Monday, January 9, 2012

Losing the lecture?

When I was a college student, most of my classes were lectures.  I had some excellent professors, who gave inspiring, entertaining, and informative lectures.  I sat in the front and took notes furiously, trying to get every word down.  I still have some of those notebooks, somewhere in my archives. 

In graduate school, when I began teaching, I wrote lectures.  I interspersed some demonstrations and some discussions, as well, to engage the students further, but I stayed within the lecture format, by and large.  After all, that is what professors did -- they organized the information and delivered it through lecture.

In recent years, though, I've shifted away from lecturing in most of my classes.  In part, this came from a desire to engage students in discussions of complex issues rather than have them passively absorb information.  One semester I spent four hours of my Psychology of Human Sexuality class lecturing about female sexual anatomy and physiology and it seemed like a phenomenal waste of class time, particularly since the information was readily available in their textbook.  Given that I can't possibly cover all of the material in class, making myself a conduit for information from the textbook struck me as a poor use of class time, which is, after all, a limited resource.  I wanted the students to grapple with debates, learn to apply the concepts, to actively engage with the material, and lecturing was not reliably accomplishing those objectives.


I'm not the only one moving away from lecturing as a teaching technique.  In a recent NPR story, several physics professors described lecturing as ineffective and a "waste of time."  Students weren't learning basic physics concepts through lecture.  Listening to someone talk is too passive, and what we know from research is that one must actively process information to learn it.  Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur now uses peer instruction, in which students work in groups to solve physics problems.  The idea is to have students read the text in advance to get the information, and then use class time to work on making sense of the information, generally the more challenging part of learning.

This Doonesbury cartoon reminds us that information is widely available
(and that students may not be paying attention to lectures anyway)

But, as the NPR story notes, "ask anyone involved with efforts to lose the lecture and they'll tell you they encounter resistance. Sometimes the stiffest opposition comes from the students."  Resistance from faculty makes sense.  First of all, lecturing is an efficient way to cover information, so we would have to give up some of the topics we now include in lectures.  In addition, we'd have to throw away years of work spent crafting and revising our lectures, give up the anecdotes and jokes that are meant to seem spontaneous, but are instead polished routines designed to elicit appreciative laughter.  The Powerpoint slides, with the perfect images we hunted for and the bullet points arriving in ideal timing for our stories -- all gone.  And what are we to replace this with?  Must we now embark upon yet more labor to design the classroom activities that will serve as instructional in the absence of lecturing?  It seems a daunting task.

Why would students oppose the loss of lectures, though?  For one thing, listening to a lecture is less work than active learning.  Students would have to arrive for class prepared to work, having completed the reading and ready to fully engage their cognitive resources for the entire class.  In addition, students often come to college expecting lectures.  In interviews with community college students, Rebecca Cox found that their model of college involved having the professor, an expert in the field, impart information through lectures.
Students interviewed by Cox expected their professors to present “essential facts and clear explanation of the textbook.” As a result, many of these students “seemed wholly comfortable as passive recipients of professor’s expert knowledge” in the traditional lecture format. (Moltz, 2009)
When professors didn't lecture, some students complained that there was no teaching going on at all.

In other words, lectures are comfortable for everyone, professors and students alike.  So why change?  Oh, right, because they may not be the most effective instructional tool.  Note the difference between lecture and guided discussion here in this clip from Third Rock from the Sun (not that I'm recommending his rather discouraging evaluation of his students' capabilities, mind you):

But change is possible.  In my upper-level classes, I don't lecture much at all.  Classes involve a range of activities including discussion (more or less structured), question-and-answer, working in groups to answer questions or apply the material, student presentations, brief writing exercises, and yes, some lecturing.  I still stand as the expert in the room and most of the discussion happens through me; I talk quite a bit even now.  I have some ideas for how to decenter myself somewhat to give students a more active role, but mostly, I'm happy with the format of these classes.  It's been a gradual process; I didn't give up lectures all at once, but instead, just replaced them bit by bit each semester.  My students seem happy with the classes, and I think they are more engaged and learning more from the format. I'm still tweaking and revising, adding an activity here or changing things around, but I don't miss the lectures.  Indeed, I enjoy myself enormously in these classes -- at its best, the heady energy of dynamic discussion is an intoxicating rush, such that I lose track of time if I'm not mindful.

That brings me to my General Psychology class, the last bastion of lecturing in my teaching arsenal.  My format here is still predominantly lecture-based, Powerpoint slides and all.  I've been more reluctant to give up lecturing in this class, for a variety of reasons.  First of all, students in this introductory class are less likely to read the text, so it would be more challenging to have them come to class prepared for active learning exercises.  They are also more likely to assume that the material covered in class represents the sum total of their required knowledge, so I feel more bound to cover the full breadth of topics I expect them to learn. It is always a struggle to manage the sheer amount and diversity of material for this class.  Every time I cut something from my lecture, I mourn the loss; one more interesting concept the students won't learn, one more area seemingly marginalized.  (After all, if I don't cover it in class, it must not be important.)  I want to share it all with them, and shifting away from lecture will inevitably mean giving up some of the topics I now cover.  

Yet in many ways, these students are the most in need of active learning techniques.  They often lack the metacognitive skills that are fundamental to success in college classes.  Many have little knowledge of how to learn material on their own from the text, and they often assume that they understand the material by virtue of hearing it once in lecture.  They need more than lectures for effective learning; they need to engage with the material and practice applying the concepts. So, over the years, I've added in concept check moments, to see if the students understand the material before we move on.  I've written worksheets and created online quizzes so students can apply the concepts to real-life examples.  I created space for discussions.  I have demonstrations and video clips to make the material more vivid and personally engaging. 

In short, I've been chipping away at lectures for some time now as I've added in active learning exercises.  As with my other classes, I'm making it a gradual process rather than a radical shift.  I'm currently challenging myself to develop a series of new activities for my winter General Psychology class, so that every class has at least one active learning component.  On the second day of class, I asked students to explain the concepts of correlation coefficient and p-value in a specific example.  This generated some new questions and clarifications.  Afterwards, I asked the students if they felt that they understood the concepts better than they had in the previous day's lecture and they affirmed that they did.  In an effort to explain the purpose of the activity and to reinforce good study skills, I then reminded them of the central importance of active processing information for effective learning. 

Of course, I was also reminding myself.

Being a good teacher doesn't mean being the best lecturer; it means facilitating the students' learning.  As I noted in my recent article, it is important to explore new ideas and be open to changing one's teaching practice.  I needn't decide to give up lecturing altogether; I'm just exploring my options.   


Carey, B. (May 12, 2011). Less talk, more action:  Improving science learning.  New York Times

Hanford, E.  (Jan. 1, 2012).  Physicists seek to lose the lecture as a teaching tool. National Public Radio.

Moltz, D. (Nov. 18, 2009).  'The College Fear Factor'.  Inside HigherEd.

Stearns, D. C. (2011).  A teaching-centered career for the aspiring intellectual.   In Bubb, R., Stowell, J., & Buskist, W. (Eds.). (2011). The Teaching of Psychology in Autobiography: Perspectives from Exemplary Psychology Teachers (Vol. 4). E-book on the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (APA Division 2) website. Retrieved from

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