Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Replacing Lectures by Using Audiotapes and Written Materials
Originator Bob Matthew
Department Director, Teaching and Learning Service, University of Glasgow, 69 Oakfield Avenue, Glasgow, G12 8QQ, UK
Tel. +44 (0)141 330 3197
Fax +44 (0)141 330 4987

Summary: This case describes the use of audiotapes and session notes so that lectures can be replaced by seminars. The approach has meant that more students have gained a better understanding of the topics covered. The more able students can use the available contact time to look at the subject material in greater depth. Overseas students, for whom English is not the first language, can control the quantity of information they deal with and the speed at which they study. All students can receive information in a variety of ways so that they are more likely to find an approach which best suits their own learning style.



The concern which prompted the course designer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Bradford, to explore the potential of RBL is encapsulated in the question 'What is the best use of my time when interacting with students?' Twelve years ago he began to use audiotapes to support his lectures, and has developed this technique so that the audiotapes, together with 'lecture notes', form the basic method of information transfer. This enables all the contact time available to be reserved for seminar and tutorial work in which the topics studied can be discussed, interpreted, applied and extrapolated.

Context :

This case study describes a second-year module from a course - BSc in Environmental Management and Technology. The second semester module, 'Water Quality and Treatment', covers a wide range of topics, including chemistry, biology, microbiology, sociology and engineering. The module is timetabled for three hours a week - two lectures and one seminar. At Bradford a module has twelve weeks of teaching. The course typically enrols about 20 students.

Aims :

The primary aim of the course designer is to deepen the understanding of his students by increasing both the number and quality of seminars. To achieve this, audiotapes and supporting written materials are used to replace lectures as the method for transferring information. More time is thereby made available for seminars and tutorials and students are better prepared for deeper debate and broader discussions.

Implementation :

Many of the approaches that have been brought together in the teaching of this course have been developed in a number of civil engineering modules. The different elements have therefore been introduced, evaluated and accepted by other teaching staff as being valid and appropriate.

The audiotapes and written materials are produced in-house by the course designer. The tapes are prepared and master copies are kept in a learning resource room, where there are facilities for copying up to eleven 90-minute tapes at one go in just 90 seconds. The students provide their own tapes but only one is really needed. The written materials are available to the students in a bound form at the start of the module. They are also available as 'Word' files.

Student induction :

The second-year students involved are no strangers to independent and resource-based learning. They have received first-year courses which develop the transferable skills required, such as problem solving, and courses which utilize those skills. However, an introductory workshop is held at the beginning of the module in which the course designer explains how the course runs and what his role is. The students also have the opportunity to discuss their fears and concerns about operating in this more 'student-centred' way. The workshop uses a mixture of small and large group exercises and therefore a flat-floored room with movable furniture is used.

Resources :

The module content is contained on eight tapes with associated notes and problem sheets. A further tape helps explain the final piece of coursework. Preparing the tapes takes a little practice and the following points may help anyone considering trying this teaching technique:

The reasons for using audiotapes as the basis of the resource are several. Tapes are inexpensive and easy to update. They also provide a medium which is readily accessible to most students in their own rooms. For those students who do not possess a tape playback machine there are several freely available in the learning resource room. Students can replay tapes as often as they wish and this is particularly helpful for students whose first language is not English.

The tapes are accompanied by very detailed notes, which contain:

The problem sheets that accompany each session contain two or three questions which can be used as self-assessment problems or can be discussed at tutorials. In another civil engineering module the course designer has produced a series of audiotapes in which he talks through his solutions to the questions distributed on problem sheets. These tapes are provided in the learning resource room as another resource for any student who wishes to use them. However, in the case of the 'Water Quality and Treatment' module the students work through the questions and the course designer looks at the answers in a tutorial (see Evaluation).

Operation :

The 12-week module runs with three hours of contact time per week - this would traditionally comprise two one-hour lectures and a class seminar session. The course content is contained in nine audiotapes and accompanying notes and the three teaching hours available are all used for tutorials. The class is divided into three groups of about seven students for the tutorials, with each group attending one tutorial a week. In most other modules attendance at tutorials is voluntary, but in this case attendance is compulsory because the performance of all the students in the tutorials is one way in which the course designer can evaluate the effectiveness of the teaching approach (see Evaluation).

The students study the tapes at their own pace. Approximately half of them work totally independently and the others work together in informal self-help groups. Groups of three or four students can often be seen listening to the tapes together in the learning resource room.

On average the students work through one 90-minute tape per week. A tape is thought to be equivalent to two lectures, shorter in time but more concentrated in terms of the information it contains. Using the notes, the students then answer two or three questions on the session topic. The primary aim of the problem sheets is to enable the students to assess their own ability against the session objectives. However, the course designer also monitors their performance by looking at their solutions to problems during the one-hour small-group session which they attend each week. To this end the students keep a workbook which they bring to each tutorial.

