The use of lectures, 1960s style

As we approach the start of the 2021-22 academic year students are demonstrably unhappy about the seeming demise of the lecture.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

However, in-person lectures are “out-dated, owing to the existence of satisfactory text-books in most fields of study” and are a “one-way process, establishing no contact between the lecturer and student” rendering them “incapable of stimulating academic discussion of any value”.

Who says that? Well,  NUS – in 1962, to be precise. The 1964 Hale Report on University Teaching Methods fed back that student groups who submitted “memoranda” (consultation responses, basically) felt that lectures (by then often compulsory) should not be the primary mode of study – and argued for less lectures of a higher quality rather than focusing on contact hours.

NUS, and the Scottish Union of Students, argued that students were expected to attend too many lectures, and that the time used for lectures could be more profitably be spent at the library in independent study. Indeed, both argued for the right to skip lectures (“some lectures deserved to be missed”). Away from the books, the preference was for small group teaching in seminars and tutorials.

To be clear, this was a niche position – more likely to be argued for by student leaders and national bodies (reflecting the views of “the more mature and thoughtful members of the student body”, apparently). A survey of actual students conducted to inform the report found just 16 per cent of students wanted less time in lectures – and there was no correlation between the amount of time spent in lectures and the desire to reduce time spent in lectures.

What did academics think?

A common justification for the importance afforded to lectures was “the immaturity” of students – it was felt that undergraduates learn more readily by listening than by reading. This mode of teaching was seen to be the best way to present complex material. Lecturers felt that elementary level lectures aided young students who were “bewildered by the multiplicity of books”, whereas advanced lectures were an efficient way to summarise areas of learning where there were multiple sources not otherwise brought together.

There is also a lot about imparting enthusiasm and awakening a critical attitude – differing from other (for example, discursive) modes in being “better prepared, more profound, and better thought out” than debates and discussion. Indeed, some argued that:

a discussion can only become effective when the student has acquired sufficient knowledge on which to base his contribution

The lecture in practice

In the face of Robbins’ (1963) proposed expansion of the university system, it was recognised that a lecturer “can reach a group far larger than any discussion group” in the lecture theatre – and that if a lecture was suitable for some aspects of learning it should be used as required. A startling survey finds that 13 per cent of Oxbridge lectures were to audiences of over 100 at the time, compared to just 4 per cent at larger civic universities. Robbins had argued that only larger formal lectures like this were worthwhile.

In terms of study skills all universities were keen that students should make their own notes rather than have notes provided, though it was not generally expected that students would revise, organise, and update these notes after the fact. Providing summaries of lectures or full notes was perceived as a “dreary form of spoon feeding”, and Hale’s report only cautiously recommended the use of very brief summaries to help students structure their own notes.

But should attendance at lectures be compulsory? This was the hot topic of the day – Hale pivots between the Scottish approach (students had to attend 75 per cent of teaching in order to graduate) and that of Oxford and Cambridge (then an outlier in not requiring attendance at all, though it is noted that colleges may decided not to allow a non-participating student to continue to reside). The impression is that non-attendance at lectures mau be the first sign of trouble, so we find support for the keeping of attendance registers – and students receiving support from public funds should not be surprised if grant-making authorities raise concerns about attendance.

Sixty years on

The lovely think about Hale is that it offers a window on the student experience during the last days before mass higher education – that opinions on the lecture as a central part of university life are as varied and staunchly defended as today tells us that less has changed since then than we might expect.

It is perfectly possible to hold fast to the lecture while, as the students of the 1960s did, critiquing the quality of what was on offer. Though the ideal of learning may cleave closer to Newman and Socrates, the lived reality of university life (and the countless fictional depictions thereof) see students in rows listening to the sage words of an academic – however dull or inspirational those words turn out to be.

Read more

The Hale Report in context with other interest in the quality and nature of teaching.

The meteoric rise and sharp fall of funding to improve the quality of teaching


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