Wednesday 6 December 2017

The Compleat Lecturer - 4: Talk-and-chalk (In Oxford Magazine)

The Compleat Lecturer: 4: Talk-and-chalk, visual aids, handouts and internet support
Bruce Charlton
Oxford Magazine  2017; 390: 15
(Eighth Week, Michaelmas Term)

‘Talk-and-chalk’ is a slang term for the traditional, and I would say best, method of lecturing – although nowadays a whiteboard and dry-wipe marker pen is used rather than a blackboard and chalk. Talk-and-chalk means that the lecture content is delivered by some combination of the spoken word, and material written or drawn on the board in real time for the audience to copy.

The blackboard and chalk were very messy, and the chalk dust was unpleasant for the lecturer. However, for reasons I cannot altogether explain, I believe that the blackboard was overall a more effective teaching method than the whiteboard; and that classes enjoyed blackboard teaching more than whiteboard. One hunch is that writing and illustrating with chalks imposed on the lecturer a slow and stylised way of working, which exerted a kind of hypnotic fascination on the audience...

Anyway, it seems that blackboards have by now been removed from almost all universities and colleges – so ‘chalk’ is probably no longer an option.

With talk-and-chalk, the only cognitive transition the lecture audience needs to make, is between taking notes ‘aurally’ from dictation, alternating with copying words and pictures - and for most students this alternation is not a problem. Those parts of the lecture written on the board tend to be key facts and concepts – such as references, summaries, definitions, tables and diagrams. The spoken parts amplify and illustrate these key facts and concepts.

For example: the lecturer defines key terms at dictation speed and written on the board; then verbally explains a concept while students listen; then summarises the explanation on the board, while students copy. He may then invite questions.

‘Visual aids’ comprise media such as projected slides, audio-visual material such as videos or short movies, overhead projectors, ‘demonstrations’ at the front of the lecture theatre, and so on. While these may sometimes be necessary, and at other times provide a useful change and stimulus, I would argue that in general they are all significantly sub-optimal.

Although they break-up the lecture, and provide entertainment; the problem is partly that visual aids encourage passive observation, and discourage the creative process of making of lecture notes – since they typically contain too much information and/ or information of a kind which cannot be captured in lecture notes. But another problem is that visual aids generate the need for a ‘cognitive gear change’ between very different media – in the sense that learning from a photograph, detailed slide, or movie is of a different form than speaking, writing and drawing.

For example, if the audience has been watching a five minute video; when the video finishes and the attention needs to be reactivated for Talk and Chalk teaching, then there is a kind of mental waking-up, a ‘lurch’, that results from the need for a sudden effort after passive relaxation.

This gear change is not necessarily fatal to the cohesion of a lecture, but it is a difficulty which takes some time and discipline to overcome – and it leads almost inevitably to a psychological fragmentation of the lecture.

Therefore, I believe that lecturers should in general stick-to talk-and-chalk, and resist the temptation to add visual aids – except when absolutely necessary.

Such uniformity of the lecture medium does, however, imply a need to give the audience short breaks to refresh attention - to converse, stand and stretch limbs, and fidget. A fifty minute lecture requires at least one such break of a couple of minutes - just enough time for the lecturer to wipe the whiteboards.

The importance of making each lecture into a real time, here and now, unique and un-repeatable, active learning event; is what explains why hand-outs and internet ‘support’ are so often a problem, with negative effects on learning. The core problem is that anything which diminishes the importance of being-there, paying-attention, understanding and recording the information; will certainly diminish the learning.

Typically, education needs both sticks and carrots - that is; punishments and rewards to enforce attendance, alertness and cognitive effort. Otherwise, over the ups-and-downs (and temptations) of a long course of lectures; class attendance, and therefore the chance for active-learning, invariably fall-off to some extent (due to the weakness of will of a minority of students). But attendance and attention may collapse alarmingly and to low levels, even when lectures are of high quality, when lectures are not explicitly (and also implicitly) regarded by the authorities as being central and necessary to the teaching.

The idea may be promulgated that lectures are intended to be miss-able without disadvantage by provision of all ‘necessary’ material without need for attendance (or attention while attending) - for example by handouts, internet material, or making audio and/ or video recordings of lectures. This is something that administrators may emphasise as an amenity, or in order to ‘reassure’ students that they will not be ‘penalised’ for absences (unavoidable, or otherwise). Such an attitude, increasingly common - due to technological advances – is, however, lethal to the educational benefits of real lecturing.

In practice there needs to be occasional exceptions to the requirement for lecture attendance to obtain optimal educational benefit. But exceptions must be exceptional; arrangements and adjustments should be one-off, specific and tailored, not routine nor prescribed; and exceptions cannot without educational harm, be addressed in ways that compromise the integrity of the principle of attendance.

It ought clearly to be articulated and respected by the highest relevant university authorities that the mass of students will need actually to be present and participating in lectures to get the fullest benefit.

To put the matter curtly: if a student is not disadvantaged by failure actually to attend and be attentive during a lecture course; then there must be something seriously wrong with those lectures!


The 4-part Compleat Lecturer series is now compleat:
1. The first mass medium
2. The special effectiveness of lecturing
3. Lecture theatre size and design
4. Talk-and-chalk

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