I’m sure you’ve read, somewhere, a rant against Boring Old University Farts Lecturing In A Monotone and thus Preventing Active Learning.

I must say, even though I took six years to collect an undergraduate degree, and heard a number of lectures while I was doing it (as well as experiencing various other types of classroom activities), I never heard anyone lecture in a monotone. In fact, my only experience with this was very recent. At a conference this fall, I heard someone read from a paper held close to the face, in a monotone, and I thought, “Wow, maybe this is the source of all those rants.” The speaker was quite animated in private conversation; I think the problem was poor eyesight and a laser focus on just getting the paper delivered, without any frills like eye contact or performative speech.

But I digress, as is my wont.

Anyway, according to this pedagogical theory, we university teachers are not supposed to lecture. We must engage our students in active learning, discussion, projects, teaching one another, all learning together. According to this model, the students learn more this way than they could from lecture. Also according to this model, students are independent thinkers, responsible for their own education, able to adjust their approach to their projects in accordance with their own learning styles.

It is not, at the moment, my purpose to critique this theory, though if you want to do so in the comments, or give links to people who have already done so, please do. I just want to note that the theory gives considerable agency to students.

OK. Now you have probably also seen the reports on how professional actors lecturing from a script get better teaching evaluations than the professor with the real expertise in the subject area. Well, of course we all like to be entertained; but doesn’t that experiment show that lectures can be both entertaining and informative? And further: students also report that they prefer lectures from professors—people whose expertise they recognize—rather than working with their peers, who don’t know as much as their professors. Students feel they are paying to learn from experts, not to try to teach each other.

Now, if we grant students agency, if we say that we trust them to know how they learn best and what they need, should we not then take their desire for lively, informative lectures seriously? A good lecture provides a framework for reading and writing (or projects and homework) done outside of class; it’s a starting point, raising questions for students to consider and try to find answers to, or a finishing point, rounding up answers and synthesizing the work that has (one hopes) happened outside of the classroom. Oh, but students don’t really know what’s good for them; we should force them to do the active learning projects etc. because that’s how they’ll learn more . . . . But if they don’t know what’s good for them, why must we then treat them as if they did?

Actually, I have spent my career thus far teaching almost entirely via discussion, with relatively little lecture, or at least, little that’s formally planned. My students have discovered that what they think is a simple question can easily wind me up for a 10-20 minute lecture. I can often predict at what point in the semester someone will ask the question that triggers the lecture on the Black Death, or on medieval demography, or various other topics that I can cover apparently extemporaneously. That is, I want to get those lectures into the class somewhere, but the particular day doesn’t matter; the questions are going to come up, and then I will let my tape unspool.

Such teacher-training as I had emphasized discussion, in part because we were dealing with small (17 or fewer students) classes, where it was easy to make sure everyone was participating, and in a student population where it was easy to devise good discussion questions and ways to get students to prep so that really informative, significant discussion would happen. And there’s nothing so much fun as going in and having a really good talk with smart, interested people about topics that interest all of us. That model worked quite well for me for a long time, even at my current job, where the classes are twice the size and the students are a very different population.

Times change, though, and people change, and students change. I’ve alluded here and in comments on other people’s posts to some of the changes I’ve been noticing this fall. In short: my students are smart, and certainly engaged in their own education (most of them), but definitely lacking in the kind of preparation, and the kind of doing-college skills, that I could expect nearer the beginning of my career. They seem to profit enormously, disproportionately, from lectures that give them a framework for their readings, and they are (many, not all) nearly helpless to even begin constructing such a framework for themselves, as I was expected to do in much of my undergraduate work.

And I remember (digressing again) wishing someone would provide such a framework: even though I was able to build one up for myself, I did, at that stage of my life, feel it might be a waste of my time to do so when I could have got one from a professor and used it as a springboard to get me further into the material. Am I glad I did the frame-building myself, was it useful after all? I don’t know. It’s what happened. It was my formation. I am the thinker, the scholar, the professor I am because of it; but I don’t think it was the best or only way that my education could have proceeded. It’s useful to build your own frames, but it can also be useful to start with a nice sturdy frame someone else has constructed and focus on adding the wallboard and the wiring. I guess it depends on what you think you’re teaching: how to frame a house, or how to finish it?

At any rate, while I think there are places for discussion, and for the kinds of projects that require students to frame and solve problems on their own, I also think that (a) there is a place for lecture, (b) lectures are not in and of themselves boring, (c) if we’re considering students as independent adult thinkers then we should pay attention to what they say they want and value, (d) they say they want and value lecture from their professors, and so (e) I should lecture more.

