Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"Lecturing is not good for children and other living things"

I am opposed to doing much traditional "lecturing" in most classroom contexts that I find myself in, which are typically classes with less than 35 students. For one, I think lecturing encourages passivity: students just sit back and typically just let ideas wash over them, at best. Second, I think it discourages doing the reading, if a lecture substitutes for that, as it often does: if the lecture will sum up the basic ideas and arguments, why bother reading about them in the readings? (And somewhere I have gotten the idea that there is research to show that most people learn best from reading, although I now retain that belief probably on the basis of wishful thinking!). I prefer spending our time doing learning activities that students could not do on their own.

Fortunately, I am not alone in having these kinds of thoughts about lectures. Here are some recent articles on lecturing:

Lecturing vs. Teaching Problem-Solving Skills

Breathing Life Into the Lecture Hall

To Lecture or Not to Lecture, an Age-Old Question

A guru here seems to Eric Mazur from Harvard's physics department.

I wonder if people have any thoughts on this issue, know of other relevant discussion, etc.


  1. Good topic, Nathan. I'm not an expert on the relevant research, but what little I do know suggests that while lecturing has its uses in the classroom, its usefulness is very limited. In addition to some of the concerns you mention, lecturing is effective only with respect to certain kinds of learning, and its effectiveness even with respect to those kinds of learning depends on certain assumptions holding true. in particular, lecturing can be a somewhat effective method to convey information. This depends on students taking reasonably thorough and accurate notes: It's worth remembering that college is often the first time students encounter lecturing as a teaching method, so it should not surprise us that many don't know how to take notes effectively. (And my own experience is that PowerPoint ensures that students take notes, but may actually reduce the quality of those notes.) It also depends on keeping their attention (as some of the links you provide point out), and it is a bona fide talent to be able to discuss complex academic material and keep an audience's attention for an hour (or more).

    And I agree with you completely about the passivity part: Some students will be engaged by lectures, but we should not be surprised when students don't do well on philosophical tasks when traditional lecturing is the primary mode of instruction. After all, they don't undertake those tasks in the lecture.

    I don't lecture much, at least in the traditional mode. When I do feel the need to engage in that form of me-centric teaching, I try to keep it short, say 15 minutes or less. I've also found it useful to tell myself that 'lectures' can often be 'demonstrations'. So rather than tell my students the argument of some article they read, I peel back the curtain a bit and describe how I arrived at that interpretation of the article. In other words, when the focus is on me, showcase the things they should be doing.

    Obviously large classes complicate the matter. There's often a temptation in the direction of a simple dichotomy: we're either using 'lecture' or 'discussion'. But some more discussion-like elements can be used in large lecture courses: pairing students, pausing to have students write, collecting student questions at the end of class, etc. I don't see that a large lecture class necessarily precludes some interactive or dialogical elements.

  2. I have a worry about using Powerpoint. I have used it in the past and have put them in outline form on BB, but have come to believe that many students utilize these outlines in lieu of reading the work. I no longer use Powerpoint as much as I did before and have come to rely much more on a dialogical approach to teaching. I will briefly introduce the topic in a short lecture and then rely on questions raised by students based on the readings for further development of the topic. I sometimes break them into smaller groups to start the initial discussion and have these smaller groups report back to the larger class what they thought about the topic and move on from there. I have students utilize the Internet outside of class time to help prepare for the discussion. I do force people to participate by simply calling on them and asking for their response. Over time this does insure that most will read the material. Besides, I make it clear in my syllabus that if I think the class is not prepared that I reserve the right to give unannounced quizzes that will directly affect their final grade by either adding points to or subtracting points from their final total.

  3. Nathan: What kind of "learning activities" do you enjoy doing?

    I use a lecture-discussion format. I think traditional lecturing is quite outdated. Be that as it may, I recently tried using PowerPoint slides. Why? I thought it was a good idea to give students a "menu" of what to expect during the lecture in outline form, pictures, et cetera. Apparently, any teacher who fails to use "menus" is not a very good one (Philosophy: The Essential Study Guide, 34, Warburton). I've been thinking of discarding the Powepoint lectures. Anyone else have any good arguments for or against using PowerPoint?

  4. So how do you break out of that "lecture" format? What sorts of classroom practices do you think help an instructor to break out of that mold? For one thing, I couldn't agree more that lecturing highly discourages reading. But at the same time, I doubt that many students "get it" when they read, and do need some degree of lecture. But less, not more, is a good thing. But what do you replace it with?

  5. As a professional counselor and teacher, I am fascinated with our addiction to lecture as a means of teaching children. I am working on a parenting book in which I discuss the limits of lecture as a parenting tool. Your quote "Lecturing is not good for children and other living things" intrigued me.
    Can you identify the source of the quote?


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!