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Spare me the lecture

If you’ve never thought ‘f*ck this’ at 8.30am on a Monday, you’re lying


Ever arrived panting and sweaty to a lecture, only to realise 10 minutes in that there was no bloody point in coming anyway? I certainly have – and recently, I've not been too convinced that lectures are all that useful. Please, allow me to complain.

First and foremost on my list of millennial grumblings is the frustrating way that lectures are structured. It seems bizarre that the highest level of education still maintains such an uninventive style of teaching. A single person, monologuing for an hour (give or take) at the front of a large room of basically anonymous students, with a pictureless PowerPoint or, worse, a printed script? It’s as if it’s designed to be as boring as humanly possible.

Add in challenging content, a softly spoken lecturer or, god forbid, a warm and windowless room, and the world may as well be conspiring to send you to sleep.

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The pen trail of sleepy shame helpfully marks where exactly it all became too much

There's no reward for being present, there’s no punishment for being absent. There’s not even the promise that the lecture will add anything to your understanding – not all experts in a given field are natural teachers or even natural public speakers, meaning that an hour can easily feel wasted. Frequently, I find that lectures are just less eloquent, more confusing summaries of assigned readings.

Where is the dynamism? Where is the piquing of curiosity and provocation of opinion that makes Cambridge the intensely stimulating environment that it is?

Well, it’s in supervisions, obviously. What baffles me, though, is how Cambridge remains so institutionally proud of the effectiveness of supervisions, without seeming to recognise that everything that makes supervision learning special – high engagement, mandatory attendance, and the expectation that you understand (and can defend) your point of view – is singularly missing in traditional lectures.

There’s also the fact that their form is so old-fashioned. Lectures – from the Latin 'lectura', a reading – at medieval universities consisted of teachers reading out source material, from which students then took notes. The word came to mean an educational discourse before an audience by the 1500s (by the 1600s, it had taken on its other, negative meaning of a lengthy admonition…coincidence?) and aside from the addition of digital displays, their structure has hardly changed since then. While this does fit with Cambridge’s antique-mystique aesthetic, one can’t help feeling that with regards to student needs in the present day, it might be time for a shake up.

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Looks familiar…

Senior school teachers focus on engaging the student with group work, activities and questions. Why is it assumed that once you’ve hit the age of 18, you’re mature enough to be immune to boredom and no longer need that kind of stimulation?

Perhaps I am asking too much and appreciating too little. Everyone finds some topics more naturally engaging than others (evolution of galaxies, anyone?!), and there are some stellar (haha) lecturers do put effort into making their timetabled hour feel less like walking at a baby stroller pace on the treadmill of knowledge. And anyway, experts are in relatively short supply. It’s arguably too much, especially on a University budget, to expect every lecturer to be a talented teacher too.

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Don't tell me you've never crafted one of these bad boys on a slow day

My point is just that it could be done so much better. The standard way a lecture is delivered could easily be spiced up with simple teaching tricks: five minute games, for example, or lecturers being trained to call on random students to take part in the discussion. Video clips, Ice cream breaks, Batman theme music on the lecturer’s entrance, the list goes on.

More participatory lectures might admittedly mean that you have to do your readings on time, but you need to do them at the end of the year anyway. Making it implicitly acceptable to miss lectures and catch up on reading in your own time just contributes to the binge-learning pressure-cooker atmosphere of exam term, one of Cambridge’s ugliest attributes.

Focusing on making lectures throughout the year as engaging as possible would probably be a boon to student mental health, too, if it reduced the amount of material students tried to cram.

As they stand, lectures strike me as a bit of a waste of time and potential, but just effective enough to do nothing about. Universities can, and should, strive to do better.

Picture: Medieval lecture 2 by Anthony Bates, licensed under a Creative Commons licence