Why there's still plenty of room for traditional lecture-based teaching
Dr George Grimble describes how a traditional approach to teaching can be highly successful in a world where digital learning is trending.
2 October 2019
George Grimble, Professorial Teaching Fellow in the Division of Medicine, joined UCL in 2008 to start a clinical nutrition programme from the ground up, having successfully started Europe's first nutrition programme at Roehampton University in 1994.
He created an MSc in Clinical and Public Health Nutrition and an MSc in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition (the first of its kind). Now with over 120 annual enrolments on these two programmes, his approach to curriculum design has been, in his words, “very old fashioned” but highly successful.
With emphasis on building real-world and academic writing skills, linking closely with the latest research and clinical practice, the course may be traditional, but what’s wrong with that?
Making the most of limited resources
“When I arrived at UCL, I wanted to start brand new programmes, but had very little in the way of resources”, says George. “However, I knew there was a fantastic teaching faculty I could tap into, and a wealth of clinical cases at the University Hospital (UCLH).
I knew a total of two people at UCL so had to spend a lot of time networking and persuading others in order to get the course off the ground.”
He had to build a programme that gave the students a rich source of teaching, but with hardly any resources. The best way to use the resources he had was to rely heavily on lectures.
For each nutrition topic, the students receive three or four lectures that focus on different aspects:
- Psychological etc.
The basic structure of the course has remained the same, with a set 9am – 6pm schedule two days a week which, George says, “the students like – they like the discipline.”
“These topics are very dense and you have a lot to discuss. You really need an expert in the room and go into it in detail. We sometimes have whole mornings devoted to one topic with several lecturers, like a mini symposium. I was tickled to speak to a former student at the huge Congress of the European Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition in The Hague in 2017. Her observation was that the Congress was just like the UCL Nutrition MSc!”
Relying on a heavily lecture-based programme has additional social benefits for the students. As they spend so much time together, there is a real social cohesion and by the end of the year, they are a united group.
Designing with future expansion in mind
George had always planned to offer more than one MSc and to reverse-engineer nutrition back into UCL. He wanted to be able to branch off into specialisms in the future. It was therefore important to design the initial MSc so that future expansion was possible.
The MSc has six core modules, then two modules and a dissertation unique to the specialism, which proved to be a very flexible and efficient way to branch off into new areas, like the Eating Disorders MSc (the first of its kind in the world).
Giving support to non-English speaking students
With half of the students coming from outside the EU, English speaking and writing skills were often a challenge.
So that everyone has a chance to properly digest the lectures, they are recorded and made available with the slides on Moodle.
Students also undergo training in academic writing and presentation skills.
Using actors to develop presentation skills
George introduced actors to teach his students how to present. They learn how to stand and breathe and speak from their core. Then they are given a scenario and have to act it out in a small group (with guidance from the actor) in four minutes in front of their peers.
They then have to repeat it in two minutes, then in one minute to force them to present succinctly in English.
The students also deliver a presentation alone, or in groups, to the whole class at the end of every module, in front of a five- or six-strong panel of assessors who fire searching questions to them at the end. Many find it daunting, but comments from alumni clearly show that they are using these new skills in their work.
Building academic writing skills
At the end of the programme, students must be able to write their research as a 10 – 15,000 word dissertation or a paper ready for submission to a journal. Getting writing skills up to standard is therefore a strong focus.
With regular reports and essays submitted throughout modules, the students learn from feedback and are encouraged to attend sessions on Academic Writing.
“We also use peer marking from day one,” comments George. “These exercises help students to understand how their work is assessed. In small groups they mark each other’s work anonymously and then compare this with the grades tutors give. It has been an eye-opener for many and speeds understanding of what constitutes quality in writing”.
- Peer assessment: a toolkit from the UCL Arena Centre
Integrating digital learning
Online learning is very much encouraged and many courses now use an online element, following the UCL E-Learning Baseline.
Although some online aspects are used, such as Moodle for accessing recorded lectures, and several flipped lectures on the Eating Disorders MSc, the courses generally stay away from digital and rely on face-to-face contact.
George explains, “I find that colleagues can be distracted by a lack of resources and feel a lot of pressure to try to be innovative, so they’re moving away from a traditional teaching approach.
I’m a big fan of the traditional as it gives you more exposure to the students. We enhance our face-to-face with a limited amount of online resources and teaching – but my opinion is that teaching is done most effectively when you’re in the same room. Although online seems economical, it takes a lot more time than you expect and actually needs a huge amount of resources to do it well.”
“I have to say that I am also a fan of integrated digital learning if it helps reach remote audiences. I designed and set up an eight-week online course at the University of Reading for the Agri-Food Training Partnership. It provides advanced training for people from the food industry. “Diet, Food and the Nation’s Health” moves briskly through basic nutrition science and the nutritional state of the nation to the role of diet and the food industry in health and in acute and chronic disease. It also acts as a pre-masters for anyone wishing to pursue an MSc in Nutrition.”
What the students think
Since 2008, they have enrolled 490 graduate students and Annual Monitoring reports make it clear that they have done well in most areas and less well in a few others, which they then attempted to remedy.
Students wanted more:
- lectures on more topics
- small-group tutorials, clinic visits and site visits
- case-study presentations and practical work
- help to express themselves better in assignments
- help to become volunteers at some of the homeless shelters or hospitals they visited.
Feedback showed that the programmes were good at…
An intellectual challenge
“The variety of lecturers; the fact that the lecturers are extremely well conversant with their material.”
“Huge variety of lectures specialising in different areas of nutrition, Excellent!!”
A welcoming environment
“(Lecturers were all willing) to help all the students, answer their questions and make everything understandable”
Using a variety of methods to help students learn
“It was relaxed and enjoyable. I enjoyed the interview with a recovered anorexic patient.”
“Loved this course. The flipped lectures were useful and enabled lots of questions to be answered in the lectures. Seminars were relaxed and learnt a lot.”
“I get to do a clinical placement in hospital and see the real patients!”
“The site-visits were an eye-opener!”
Application to practice
“Really love this module because I got the idea that how I could put my knowledge into practice.”
“Lectures from people in business gave us a lot of exposure and insight into what is actually the scenario and requirements...like lectures on parenteral and enteral feeding.”
Where improvements were needed...
Pacing the course
“The course was too fast-paced and intensive and feedback on assessments could be slow.”
“The time was too short, and we had 8 hours of lectures in the same day. Very tiring.”
“Not all lectures were interesting, and some did not take into consideration our attention span”.
Communicating biochemistry and metabolism
“Well, biochemistry is tiring by itself. Maybe if we had more interactive or practical classes, seminars for example would be better.”
Quality of teaching rooms and handouts
In the early days, some rooms were poor and in one, the air conditioning failed (“it is always freezing or boiling in there..”) and it proved difficult to provide sufficient handouts in a timely manner but the huge improvements in the UCL teaching estate and Moodle and .pdf handouts have made both problems obsolete.
George added “These factors can all be remedied but there is another thing to consider. Graduate study is completely stressful for some overseas students who must rapidly adapt to the high standards of UCL learning (which is delivered in a different way), live in a foreign country and complete a course which seems to run at breakneck speed from day one. It can also be a lonely experience and there is the added burden of expectations of sponsors and family. They feel they just cannot fail, and we should listen to their voices.”
“I agree that it is a tough course, which is mentally and physically draining at some point, but simultaneously rewarding and enjoyable. I find the MSc programme is really well-structured, which helped me to discover my research interests and develop my research skills. But, thanks to your patience, guidance, advise and inputs for each of my assignments, ….. made it possible for me to get a distinction and to survive (possibly) one of the toughest MSc in UCL.”
Indonesian student who went on to do PhD at UCL and now Impact Manager for major charity.
George’s top five tips to getting the most out of traditional teaching
- Tell the students that “A cat may look at a king”. In other words, encourage them out of any reluctance to question UCL lecturers and other academics. Their previous university experience may have been authoritarian or hierarchical. Tell them that they are members of the same university as you, albeit there for a shorter term.
- Meet and greet all your lecturers. It may be the only time you can have a face to face conversation from year to year and is an opportunity to gather intelligence (i.e. gossip) and to thank them. It’s also a chance to sit in on the first part of the lecture and do some informal “peer observation”! See the Evaluating your teaching toolkit for more on peer observation.
- “KISS” – Keep It Short and Simple! This applies equally to curriculum design and timetabling, the potential resourcing Achilles Heel of any programme. Our compact two-day programme does not rely on offerings from other courses which might spread it over the week. Instead, staff and students can prepare for two intensive days which can suit students who are also working as health professionals or who need a predictable timetable because of homecare.
- Keep up to date. Include references to relevant papers in your slides and update them every year. It’s not spoon-feeding but tells your audience that you got excited about the paper/study and know what is current thinking.
- Record the lectures. Not all lecturers like it but the advantage is for International students who will listen again to the lecture and view the slides in their own time.