please stop lecturing me

The New York Times has run an op-ed by Molly Worthen, a professor of history, who implores against active learning in college classes and wants to retain the lecture format:

Good lecturers communicate the emotional vitality of the intellectual endeavor (“the way she lectured always made you make connections to your own life,” wrote one of Ms. Severson’s students in an online review). But we also must persuade students to value that aspect of a lecture course often regarded as drudgery: note-taking. Note-taking is important partly for the record it creates, but let’s be honest. Students forget most of the facts we teach them not long after the final exam, if not sooner. The real power of good notes lies in how they shape the mind.

“Note-taking should be just as eloquent as speaking,” said Medora Ahern, a recent graduate of New Saint Andrews College in Idaho. I tracked her down after a visit there persuaded me that this tiny Christian college has preserved some of the best features of a traditional liberal arts education. She told me how learning to take attentive, analytical notes helped her succeed in debates with her classmates. “Debate is really all about note-taking, dissecting your opponent’s idea, reducing it into a single sentence. There’s something about the brevity of notes, putting an idea into a smaller space, that allows you psychologically to overcome that idea.”

As we noted on this blog, there is actually a massive amount of research comparing lecturing to other forms of classroom instruction and lectures do very poorly:

To weigh the evidence, Freeman and a group of colleagues analyzed 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods. The meta-analysis, published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that teaching approaches that turned students into active participants rather than passive listeners reduced failure rates and boosted scores on exams by almost one-half a standard deviation. “The change in the failure rates is whopping,” Freeman says. And the exam improvement—about 6%—could, for example, “bump [a student’s] grades from a B– to a B.”

If you’d like your students to master the art of eloquent note taking, continue lecturing. If you’d like them to learn things, adopt active learning.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

October 21, 2015 at 12:01 am

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. 6%? If the difference between lecturing and that other stuff is 6% on exams, I figure: I’m more than 6% better at lecturing than the average lecturer in those studies, so I’ll get at least that 6% back with my awesome lectures.

    Liked by 2 people

    Philip N. Cohen

    October 21, 2015 at 3:30 am

  2. You seem to be comparing apples and oranges. Debates happen, for example, about what social policy to adopt, and are frequently based on some claimed accounting of history. (Or at least, my ideal conception of politics has this happening. Today in the US…) It’s not clear that one can avoid listening to someone talk, and yet learn how to… listen to someone talk and then engage the points made.

    STEM is very, very different from the above. There, I can see how lectures really don’t work all that well. But if we want to deal with the massive public discourse problem in the United States[1], we need more than STEM—don’t we? Otherwise, we will continue to enhance our nation’s ability to deploy instrumental reason, but not talk about whether we should really be headed in the direction we’re headed in. (Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society, anyone?)

    [1] From Ronald Dworkin, considered “one of the most important legal philosophers of the last 100 years”, via law scholar Steven D. Smith:

        Ronald Dworkin’s assessment is, if possible, even gloomier. Dworkin deplores “the lack of any decent argument in American political life.”[3] [M]ost people,” he laments, “now have no interest in discussion or debate with those they regard as belonging to an entirely alien religious or political culture.”[4] Nor is it only ordinary folks (a word I use with apologies to Jacoby, who cringes at the term[5]) who have lost interest in serious deliberation or debate, Dworkin declares. “[T]he news is not much better when we look … to the contributions of public intellectuals and other commentators. Intellectuals on each side set out their own convictions,” but rarely they make any effort to engage in “genuine argument.”[6] (The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, 3–4)

    The notes reference Dworkin’s Is Democracy Possible Here?.


    Luke Breuer

    October 22, 2015 at 12:45 am

  3. On the whole, count me a believer in active learning methodologies over lectures. Although I have not studied it academically, I really do believe that students playing active, rather than passive, roles in the classroom facilitates more learning. I do not disagree that listening is a critical skill that should be learned, but I bet I could teach better listening skills via interactive groups, in which students get the opportunity to practice active listening with one another, than via lecture, in which students simply have to hear me explain to them how to listen. Same goes for course content, as opposed to skills. In sociology, for example, I bet that students learn the structure of an article’s argument better if they complete a small-group discussion activity (guided by a handout) in which they diagram the argument together, compared to me just telling them what the structure of the argument is. Just from my own experience in the classroom, things seem to go better and students seem to be happier when they are given the responsibility to discover and debate key findings and ideas themselves.

    I have not abandoned the lecture, nor should it be abandoned. Rather, it should be used strategically and deliberately, not as the default classroom practice. I had a mentor who once told me that the worst thing you can do in the classroom is to be predictable. Always vary what teaching techniques you use because it keeps students interested and engaged and because of how so many students have different learning styles. Some students love group work, some hate it. Some love lectures, some hate it. Videos are good at teaching certain things, but not others. Some learn visually, others bodily, etc. You should vary your classroom pedagogy for the same reasons that you vary your diet. Eating the same thing day after day gets boring, no matter what it is. Different teaching techniques provide different nutrients, so you have to use multiple techniques to teach different types of things and at different levels of learning (understanding, application, analysis, synthesis, etc.). Some foods are more nutritious than others, but even junk food has its place. Everything in moderation. Sorry for the silly analogy, but it works for me.

    I think it is still worth beating on the “active learning” drum because (a) I know there is research showing that active learning makes a big difference for students from less privileged backgrounds and can help close the achievement gap, and (b) Ph.D. students who are learning how to become professors are learning how to teach from the people who have been least affected by the value of different pedagogies. I would guess that most professors (especially high-achieving ones at R1s who are teaching Ph.D. students) fell into the population of undergraduate students who would have succeeded, no matter how good or bad their college teachers were. But most of us end up teaching at institutions full of students for whom the choice of instruction techniques really does make a difference in student learning and achievement. As professors, we have important knowledge and insight to impart, and lecturing seems to us the simplest way to impart that knowledge. When we lecture, we feel like we are in control, and it gives us that instant gratification of that we did our job. But there is a big disconnect between what professors say and what students hear (let alone what students understand). So although it feels great to give a good lecture, it’s what students learn that counts.



    October 22, 2015 at 7:28 pm

  4. A good lecture provides a distillation of material and a point of view. A good lecture is more like a magazine article than a scholarly article, and conveys personality and attitude toward the material, not just the content, I think. I’m not defending lectures (even though that is what I do in my big lecture class) over active learning approaches, because I’m pretty sure students do learn more in active stances, I’m just wondering what replaces the part that is good about a good lecture.

    FWIW a high percentage of the students in my class say they learn more from my class than others because I don’t give tests but require class attendance and daily written comments on the lectures (which I read and respond to after every class). The class meets the ethnic studies requirement and I tell them I don’t give tests because I want them to think about the material, not just spit back to me what they think I want to hear. It is entirely possible that they are just telling me what I want to hear (and there is definitely a minority who say my class is a complete waste of time), and another part of the class involves TA-led sections which require participation, so learning is happening through a variety of channels. But I am wondering whether introducing an “active” element into the lecture format may change its dynamics?

    And whether the “best” format varies depending on educational goals.



    October 22, 2015 at 11:28 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: