Much Ado about Lectures

“Some people talk in their sleep. Lecturers talk while other people sleep”
Albert Camus

The point of research is to improve our knowledge and understanding.  An essential part of research is the understanding that what we know today may be different from what we know tomorrow as research progresses, our knowledge changes.  Conclusions changing over time does not mean the earlier researchers were wrong. After all, the researchers based their conclusions on the best information; they had available at the time.  However, future researchers have access to new techniques, equipment, and knowledge, which might lead to different conclusions.  Education is no different. As research progresses and we get new and improved methods, our understanding grows.

Out of all the topics in educational research, the most interesting is the lecture.  No subject seems to generate as much pushback as the lecture.  A lot of faculty seems to feel the need to be offended for the lecture’s sake.  Anyone that has trained at a university and received a graduate degree should understand that our understanding changes over time.  Yet no matter how much researchers publish about the limited value of the lecture in education, large numbers of faculty insist the research must be wrong.

I suspect part of the push back about the lectures is because lecturing is what a lot of faculty have done for years.  If they except that the lecture is not useful, then they have been teaching wrong.  Faculty shouldn’t feel bad about lectures; after all, it is likely what they experienced in school.  I think it is the faculty member’s own experience with lectures as students that lead to the problem.  I have had multiple faculty tell me over the years some version of the statement “The classes I had were lectures, and I learned everything, so lectures have to work.”

The belief that you learned from lectures when you where a student is likely faulty.  The reason this belief is defective is that you have probably never actually had a course that is exclusively a lecture course.  I can hear everyone’s response as they read that sentence, “what are you talking about as a student most of my classes were lectures.  I went into the classroom, and the teacher stood at the front and lectured the whole period. So, of course, I have had lecture courses.”

Again, I don’t think most people have ever had an exclusive lecture course. Let’s braked down a course and see if you really can say you learned from the lecture.  First, did your course have a textbook or other readings assignments?  Just about every course I took had reading assignments.  In most of my classes, I spent more time reading then I spent in the class listing to the lecturer.  Most of my courses also had homework assignments and written reports.  Many of the courses also had weekly quizzes, and one or two midterms were we could learn from the feedback.

Can you honestly say that in a lecture course, you didn’t learn anything from the course readings?  That you didn’t learn anything from the homework assignments and papers. That you didn’t learn anything by reviewing the graded homework assignments, papers, quizzes, and midterms, the truth is even in a traditional lecture course, there are lots of ways for students to learn.  As a student, it is next to imposable to determine how much you learn from any one thing in a course.  So, with all these other ways to learn in a “Lecture” course, can you honestly say you learned from the lecture?  In truth, the only way to have a course where you could say you learned from the lecture is if you had a course that only had a lecture and final, no readings, no assignments, no exams with feedback, only a lecture.

However, there is an even deeper issue with the lecture, then the faculty insisting it works (without any real evidence.)  As faculty members, what should our goal as a teacher be?  It is quite reasonable to say that anyone teaching at a college, university, or any school should attempt to provide the best learning environment they can.  So, even if we accept the argument that students can learn from, let’s call it, a traditional lecture (I don’t) if the research says there is a better way to teach shouldn’t we be using it?

If faculty approach teaching based on what is the best way to teach, it does not matter if students can learn from lectures if there is a better way to teach, we should use it.  The research says we should be using Active Learning when we teach because it benefits the students.  A recent article, Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics from PNAS show that students in classes that don’t use active learning are 1.5 times more likely to fail the course.  At a time when universities and the government are pushing for higher STEM graduation rates, active learning would make a big difference.

So how much of a problem is the lecture?  I know a lot of faculty that say they use active learning in their classrooms.  In a recent newsletter from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Can the Lecture Be Saved? Beth McMurtrie states, “Most professors don’t pontificate from the moment class starts to the minute it ends, but lecturing is often portrayed that way.”

However, a recent paper from the journal Science Anatomy of STEM teaching in North American universities might refute this statement.  The Science paper shows, at least in the STEM disciplines, that when classroom teaching methods are observed rather than reported by survey, 55% of all the course observed are traditional lectures.  Only 18% of the courses are student-centered active learning environments.  The rest have some amount of active learning.

Regardless of whether you think the lecture works or not, it is long past time to change.  There is no reason to feel ashamed or think poorly about faculty that used lectures in the past.  After all, for a lot of reasons, lectures where believed to work.  However, we are also long past the time where anyone should be offended for the lecture’s sake.  We need to use the best teaching methods currently available.  The best methods are the techniques called active learning because students measurably learn better than in a traditional lecture.

Thanks for Listing To my Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

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