Image: via Pixabay CC0 1.0
The lecture has had a rough ride lately. It’s widely derided as outmoded and ineffective. It’s held up as unfair to students and as the work of lazy instructors. In the most recent defence of the lecture to make the rounds*, Molly Worthen even withdraws to a corner of the battlefield, willing to concede the uselessness of the lecture in the sciences even as she argues that it has a role to play in the humanities. Instead of lecturing, we’re told, we should be running group discussions, facilitating problem-based learning, asking students to think-pair-share, and (recently in vogue) flipping the classroom. Actually, I think all those things are good ideas. But the dismissal of instructors who give lecture waltzes right past a really important point about students who experience lectures.
Perhaps the most cutting insult to the lecture is this: approaches other than lecturing are often, collectively, referred to as “active learning”. This makes it quite clear that lectures are held to be passive. Sometimes that’s even explicit:
Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. (Freeman et al. 2014)
I have a big problem with this formulation. When we draw a distinction between lectures and “active learning”, we tell students that they’re expected to respond to the lecture by passive listening and nothing more.
I’d agree (surely we all would) that passive listening is an ineffective way to learn**. But why on earth should we conceptualize the lecture as a droning instructor and a room full of passive listeners? That’s certainly not what I expect of my students. When lecturing is the tool, I expect students to be full and active participants in the learning process. And how can a student do that? It’s no mystery. An actively learning student does the suggested reading and looks over the posted lecture materials before coming to class. They take notes during the lecture – not trying to record verbatim what’s said, but rather synthesizing and prioritizing material and connecting it to personal experience and material they’ve seen in other courses. They answer questions when the lecturer poses them, and they ask them when they’re curious or when something isn’t clear. They join (even instigate) in-class and after-class discussions. And after lecture, they return to the suggested readings again, this time with their lecture notes to compare and contrast, and discover new connections and new angles on the material***.
Hands up if you think I’m naïve. Thought so. Surely no student actually does all those things? Well, the best ones do; and when they do, they find the lecture part of an educationally rich experience. And this seems to be the real knock against the lecture: it works very well for some students, but it’s not effective for those who don’t do their part. So, should we abandon the lecture, or should we help students take advantage of it?
I propose a two-pronged campaign.
First, let’s stop calling lectures “lectures”, and start calling them “student-active, expert-mediated learning” – because that’s what they are. By doing so, we’ll signal that we’d like to flip student expectations about their participation in learning.
Second, let’s teach students how to learn from the lecture. I think many of us assume that we can lecture, and all the student activities I described above will just happen. I’ve made that assumption in the past, and have been annoyed to discover I was wrong – but I’ve realized that it isn’t fair to blame students for not meeting my assumptions. I now spend substantial class time telling students what I recommend they do outside class time, and why I recommend that they do it. But I shouldn’t be doing that in a 3rd-year course. Instead, we should be investing significant amounts of time in this with 1st-year students. Many universities offer a course (called University 101 or something similar) that teaches study and learning skills, but too often that course feels to both faculty and students like an afterthought. We should recognize that this course is as important to the degrees we offer as any content-based course – no, I take that back, it’s more important than any content-based course. We should invest in University 101: invest faculty time, yes; but also invest student credit-hours, because taking the course seriously means putting it into a major in place of, not in addition to, one of the many content-based courses typically fighting for inclusion.
Lectures (whoops, I mean student-active, expert-mediated learning) are here to stay. That’s partly because we’re inherently conservative creatures, and we’re all familiar with them from our own undergraduate days. But it’s also because, done well and with full participation from our students, they can work.
To be clear: none of this means we should ignore the possibility that lectures are less effective for disadvantaged and minority students. These students may need more help to take advantage of them. It also doesn’t mean we should abandon think-pair-share or problem-based learning or the flipped classroom. That would be no more helpful than banning the lecture. The toolbox is full; let’s use all the tools we find in it.
EDIT: This post hasn’t been terribly successful in communicating its main message, because I muddled together several points and the subsidiary ones touch nerves. I’ll leave it intact (so you can dissect the rhetoric as an exercise), but please read it with this in mind:
Subsidiary points: (1) There is lots of research showing that techniques other than the lecture are very effective. (2) Some, but likely not all, pedagogy experts recommend retention of the lecture modality in combination with other techniques. (3) No matter what, students will still experience lectures for the foreseeable future. (4) Good lectures with actively participating students are better than bad lectures, and may even be very good.
Main point: Much of the research on, and nearly all the lay discussion of, teaching methods conflates “lecture” with “students learning passively”. I think this is a huge mistake, and one that does real damage to students in real educational contexts.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) November 3, 2015
It’s entirely possible I’m wrong about all this, and you should read some opposing (in whole or part) opinions. Here is Terry McGlynn’s Why I Avoid Lecturing, here’s Chris Buddle’s call to Ban the Lecture, Not the Laptop, here’s Derek Bruff’s take on Continuous Exposition by the Teacher, and here’s Anne Osterrieder’s reflection on how she was taught and how she wants to teach. It’s a start.
*There are plenty of such defences to be read; just google “In defence of the lecture” for a long list. And yet I’m writing this post anyway.
**If you’ve stood at the front of a classroom, you’ve seen that student: pencil down and notebook closed. And you’ve seen that student again, after the midterm exam, mystified by a low grade; and sometimes yet again, the next year in the same course, pencil still down and notebook still closed.
***Sure, you can give a lecture that doesn’t ask for this kind of active participation from students. You can follow a single textbook using its own sequencing and its own examples; prepared Powerpoint slides available from textbook publishers will even grease the rails of this particular mistake. But the fact that this is possible doesn’t make lecturing a bad idea, any more than the ability to play Justin Bieber very loudly makes your car stereo a bad idea.