Besides, I seem to be good at lecturing.


14 thoughts on “Teaching, heresy, and logic

  1. I said in my teaching philosophy that I primarily lecture (thought I am engaging and interactive in doing so) and that I expect students to learn facts. By rote. Three guesses how many teaching oriented institutions wanted to interview me. Give up? ZERO. And the one interview I had didn't ask for a teaching philosophy and looked aghast when I said I enjoy lecturing. So yeah.But so here's the thing. I lecture in big classes where I can't connect well with students relationally and where most of my audience is not engaged. I think lecturing is the best option under those circumstances. I do very little of the talking in my classes at my current position and my kids get it. Oh, they get it. And I still expect them to learn and know facts cold.

  2. Interesting . . . I can't imagine lecturing in what I teach (modern foreign language) but I always thought the anti-lecturing stuff was to prevent ONLY lecture and nothing else, not to prevent entirely. After all, what are conferences, where we theoretically go to learn stuff?

  3. I'm still finishing my Phd, but the first class I taught was a History of the British Isles from 1066 to 1603. My area of expertise begins with the Reformation, so knowing a whopping hundred years of history I was supposed to teach was scary, to say the least. To make it even more of a challenge, my class had 120 students.I'm not sure how you cover 600 years (or more) of history in a semester without lecturing. I knew going in that my lectures would be weaker in some parts of the class than others. I can go on and on about religion, even before the Reformation, but social history? Forget it. The Hundred Years War? Um, no.Fortunately, I had a night class and it was 3 hours long, so I could and did break up my lectures with "culture breaks" where we discussed art, architecture, music, etc. We also had group activities, like flytings, every class to break things up. These were obviously the students' (and mine, too) favorite parts of the class, but I still just don't see how you can get away from lecturing, particularly when texts never cover everything you want them to cover and students don't do all of the readings anyway.This really scares me as I'm heading into the job market now and my teaching statement, I feel, is a bit of an exaggeration because I say I emphasize engagement and all and really downplay my love of lecturing.

  4. In an odd place where I hear from a lot of adult and motivated learners, the one thing they hate, hate, hate, is any form with the word 'GROUP' – group discussion, group work, teaching each other, blah. HATE IT. Why?Because they know why they are there: to learn. They assume the person teaching either knows what they need to learn or will be replaced by someone who does and so, 'give it to me as quickly and as effectively as possible'. For the unmotivated learner – take a year off. I've taught enough grade 12 students who hold jobs, cars, apartment and relationships and still do the 'oh, I blah, blah blah' – they drove me into teaching at university where I assumed humans would be responsible for themselves.The lectures I hate=UK lectures in halls of 100+ students where they do speak in a monotone, often never actually turn to check if anyone is there as they write nonstop on the board and if you have a question, ask your tutor group on thursday.Lectures I love=crazy geniuses who relish questions. Our geology professor taught us the periodic table by telling us we were elements and then lighting a match and asking us what happens. The Canadian History prof (over 300 people) was an exchange genuis, who was up at the front showing the JCPC giving the federal government a 'good f*cking' because they used a semicolon. These things, even years later, are hard to forget, as the teacher falls to the floor wailing and bemoaning in the role of 'Province of Sask' in the 'Potash Cartel' (only in two places in North America, and they decided to do an OPEC with it…until the Feds stepped in). Seriously ask yourself, do you want a lecture from the most brilliant and engaging minds OR a lecture from your less motivated and 'I was about to drop this class anyway' classmates? Because that is what group activies says to motivated students: that someone who knows nothing about the course is going to be as valuable a resource as you.One exception: in an educational anthropology course, getting the motivation of the students, getting them to speak, to have them become the examples of what you are trying to do in the field is useful. How that might be done in your field, um, well, guys still like butt jokes and people are still scared of death – I am not sure if that is what you want them to take from medieval lit.

  5. One of the things I'm toying with is to make podcasts to set up classes. Sort of 5-10 minute mini-lectures that the students can listen to (and maybe watch), so that they can be better prepared for class without me having to spend that class time on formal lectures. Because my students want more lectures.

  6. I'm with you. The boring lecturer talking in a monotone from yellowed notes is, I've concluded, the Bigfoot of the academic world. As you point out, lectures give them a framework for experiential learning that would be difficult to replicate in any other way. A short lecture settles and centers them for the discussion that follows.

