Over the past few weeks the New York Times has rekindled a longstanding debate among scholars and educators over the role of lecturing in the college classroom. Back in September Annie Murphy Paul suggested that college lectures are “a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself . . . that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.” This month Molly Worthen responded with a defense of the traditional lecture, arguing that “lectures are essential for teaching the humanities most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.”
Both essays make good points that I agree with. Since I adhere to the idea that knowledge is constructed and that people rely on prior knowledge when making connections to new intellectual content, I can see Paul’s argument that poor and minority students who attended inferior schools during their youth can be at a disadvantage in a lecture-based college classroom. Conversely, I can also agree with Worthen that lectures expose students to content experts who have a platform to share their knowledge beyond the confines of a TV soundbite or YouTube video. I also agree with her that lectures can challenge students to synthesize information and take good notes.
I do not approach this conversation as an experienced college professor, but as a certified social studies teacher who had a cup of coffee in the middle/high school teaching world a few years ago and as a current interpreter for the National Park Service, where a parallel discussion is taking place about whether interpreters should play the role of “sage on the stage” or “guide by the side” during visitor interactions. These jobs have allowed me to participate in and facilitate learning experiences through a wide range of mediums. These experiences inform my opinion that lectures can be an effective tool for generating effective learning experiences, but only if they are used within reason, at appropriate times. Furthermore, it’s not productive to look at lectures and active learning as either/or propositions. Educators should be well-versed in a range of teaching methods, and I believe most critics of the lecture format are asking professors to expand their pedagogical vocabulary rather than asking them to fully abolish the traditional lecture course, as Worthen suggests.
Before I advance my arguments further, we should pause and ask what, exactly, constitutes a lecture. Derek Bruff of Vanderbilt University offers a useful distinction between educators who incorporate discussion and interaction throughout their lectures and others who engage in what he calls “continuous exposition,” which is completely devoid of any student interaction and is really just a monologue. The “continuous exposition” was a staple of my undergraduate education, and it was a real drag most of the time. I had a number of professors that lectured for the entire period and then, with five minutes left, would ask if anyone had questions. In my five years in undergrad I don’t think a single student ever asked a question during those five-minute windows, largely because most students wanted to get out of class by that point and understood that any sort of real, substantive Q&A with the professor would require much more than five minutes. A more active approach to lecturing–or a wholly different approach altogether–would have yielded more feedback from students if these professors truly cared about that feedback.
Another consideration is how much emphasis is given to the lecture in evaluating a student’s performance in a given class. In a continuous exposition lecture, the student’s grade is tied almost exclusively to his or her ability to recite in written form what the professor says during the lecture. This too is a problem in my mind because it places too much emphasis on rote memorization and recitation of content at the expense of training students to think about interpretation, analysis, and the process of drawing informed conclusions. I like Andrew Joseph Pegoda’s “high stakes quizzing” approach which places much more emphasis on assigned readings outside the classroom, frequent quizzes that challenge students to draw conclusions about their readings, and classroom discussions about those readings that are guided–but not exclusively directed–by the professor. This approach invites thoughtful student interaction while also allowing the professor the option to step back or jump into the discussion as necessary.
Yet another consideration in this discussion is reconciling the underlying tension between disciplinary knowledge and educational theory in educating future teachers. Most of my history professors were primarily focused on teaching content and used the continuous exposition model to convey that content, but my education professors stressed that we could only lecture for ten minutes to our future students and that we would have to utilize other active learning methods for the bulk of our classroom experiences (these education professors, ironically enough, often had a tendency to lecture for more than an hour to us). Historian and educator Fritz Fischer, writing in the June 2011 issue of Historically Speaking, explains that:
My students and I struggle with trying to connect the world of academic history with the world of pedagogical training. On the one hand, they were told by the educational theorists to create a “student centered” classroom and to rely on clever and fun classroom activities such as jigsaws and Socratic debates. These activities were often intellectually vapid, devoid of historical content or an understanding of historical context. On the other hand, they sat in their introductory history courses and listened to lectures about THE story of the past. Some of the lectures might have been engaging, interesting, and powerful, but were they really reflective of what historians do, and could they be at all helpful in a K-12 history classroom? How were my students to reconcile these worlds? (15)
The best way to reconcile these worlds, in my opinion, is to embrace a balanced approach to teaching that values lecturing not as the ultimate means for obtaining knowledge but as a tool within a larger arsenal that includes the use of other methods such as classroom discussions, group projects, classroom websites and blogs, and assignments that challenge students to develop and communicate arguments through written and oral form.
The challenge, of course, is designing these student-centered activities in ways that incorporate both content and disciplinary process. Bruce A. Lesh offers some great examples of implementing a balanced teaching approach in the middle/high school history classroom in his book “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12. In one case he challenges students to envision themselves as public historians who are tasked with documenting historical events through the creation of a historical marker. Students work on a given topic and are tasked with doing historical research, writing the text for this historical marker, and then explaining their methods and interpretations in both written form and during classroom discussion. This is a perfect example of an intellectually rigorous but student-centered approach to teaching historical thinking and content. It allows students a platform to contribute their own knowledge to the learning process, but it also allows the teacher to facilitate conversation and act as a content expert when necessary. Furthermore, it’s an activity that can be catered to students of all ages, whether they’re in elementary school or college.
So, while I don’t think educators need to fully discard the lecture, I think they should take the time to ensure they use it with proper care and with students’ learning journeys in mind.
P.S. I meant to, but forgot to include a link to Josh Eyler’s post “Active Learning in Not Our Enemy,” which is very good and worth reading. I owe a debt to Josh for sparking some of my own thoughts in this essay.