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Making lecture materials available in advance: guidance on the way

Education Committee approves in principle a proposal by the Students’ Union UCL

hands typing at computer

27 July 2017

Guidance for making lecture materials available in advance is being developed in response to a proposal by the Students’ Union UCL. 

The Union proposal, which was supported in principle by Education Committee at its July meeting, suggests that putting materials on Moodle ahead of lectures gives students time to prepare so that they can focus on engaging with the ideas and discussions they encounter in class. They argued that it can be difficult to keep up with the lecturer, particularly for students whose first language is not English. Some also like to see notes in advance to help them prepare.  This issue is frequently raised at SSCCs.

Dr Jason Davies, Senior Teaching Fellow in the UCL Arena Centre, says: ‘Focus groups tell us that substantial number of students absolutely rely on having some kind of framework and overview in their heads in order to make sense of the details they get in the lecture.’

Colleagues from Digital Education and the Arena Centre are developing guidance that will be available later in the summer.

CURRENT PRACTICE

Across UCL there are multiple instances where this happens already. For example, UCL Chemical Engineering has introduced departmental standards for making material available at least 24 hours before a lecture, and in a reasonably complete state. Likewise, for Linguistics modules in UCL Psychology and Language Sciences, lecturers are asked to provide the presentation slides (which used to be made available as handouts) via Moodle at least two working days ahead of time so that those students wanting to use a hard copy can print it out.

Andrea Sella, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, says: ‘In CHEM160x, a course with some 370 students a year, I abandoned hard copies of handouts five or six years ago. I had previously prepared a course booklet that each student received. Because lectures tended to be repeated year on year it was not difficult to get staff to contribute.  We switched to a Moodle download to simplify logistics and we have never had a complaint. I think it is the expectation you set that determines how students will respond.’

SAVING PAPER

Going digital has obvious resource benefits. Anne Welsh, UCL Information Studies says: ‘A few years ago, students raised at SSCC that they do not like paper being wasted by too many print-outs.’ Dr Stephen Potts, UCL Chemistry says: ‘We're weaning ourselves off paper handouts except where they're absolutely necessary. In terms of pre-lecture activity, we're trialling access to the Bibliotech platform, were we can point students to specific sections of OUP e-texts that we subscribe to.’ Andrea Sella adds:  ‘To minimize the cost to the students and to minimize the amount of printing required, all handouts are black and white, with four slides per page.’


INCLUSIVITY AND ACCESSIBILITY (AND THE LAW!)

There are also benefits in terms of accessibility. The majority of staff will be teaching students with a disability – dyslexia, for example, affects 1 in 10 people in the UK – and many students will have chosen not to disclose this. So it is important that teaching activities are designed from the start with the requirements of disabled people in mind. Staff have an obligation under the 2010 Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities, but students in small cohorts have commented that they felt they couldn’t complain when this fails to happen, as it would be obvious who had complained and it may then impact their results.

Anne Welsh, who teaches Masters students, with class sizes of 23-45, says: Our students have long expected slides in advance (and for some with specific vision issues it can be vital to be able to view slides on their laptop / reader as the projection on screen would not work for them. What I do to meet as many of the students' stated needs as possible is load as much in advance as I can, and bring print-outs only for practicals (where students have to mark up the paper) and where something is really vital.’

One reason materials in advance are important for students with disabilities like dyslexia, is that they may need to modify the background colours, layout etc. to make it easier to read, so they can attempt to keep up with other students in class. UCL provides PDF conversion software so they can convert PDFs to editable formats if they need to do this. This was something disabled students have mentioned as being important in focus groups.


WHAT SHOULD BE SHARED AND WHEN?

However, there is some debate about what exactly should be shared before lectures. 

Dr Fiona Strawbridge, Head of Digital Education, acknowledges: ‘It’s not always possible or appropriate for all materials to be made available in advance, but some things - for instance complex diagrams, equations and very wordy slides - ought to be.’ 