  7. As a former academic and now professional government employee, I can say the thing that still makes me cringe the most is the group activity in a training class. I'm not naturally gregarious and I want to learn at my own pace, not being left on the side of the road while someone who knows the material better dominates the exercise, or having to hold the hands of group members who are absolutely clueless about what they're doing. In a worst case scenario, the group exercise becomes an exercise in managing difficult team members who don't care, want to be the boss, etc. If we were actually coworkers on a project, I can see the value of a group environment in training, but I will never work with most of the people in my classes, let alone see them, ever again. Just let me get through the class on my own!

  8. My students dislike group work intensely. They like it outside of class with some teacher type person in charge, so they learn how to study, but not in class. I think it was invented on the theory that the instructor wouldn't be an expert, and also for the sake of introverted professors with poor presentation skills.

  9. I have to disagree on group work. If it's well designed, it can be great. Here's the thing:Students don't know how to talk about scholarly things in a way that helps them learn. We do it all the time. We may sit in bars or coffee shops, but we run ideas by each other all the time (except when we work in sucky places where our colleagues aren't sharers). Group work is how we do a lot.Good group work can be a way to teach some of what we do naturally to our students. It just needs to be done in ways that they understand it's a kind of prep for something else that the "expert" is leading. Same with peer review. If you can get students to understand that peer review helps their own writing, and is also part of academic culture, then it works far better than when the students think you're just getting them to do your work.

  10. I think the common thread, here, is that whether one does group work as a prelude to a teacher led activity or one lectures before discussion or whether one lectures all the time, the professor as expert is the center of the classroom. So it's really all the same.

  11. ADM works at a fancier school than I do! What the freshmen and sophomore need is not "group work" but tutoring and office hours. Levels are far too disparate and most students equipped to learn from group work end up having to teach the rest of the group because they are *so* much further behind. Also I hate to use class time for this: I've always had reports from committees but now we're supposed to use class time for committee meetings; it's ridiculous since these can be held virtually if students can't get together in person. On the other hand I like to show whole films in classes, because as one student pointed out, "you can't watch these alone, you need a support group" … so I guess that's why I'm sort of jealous about the rest of class time.Worst group work I ever had was when a chair decided we had to have equality with instructors by having them approve the content of our seminars. A real time waster that was. Not the same as consulting with someone who knows something about the topic or about teaching at that level, not at all the same. Even if technically the instructors and we were all in the same "class" (same discipline, teaching in same program).See what I mean?

  12. Oh yes – another type of group work I was once expected to do – joint publications with the instructors, some of whom had been promoted to assistant professor because that was the title of tenured instructors. It meant they were supposed to come up with a project that sounded good to them, like a translation of something plus introduction, and I was supposed to do it and get it published in some place for us all. Real exercise in diplomacy getting out of that.It is what I think of when students beg me not to put them in a group, as they have already been in too many groups today.

  13. My undergrad classes were a combination of big lectures with once-a-week discussion sections run by grad students and seminars that were all discussion (plus — quite vital — junior and senior independent work, with one-on-one supervision). I also did a *lot* of reading, writing, and synthesizing outside class, which was probably more valuable for me, since I don't absorb aural information all that well. Since I teach a skills class (writing in the disciplines), I'm not in a position to teach primarily by lecturing (but I do of course provide 5-15 minute presentations on various subjects, often as prelude to an individual- or group-based exercise). But I'd be happy to try teaching a more content-focused course primarily as a lecture, punctuated by occasional exercises in which I ask students to take an interpretation I've suggested further or otherwise practice a relevant interpretive skill. However, I believe the key issue is not so much what kind of teaching works best (or what kind students prefer) as that students, at least in my experience, are doing very, very little work of any kind outside of the classroom. That means that, increasingly, all the kinds of activities that promote learning — information transfer (through reading or listening), analysis of examples/texts, writing, etc. — need to take place *in* the classroom if they're going to take place in any meaningful way at all. And the fact that teachers are just as overburdened as students means that we're increasingly tempted to employ methods — e.g. group work — that produce less student work for us to evaluate. In short, though I'm sure those promoting group work, in or out of class, and similar exercises, are sincere in their belief that these activities promote "engagement," and, through it, learning, I strongly suspect that other forces, especially the fact that individual students and professors have less and less time to devote to any individual student's learning in any one class, play a significant role.

  14. P.S. to profacero: introverts can be quite good lecturers, since good lecturing depends more on good preparation *before* the lecture (a solitary activity) than on interaction with students *during* the lecture (though obviously the latter can play a part, too). It's leading discussions that we (or at least I) find exhausting. Mind you, plenty of us can lead discussions very well, but, unlike our more extroverted colleagues, we come away more exhausted than energized (or, to be more precise, at least in my case, both exhausted and keyed up — not a good combination, especially if repeated 4 times in the course of a day).

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