The module is assessed through a summative exercise, which takes place during the last three weeks of the module. The students undertake a 'real' problem, using all the resources they have available to them. This takes approximately thirty hours. Students, using the problem-solving skills they have developed in an earlier module, decide whether they want to work alone or in a group. At the end of the module they hand in a report of their solution for the staff to mark. If a group submits a joint report, the members of the group must also submit a statement saying either that they all want to receive the same mark or an explanation of who did what in the group, together with an indication of what distribution of marks they wish to see.

The results produced from this assessment method have not been significantly different from those gained in traditional written exams. However, there is an unquantifiable impression that the students seem to understand topics rather than regurgitate information.

Costs :

The equipment required for rapid tape-to-tape copying costs in the region of £700 for a system that will copy one master to three blanks. Extra units, which add the capability to copy another four tapes, cost around £350 (1993/4 prices). Tapes are purchased by the students. The accompanying notes are provided by the department and all production and photocopying costs are currently met by the department. The learning resource room is open from 9.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. It is unstaffed and has a security code lock on the door.

It takes the course designer about two days to put together a session that includes a tape, notes and problem sheet. Updating the materials is relatively straightforward, but it can be time consuming if the modifications are so major that a new tape needs to be prepared. The production costs are front-loaded, but when compared to a traditional course they are comparable in the short term and can save staff time in the long term.

The student workload is equivalent to a traditional course, but students have greater control over how and when they work. Some listen to the tapes in their cars, others choose to work in a more structured, collaborative way in self-help groups.

Evaluation :

To evaluate the quality of learning the students answer a question on the general topic of the module (e.g. 'What is "wholesome" water?'), before and after they have taken the module. In this way the course designer can assess the level of academic development that has taken place more accurately than by using only summative assessment. The 'before-and-after' method gives an indication of the value added and acknowledges the very different starting points of the students enrolling on the module. It therefore provides one way in which the progress of all the students can be monitored. The question it answers is 'Does this teaching approach disadvantage any groups?'

A second way in which student progress is monitored is through the tutorial system, in which student workbooks, containing their answers to the problem sheet questions, are checked. This enables the course designer to gain an insight into the thought processes of the students, so that he can discover what they find difficult and confusing. The session tapes and notes can be modified accordingly.

Departmental course-evaluation questionnaires have shown that the students enjoy this way of teaching and have no general complaints other than that the tapes can occasionally be soporific. Other teaching staff have noted that the students on this module 'ask very awkward questions'. It is certainly clear that the students ask much 'deeper' questions in tutorials than they did when traditionally taught. This makes teaching a far more interesting, stimulating and satisfying experience.

Developments :

'Water Supply' is a second-year module in a three-year course. The course designer has built on the students-experience of independent study in the final year in a self-directed problem-based course. In this module, first offered in 1995/6, students are given the title of the module 'Waste Water Treatment' together with the general aims of the course. The students then decide on a week by week basis, what to study, what the outcomes will be, and what evidence they need to accumulate in order to demonstrate that they have met their self-imposed objectives. At the end of the module the course designer negotiates with each student a 'grade' which is returned to the formal Assessment Board. The course designer finds this module a delight to teach, but accepts it would not suit everyone. The students enjoy it. His contact time with the students is low because they have developed the skills to learn by themselves. Most weeks the students simply let him know what they have done and what they are planning to do, just to reassure him!

Conclusion :

This module is just one part of a carefully designed course in which skills and knowledge are co- operatively developed. The use of RBL is part of a wider teaching philosophy which gives greater responsibility to the students and aims to make best use of limited contact time with staff. Contact time is not used for information transfer, but rather to stimulate interest and debate and to solve problems jointly.

One key feature of this module is the variety of learning resources made available to the students. The module caters for a wide range of learning styles so that more students can achieve a higher level of understanding. The audiotapes in particular have provided a freedom for individuals to study in a way that suits them - for example, in the car, in a small group with other students, and so on. This assumption is borne out by students who have asked to use the tapes while on their industrial placements.

The approach therefore helps to support the view of the course designer that 'Learning doesn't stop when you leave university, but is part of a continuing professional development.' The learning that most people do after leaving university is student-centred and resource-based; therefore helping students to study in this way is preparing them for a lifetime of learning.


This case study is an updated version of the one presented in Exley & Gibbs (1994) Course Design for Resource Based Learning: Science (Oxford: Oxford Brookes University, The Oxford Centre for Staff Development).


Independent learning
Resource based learning
Student centred learning

This is one of the case studies which appears in the GDN Guide "Resource-based Learning in Geography"

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