Matt Wyndham, UCL Space & Climate Physics agrees: ‘I prefer the term "supporting resources" as opposed to lecture materials. I publish specimens - preparatory texts of greater than X words or diagrams with more than Y objects  - in advance, but leave the rest for real-time presentation. I then publish the notes, slides etc. as shown as close as possible after the lecture (or by timed release). This works when the exposition or the discussion is the thing, rather than merely Going Through The Stuff.  "Now we turn to the diagram of the transfer orbit, which you should have downloaded last week. Trajectory B is an ellipse, as you can see. Class, what are the foci of the ellipse?”

Prof Andrea Sella says: ‘When I give conventional lectures I suggest that students look through my handouts in advance so that they have an idea of what's coming but I also suggest that they not bring the handouts to lectures and instead take notes of what is said in the lecture.  Not many do…’

In Chemical Engineering materials are made available 24-48 hours in advance of lectures.  Prof Eva Sorensen describes how she provides slides with gaps for problems to be worked on in class. After the class she uploads an updated version containing the model answer.  She also uses the ‘hot question’ feature in Moodle which allows students to pose questions and vote on which ones are most important to them – her updated slide sets address the hot questions.

A DIFFERENT APPROACH FOR POSTGRADUATE TAUGHT?

It might be felt that what to share and when to share it should differ for postgraduate taught programmes.

For instance Pascale Hofmann, UCL Development Planning Unit, says: ‘Some of my colleagues do share lecture slides in advance but most feel that we should not share them ahead of the session, particularly at Masters level. I often ask for inputs from the students at various points in the lecture and then share a slide that summarises the main points I would expect them to come up with. Sharing these in advance obviously would defeat the purpose of the exercise. Some of us provide handouts outlining the content of a session as well as copies of important tables or figures.

Dr Paul Ashley of the Eastman Dental Institute says: ‘In small (less than 10) groups of Masters students, we share the 'lecture' as short (15 minute) Lecturecasts around particular topics. We also provide handouts of the PowerPoint presentation as a PDF. The face to face interaction then is more of a seminar.’

Matt Wyndham in UCL Space and Climate Physics says: ‘One approach I use is to publish a whole stack of slides in advance. I use some of them interactively in lectures, according to where the class has interest, trouble or enjoyment. A definitive iteration of slides gets published at the end of the course. This works for small classes (postgrad?) who can be trusted to read around, use the learning objectives and resources intelligently and not become obsessed with syllabus-matching.’

However, some departments struggle to get staff to provide materials in advance, and this is exacerbated in postgraduate taught programmes with a different speaker for every lecture.

‘As a partial solution, we also give students access to the archive of corresponding lecture slides from the previous year,’ says Adam Liston, UCL Institute of Neurology.  ‘Student opinion on this seems to be mixed because of inevitable changes in the material...But the vast majority of content is the same from year to year - we feel that the student can still take a note of any differences on their printout as they attend the lecture.  This in itself can be a useful exercise and archive slides are a valuable resource for learning and note-taking.’

The instinct to treat postgraduates differently from undergraduates is understandable, but we are obliged under the 2010 Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities. What some might regard as spoon-feeding may actually be a reasonable anticipatory adjustment. 

DISTANCE LEARNING?

In addition, there is concern that putting everything online might encourage some students to skip lectures.

‘Lectures need additional features to promote attendance, like having some "holes" in the student slides,’ says Matt Wyndham.  ‘I sometimes publish textbook-style notes, and presentation slides in advance. This works for big classes or multiple deliveries (that need consistency), where the overhead per student can be easily justified. Students like this a lot.  

 However, the debate about gapped vs ungapped handouts continues, according to Andrea Sella.  ‘There was a fashion for them 15 years ago. Is anyone aware of any evidence that gapped handouts help student learning or engagement? They seem to me to be a way of doubling your printing load simply because you print the gapped version and then, after student requests, you end up printing the ungapped. What's the point? Do students actually learn more with them? Or do they just "like" them?’

BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS

Michele Farmer, UCL’s Disability IT Officer, asks two questions:

‘Do all staff, when designing activities, whether in teaching and learning situations or in providing general services, automatically seek to ensure access requirements for disabled people?’

‘Do we have policies and procedures in place which ensure that those adjustments which can be anticipated in advance are addressed by all staff, for example providing handouts in advance in an electronic format?’

The new policy, proposed by the Students’ Union, helps us to respond to those questions with confidence.