What students want - or what students need?

You can tell from the contrasting expressions on the faces of academics around the department that it’s exam marking deadline time. The harassed anxiety of those with piles of scripts still on their desks is balanced by the smug relief of we happy few who are done and dusted. For me, then, it’s a time to reflect on my teaching, which has led me to an interesting conclusion. Let me backtrack a little. I’ve been lecturing on our level three course, Conservation Issues and Management, for a few years now. Early on, I took the decision to record and then podcast my lectures (if you’re desperately interested, they’re available here). This seemed a great idea to me - it’s incredibly easy to do (although becoming less so with every update of Keynote and Quicktime…), and (not to be sniffed at) it avoids the need for me to prepare any supporting material for the lectures, apart from the slides themselves.

Moreover, the students seem to love it. Over the years I’ve had some great feedback which - driven as we are by the need to do well in the various student surveys - is a valuable outcome. But, I’ve noticed a trend. More or less whatever exam question I set, a proportion of the essays basically regurgitate my lectures, covering all the same topics in pretty much the same order. Clearly, students are using my podcasts for revision - which is great, it’s what they’re for - but, more than that, they’re memorising them. Which is not so good.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I quite like my lectures - though their content continually changes as my own understanding develops, and as new research is published. But they are not an answer to any exam question I've ever set, and reproducing them by rote will get you a moderate mark at best (assuming you do it accurately). Our marking scheme puts a heavy stress on independent reading - i.e., of stuff that wasn’t covered in the lectures - as well as on maintaining a strict focus on the question, rather than writing every damn thing you know…

All of this ties in with the idea that simply re-reading material is a pretty ineffective way to learn (see for example this paper or this blog post) Real understanding is hard work, and goes beyond memorising. Students themselves need to take some responsibility for this (and of course many of them do), but it has also led me to question whether, in giving students what they want (my podcasts), I’m actually doing them a longer term disservice.

It would be a brave move to stand up in lecture 1 and announce that “no lecture materials will be provided, you’re on your own, and no, you may not record my lectures” and I’m sure that’s not necessary. But I may need to revisit my podcasting strategy. One option is to do shorter podcasts of key points - more work for me, of course, but it’s the route taken by my colleague Tim Birkhead, who was 2013 UK Higher Education Biosciences Teacher of the Year, so knows a bit about all this.

Either way, I probably need to rethink the balance between getting gratifyingly nice feedback on the post module forms, and pushing the students to fulfil their potential in their exams.