Should lectures be compulsory?

Peter Lockwood, Chris Guppy, Robyn Smyth


Undergraduate teaching units for internal students enrolled in agricultural science degrees at the University of New England typically involve two to three hours of lectures per week and a compulsory three hour practical class. Historically lectures have been optional for students, and many lectures are poorly attended. This has led to debate amongst teaching staff in the school about whether learning outcomes as measured by assessment grades would be improved if students were obliged to attend lectures, and a minority of unit coordinators have made their lectures compulsory. A study was carried out to assess the role of lectures in SOIL 220 (Introduction to Soil Science), a core unit with two non-compulsory lectures per week.

Despite much anecdotal evidence concerning lecture attendance and some preliminary work in other faculties on our campus (Brien and Smyth, in preparation), a search of mainstream electronic databases revealed little in the way of exacting research. Nevertheless, the more generalised literature provided some useful guidance so we sourced some of the available literature on active lecturing techniques, student motivation for learning and current learning and teaching theory in higher education (Barry 1995; Biggs 1999; Johnston and Cooper 1997; Ramsden 1992; Ramsden 2003; Tomlinson 2003). From that analysis, we devised a series of teaching and learning strategy trials and used an independent evaluator (Smyth) to conduct peer reviews of lectures, to ascertain the impact of new techniques. As well as evaluating the particular strategy being trialled, the evaluator analysed teacher-student and student-student interactions to see what level of student engagement was occurring and whether this could shed any light on students’ propensity to attend lectures.

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