple of problems in a time of uncertainty. The first is an increased drive toward efficiency in teaching. If the demands of my career means that a significant portion of my time needs to be devoted to research, that means that I need to put as little time as possible into my teaching. Even the most talented researchers need to put in <80% into research to stay at the top. This is expensive for an institution, and someone has to pay (more on this later). This leads to a reduction of time available for students, and a drive to come up with ways of assessing students that will not take much of their valuable time – hence, objective tests and overloaded postgraduates. Parents won’t pat thousands or tens of thousands to have their children taught by postgraduate students, but the assessment regime can be populated by cheap labour. An institution can’t afford to have their expensive researchers spend too much time away from their research – that’s why they hired them in the first place. I know of a department where the student entitlement for the supervision of a year long, undergraduate dissertation is three hours!

The other problem with the research is king culture is what that culture does when research isn’t excellent. In most universities, there are three expected activities for career progression: research, teaching, and other (administration or external) activities. Lecturers can focus on two out of the three of these activities, and progress nicely through the ranks and have a satisfying academic career. The majority of academics in research intensive universities tend to focus on research, and one of the other two. If you are a good researcher, your teaching doesn’t have to be anything other than solid for progression to the highest ranks. In a non research intensive institution, the picture is tricker. Those who choose to focus on research tend to have a difficult time of it. There isn’t a research structure to really support them, and it is very difficult to compete with the highest fliers. As a result, the research is mediocre, which leads to a proliferation of mediocre journals and publications with no real value added to our society. This leaves administration as the activity of choice for a large number of academics from non-research institutions. The unfortunate result is that the mark of an administrator is to make rules. this ends up stifling teaching, stifling what little research can be done, and making life difficult for everyone concerned. This was illustrated for me when I was an external validator for a MSc Research in Psychology at a non-research intensive university. At one point in the proceedings, I suggested that the department would have difficulty having a rigourous research programme in a department with no history of research, and that they needed to develop a solid research strategy alongside the degree programme. My eyes were opened when, from about halfway down a 700 yard long table, a head bobbed down, looked at me, and said, “The centre sets strategy and the periphery implements that strategy.”, bobbed back up in the distance, and left me speechless for a moment or two.

In both the case of the research intensive and non-research intensive institution, the prevailing academic culture – centred around research – robs teaching of its vitality.

Information Age

The final contributor to the crisis in HE is our entry into the information age. The two issues raised above have been with us for some time, and the academy has managed to cope. However, the arrival of the information age has heralded two phenomena that have changed the nature of the game: information abundance, and information glut. Readers of my blog will be well aware of my views on information abundance. It is all around us, easily and inexpensively accessible, and has changed the underlying reasons for universities to exist. Scholars do not need to be gathered together to maintain and transmit information to novices and each other.

Information glut is the explosion of the amount of information that is available for us to teach. Our model of teaching has been based on content in the past, and continues to be based on content in the present. Our answer to the glut is to just do more of what worked last year – expand the number of classes and modules, presented and assessed in exactly the same way we did last year, and just cover new material. How long


can it continue?

A problem, not related directly to HE,  that the information age has fostered is the mismatch in the skill set our graduates have and the modern, networked workplace needs. The primary skill honed with super efficient teaching is memorisation. Conformity is highly rewarded, obedience and attention to detail are necessary, and the culture is aversive to risk taking. Modern workplaces are trying to emulate the working environment of places like Google, and have created a workplace training industry worth about $125 billion a year in the US as they take our graduates and try to re-skill the workers with the ability to be creative, to think, synthesise, critically evaluate,  to show initiative, to have passion. Up to 60% of our graduates over the past five years are under or un employed. Does the world not have problems and challenges that could use the energy of millions of young people to solve? We are producing the wrong kinds of graduates for todays world. We haven’t equipped them with the skills to deal with the world today – we have taught them to pass tests!

Why is this a Crisis?

All of these things, taken together, have resulted in a crisis for HE, and we must take responsibility for most of it. Why, because we have been unwilling to change to fit our environment. Students pay massive tuition fees today in much of the world, not to pay for their learning, but to support the entrenched research culture that pervades HE. The efficient teaching methods used across HE today do not justify the tuition paid by the students. If this were the case, xMOOCs would be unaffordable. I was reading, just last week, that the cost of developing and running a single MOOC is about £35,000. The argument was that institutions need to think about how they can fund this development cost in the absence of an income stream. But, let’s have a look at what that really means from a teaching perspective. If I am running a highly successful MOOC with 100,000 people on it, that means that the MOOC is costing £.35 per person to develop and run. A MOOC with 10,000 students would cost £3.50 per student, while a MOOC with 1000 student would cost £35 per student. If a three year (36 classes) or four year (40 classes) programme was made up entirely of MOOCs, the cost of this efficient teaching would range from £12.60 for a large (100,000 students), 36 module programme to £1,400 for a small (1000 students) programme. And we are charging tens of thousands! As a result, we have a TED solution – bring in an outsider (commercialisation) who can do the same thing, with equal quality, and charge less money. Let’s stop pretending that the quality of our efficient teaching methods is any better than what a private provider can do. Like it or not, it is happening folks.

On the other hand, we could go back to making teaching the students the core mission of academia. Not with lip service, but really putting teaching at the heart of what we do. We could teach the students the skills the world needs today to solve what appear to be intractable problems. However, this takes time. Time of individual lecturers. Time away from research and administration. Time to spend challenging their thinking, celebrating their creativity, fanning their passion, and supporting their risk taking.

Unfortunately, we don’t reward that kind of activity. We talk about rewarding it, but with caveats to protect the status quo. An international reputation is necessary to scale the heights of academia today – and how do you gain an international reputation fostering understanding? How do you gain an international reputation talking about fostering understanding? You don’t.


As a result, we are facing a crisis. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it is.

Scholarship and learning

I read about a study today where jr. high students were sent inspiring test messages about education every day in an attempt to increase their engagement in their studies. It had no effect whatsoever on their engagement or attainment. I am curious to know the theoretical underpinnings for the study?

Audry Watters suggested that it was based on extrinsic motivation, which it looked like. When will educators learn that extrinsic motivation doesn’t really work to increase engagement. When will educators begin to look at the scholarship behind many of their favourite practises?

There is a great deal of scholarship available, and the longer I work in this field, it seems that the less relevant the scholarship becomes. Donald Clark reported on a debate he participated in where the subject was teaching Latin in schools. Once again, where is the scholarship?  Donald reported on a number of research papers completely debunking the myth that Latin is important as a foundational tool, and yet, the debate not only continues, but plays an important part in current educational reforms. Why is research ignored in education?

We live in the dawning of the age of information abundance. We have tools which, literally, allow us to pull information out of thin air. We have an abundance of scholarship about how people learn and what motivates learning. And, yet, we keep going back. We ignore what is ahead, and yearn for some golden yesterday that never really existed.

Just when I think that the world is getting to be a better place, I find myself trying to explain to someone that just because the world looks flat, it really isn’t.