Engaged: to be or not to be? Or why bother with lecture notes?

There is nothing more dispiriting as a tutor than to look out at a sea of blank or vacant faces.  These days many hide behind expensive laptops, doing who knows what!  Attendance can be variable especially after the first flush of a new term is over.  As staff we are required to post our lectures and now under pressure to record our lectures.  The idea behind this by the way is that a student can return to key sections in the future.  In truth at least from my perspective if you are going to do this why run formal lectures at all?  Units might be better packaged as YouTube videos?  From a tutor’s perspective the equation is often simple, the more you give the less your students need to engage and attend.  May be this is not very fair but it is borne out by my own experience.

Whether it is with rose tinted glasses or not I believe I used to have stronger student engagement when I set out lecturing in the 1990s.  In those days (as in mine the decade before) a student needed to write notes or leave with nothing.  Attendance was much better and I believe so was student performance.  The introduction of a succession of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs; currently Bightspace at BU) killed this to some extent.  Slides had to be posted.  Despite what others argue I believe strongly that the VLE weakens student engagement.  In the old days you had to write notes, you had to engage while these days you simply have to download the slides.  Or so the theory goes, until you encounter someone like me who’s slides are simply a pile of graphs, diagrams and pictures.  The narrative that goes with them is the bit you get by attending and engaging with the lecture.

I am a realist about such matters knowing that the competition between a cold lecture hall and a warm student bed is tough especially on a cold Monday morning in winter!  So from a student’s perspective let’s explore the question of engagement with lectures.  Why does it matter and what does engagement actually mean?

Well you go to university – rather than college or the like – to learn from those that are creating new knowledge.  To learn from the people active in your discipline area and driving research forward.  That is the theory at least and how it should be, especially if you are paying £9,000 plus for the privilege each year.  Your tutors should have pedigree either in professional practice or as academic researchers and if they don’t you have in my view the right to question this.  The difference between a textbook and real researcher is that you gain from their experience, from their perspective and ultimately from their knowledge and research which unlike a textbook is evolving all the time.  You gain this through lectures and in the case of geography/geology through fieldwork.  A lecture should be different every time, should refer to new literature and emerging debates.  It is by its nature unpredictable, if it is predicable then it has lost its relevance and has become simply an audio/video file and something that is static.  I am not here to teach, but to share my knowledge and to join with you in debating the latest ideas and to develop them together.  So the very best lectures should be unpredictable in a good way that is and that is why you need to attend and accept that they will divert from script and posted material from time to time and so they should.  If you don’t attend then you a missing out one of the key facets of a university education at least in my view, that and learning to think critically and communicate those thoughts.

So let us take as read that attendance is essential if at all possible, why else would we bother to schedule classes otherwise?  So the next question and one many students ask is should you listen or write notes?  Well if your lecturer is talking and talking fast as they do then verbatim notes are a waste of time, but capturing key points is not.  I am not talking about listening to them read PowerPoint slides; heaven help you if that is the experience you get.  In fact you have my sympathies and I would encourage you to push back if that is the case.

Some students seek to record lectures as a way around the problem – they talk to fast!  I am guilty of talking to fast and I am personally not opposed to having my lectures recorded, but unless there is a specific reason for doing so my advice is not to.  Why sit through the same talk twice?  Engage the first time.  If you don’t understand something when you review your notes then find a time to ask a question and seek help even if the cohort is large and the tutor is scary!  This is also part of the learning process.

Now our learning styles are all different so we are told frequently, and they may be, but there is a key step here that is true to most elements of life (and to the lecture) and we use every day in conversation – listen, think/reflect and respond through action.  It is the process of active listening and is evidenced by action.  In conversation it is the act of responding to what is said rather than just talking.  It is a skill that often needs to be learnt even by those who talk and gossip continuously. Whatever you’re learning style find a way to listen, distil/reflect and to record those thoughts.

Writing can be a challenge for some but writing/noting for oneself is a key way of engaging.  You just need to work out here what works best for you through some experimentation.  May be pictures, abbreviations, bullet-points or thought maps, there are loads of things to try.

Call me traditional but I would say that it is always a good idea (and an excellent habit to form) to write notes fast and legibly by hand for your own use.  They don’t have to look pretty!  There is certainly no point making them pretty after the event as long as you can read them, to do so is to waste time. The note writing skill is like any other and needs to be practiced and mastering it will serve you well in professional practice and later life.  Lectures allow you to practice this skill.  Writing fast is a useful skill for exams now and in the future for meetings, taking statements, receiving instructions and jotting down ideas and decisions.  Annotating printed PowerPoint slides is a common solution, but is not as good as listening and noting in your own words what is actually being said.  A slide is the lecturer’s summary not yours and yours is the one that counts, the one you will digest, understand and own.

Whatever you do find a way to engage in lectures and value them for what they are; a key part of your university educations and always remember there are good lectures and there bad lectures just as there are good days and bad days.

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