Lecture Me–Really?

You may have seen the recent New York Times op-ed piece by Molly Worthen, in which she defends the “traditional lecture” against what she sees as pedagogical threats posed by “the active learning craze” and a “populist resentment of experts.” The essay lit up social media in academic circles, and was shared and re-posted widely. Worthen certainly speaks to the things professors value: students who can take good notes, model critical argument, and learn to listen both closely and deeply.  Her argument that “comprehension and reasoning,” the two bedrock skills for “the essentials of working life and citizenship,” are the products of lecturing done well appeals to the content-geek in all of us. Who among us doesn’t have a vision of ourselves up on stage, waxing erudite about the intricacies of our discipline to an admiring throng of students hanging raptly upon our every word? Worthen’s call to return to the lecture and rediscover the essentials of a humanistic education is a seductive argument indeed.

But let’s examine lecturethe assumptions Worthen employs. Most critically, she argues that lectures are effective pedagogy because they model for students the essential skills of organizing information, synthesizing knowledge, and constructing a scholarly argument. But seeing something done-even done masterfully-is not a guarantee that one will be able to do that thing as well.

Let me offer an analogy: Last Saturday, I watched the Cal-UCLA football game, and UCLA’s kicker drilled a 60-yard field goal right before halftime. A 60-yd field goal is rare; it takes a great deal of talent, technique, and leg strength to make a kick from that distance. What I watched, then, was a masterful example of a field goal-disciplinary best practice, if you will. I saw it dissected on slow-motion replay from several different angles. I observed the kicker’s technique closely. But to expect me to be able to go out and kick a 60-yard FG (hell, even a 10-yarder) would be absurd. I’ve never practiced kicking a football. I’ve seen it done well LOTS of times. I’ve listened to experts break down, in minute detail, what goes into a successful kick. But I have never experienced performing that action myself. Arguing that lectures provide students with essential examples of rhetorical excellence and intellectual jujitsu that allow them to emulate the same is the equivalent of expecting me to kick a 60-yard friend goal based upon my extensive football-watching experience. I’ve seen the best of the best perform their craft, but I cannot do the same without the opportunity to act-to practice, to implement that knowledge-for myself. The same is true for our students.

The moral of the story, I think, is that one simple argument hides another simple truth. It’s an overly-simplified argument to assert that lecturing is the solution to what ails humanities pedagogy. It’s a simple truth, however, that it is one of many tools we can use as instructors-tools that are both context-specific and varied in their deployment.

This week’s links sample some of the most stimulating responses to Worthen’s argument. They’re well-worth reading if for no other reason than they model the very best in scholarly conversation and thoughtful engagement with a complex-and contested-topic.

Joshua Eyler, Director of Rice University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, argues that “Active Learning is Not Our Enemy,” and calls for a more nuanced approach to our discussion of the lecture:

To begin with, I want to be absolutely clear: I don’t have any problem with lecturing as one tool among many that we can use to help our students learn.  It can be a very valuable strategy in certain instances.  After all, storytelling is the world’s oldest form of teaching, so there are times when a well-delivered lecture can be as powerful as anything else we do in the classroom.  The key is we have to keep them short, and we also need to use other teaching methods as well, because the research simply does not support the notion that courses dominated by lecture will be effective for student learning.

Eyler goes on to discuss some of the most recent and relevant research on lecturing and pedagogy, but you can also see some good examples of what scholars of teaching and learning are finding HERE. And the highly significant study from the National Academy of Sciences on active learning techniques and improvement in student performance can be accessed HERE.

Lee Skallerup Bessette, on her blog College-Ready Writing, gives us a thoughtful meditation on the purposes of lecture from a personal faculty perspective. And Elizabeth Barre looks beyond the debate over “good” vs. “bad” pedagogy to more deeply engage with the question, “What is the point of a teacher?” It’s a thought-provoking essay, and I highly recommend it.

Ironically, while the lecture in itself is a monologue, the debate surrounding it is emphatically a multipolar conversation. And maybe that’s the most telling aspect of the whole issue-engaging with both ideas and other voices seems to be the most fertile ground for the production of knowledge.


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One thought on “Lecture Me–Really?”

  1. I moved away from straight lecturing long ago and I’m always looking for ways students can become more active and engaged in class. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because there really isn’t a debate any longer about whether active learning strategies work better than lecturing. The data is in and the argument is over. It’s far better to put students into groups and assign them various tasks or problems related to the material than to gas on about the subject. I know this, I get it, but sometimes I miss lecturing. Well, maybe not standing in front of the class and droning on for 45 minutes, but that kind of free-flowing lecture/discussion that is peppered with periodic stops to wrestle with students’ questions or the implications of some big idea.

    My teaching fantasy has always been to walk into a class each day and put such a profound or unsettling question on the board that the students would immediately feel compelled to seek an answer. Then I would briefly lay out some possible historical approaches for answering the question. After which we would together explore the implications of answering it a certain way. Hard-won experience has taught me that I am unlikely to ever realize this fantasy. I simply have to accept the fact that no one can be fascinating three days a week for 16 weeks.

    So it’s back to the old bag of active learning tricks: pair-share activities, in-class tasks with group discussions, staged debates… Even though I know the fantasy doesn’t work, I still have a hard time letting go of it. If I had a choice between using all these acting learning strategies and living the fantasy… Well, let’s put it this way: I’d rather be fascinating. That said, teaching with active learning strategies does work.

    It is also a lot of work (that’s why it’s simultaneously a curse). The difficulty–and it’s the central, ineradicable difficulty in all teaching–is to find ways to present the material so that it engages student curiosity. The problem is next time is never quite like last time. Students’ personalities, interests and abilities vary from semester to semester. You have to switch tactics. What once worked doesn’t work anymore. Why? Who knows? It just doesn’t. So I am forever trying to find new ways to arouse my students’ curiosity. Mostly I fret about the pervasive but often unvoiced question that lingers just below the surface of every roomful of undergrads: “Who cares?”

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