Replacing Traditional Lectures

guest written by Nicola Petty

Lectures were invented before print was available for the dissemination of information. One person talked and other people listened. It was the best they could do at the time.

However, today we can do better. Lectures are a cost-minimising way of presenting information to a large group of people. Note I didn’t say cost-effective. The universities of the world love lectures, and their buildings reflect that. However all the research I have ever read says that lectures are not an effective way to teach. They can do a wonderful job of inspiring and even converting, and sometimes entertaining, and they can be really fun to give if you enjoy that sort of thing. (Which I do.) But sadly, they are not really a very good way to teach.

When I first started work as a “Lecturer” of Operations Research, I read up about the whole process of lecturing in order to do the best I could. I was an experienced highschool teaher, but knew that a class of 250 differed from a class of 33. I was a trifle dismayed to find that the method that I thought had served me just fine as a student wasn’t really very effective. I read that you shouldn’t talk while people are copying notes down. So I prepared my overhead transparencies (which were modern and innovative back then) and worked out my timing. Within two or three lectures I realised how boring this was for me. I would talk a bit, expose some notes, and wait for the students to copy them down verbatim. This was self-delusion – the copying process leaves much to be desired, and is especially fraught when involving mathematical formulas. In fact I brought in an unnecessary level of error.

I started to photocopy my transparencies and distribute them at the start of class. I left gaps for working problems. This definitely left much more opportunity for interaction and participation from the students. But it was still “statistical methods as a spectator sport.”

Fast forward a bit over a decade and things have changed with regard to what is available. Let me tell you about my course now. Thanks to a natural disaster, last year I have been able to abandon real-time, face-to-face lectures entirely. The course is delivered using a learning management system known a Moodle. There are eight sections, with material in various forms. Each section has open tests which the students take repeatedly until they master the material (defined as 80%). There is a bank of questions so that the tests are different each time. Then they sit through a similar test in a supervised setting, to ensure the student has done the work. Again they must gain a mark of 80% or better, but may have multiple attempts.

The most important part of the course is the tests. This is where the learning takes place. The support materials include lecture notes with audio (podcasts), lessons with step-by-step instructions, links to outside material, notes, videos of lectures from pre-earthquake, and carefully made videos which are hosted at You can read more about how the videos are made at We provide daily opportunities for students to get one-on-one help, though surprisingly few take it up. The material is very carefully designed to build skills, confidence and learning strategies as the students progress through the course, so that at the end they are tackling difficult material that they would have balked at at the start of the course.

I could write much more about this course, and the success it has had, particularly for students who are not mathematically inclined. And I will – soon!


About the author: Dr. Nicola Ward Petty has taught business statistics and operations research at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand for over twenty years. She was awarded a university teaching award in 2006 and has mentored other faculty, and developed innovative and successful courses to help people who find quantitative subjects difficult. You can read her blog here and follow her on Twitter here.

One Response to Replacing Traditional Lectures
  1. Pingback: No more lectures! | Learn and Teach Statistics and Operations Research

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