Monday, November 27, 2006

Recording Lectures

Every time I give a lecture there’s a bunch of recorders in front of me. Following the lecture, there’s an active trade in lecture recordings on our student newsgroups.

I have mixed feeling about this. On the one hand, I understand why students would want to take advantage of cheap technology to make a permanent record of my words of wisdom. :-)

On the other hand, my words aren’t always wise and I don’t want students to memorize everything I say without checking it against the textbook and other sources. Lecture recordings should be supplements to learning and not the only source. (Don’t get me started about podcasts!)

This point was brought home in one of the threads on our student forums. The students in one of our biochemistry courses had just finished a midterm exam. One of the multiple choice questions was about cholesterol. For those of you who haven’t committed the structure of cholesterol to memory—I am one—I’m including a picture. The description in the textbook (it happens to be my textbook) is ....
Steroids are a third class of lipids found in the membranes of eukaryotes, and, very rarely, in bacteria. Steroids, along with lipid vitamins and terpenes, are classified as isoprenoids because their structures are related to the five carbon molecule isoprene. Steroids contain four fused rings: three six-carbon rings designated A, B, and C and a five-carbon D ring.

I then go on to describe cholesterol, an important steroid.

Choice “C” in the multiple choice question referred to the 4-ring structure of cholesterol. It was a correct choice and the students were supposed to choose another response, which happened to be an obvious incorrect choice. Cholesterol certainly has four rings, so what’s the problem?

The day after the exam, students started complaining on the newsgroup. Apparently Prof. X (no, it wasn’t me, this isn’t my course) said in lecture that cholesterol has only three rings and students have the recording to prove it! Several students demanded that they be given a mark for choosing response C. The complaints quickly escalated with some highly indignant students demanding an extra mark on the exam. According to their logic, it is unfair for students to be penalized because the Professor made a mistake in the lecture.

Other students chimed in. They pointed out that the Professor’s notes referred to four rings and the textbook clearly shows four rings; A, B, C, and D. They suggested that their fellow students have a responsibility to study from the notes and textbook as well as the recording. If there was a discrepancy, then it was up to the student to resolve it, including asking the Professor if necessary.

One of the best responses was from student “YYZ,” who has given me permission to quote him.
I’m saying you can’t only listen to the lecture and that’s it. You have to analyze what he says, look at the slides, think over if things make sense, etc. Studying isn’t mindlessly memorizing words coming out of a professors mouth ...
By Jove, I think he’s got it! It’s refreshing to see that some students understand how to study and it’s refreshing to see them take on the whiners. That’s how things are going to change in the universities. Professors are the enemy and nothing they say has any credibility (at least in the first two years). Responsible students have to speak up.


  1. That is why more and more professors are podcasting their lectures. You get to do the recording, then you go back to your office and do the editing (so you can fix the gaffes and mistakes, kick out irrelevant stuff, perhaps add an important point you forgot to tell in class etc.), then post it online on the class website. That way, students are not tempted to record themselves and they still get the (clean) audio version of your lecture.

  2. That's the upside of podcasting, and it's a very small one.

    The donwnside is that it inhibits student involvement in the lecture and it eliminates any possibility of direct feedback from the students to the lecturer.

    I'm going with clickers next year to encourage class participation and active learning. That's the exact opposite of what podcasts are doing. I want student to be involved, podcasts are for teachers who don't want education to be a two-way street.

    Podcasts are just talking textbooks. Surely we can do better than that?