Wednesday, November 12, 2008

'On Course,' part 4: Lecturing

Lang's third chapter is on lecturing. As a teaching technique, lecturing has come in for a great deal of criticism over the past several decades. The principal criticism is that lecturing is a passive, teacher-centered form of learning with low rates of student recall and retention. (Lang mentions some of the discouraging research findings on lectures on pp. 66-67.)

Though I appreciate Lang having a chapter on lecturing, I have to say that I find the whole concept of 'lecturing' rather alien to my own teaching style. I rarely think of preparing a class meeting as preparing 'a lecture,' and very little of my class meetings revolve around me talking. (This isn't to say that I'm not the main voice in the classroom, but that I think of myself mostly as initiating inquiry or conversation rather than expounding ideas.) In some respects, my own approach echoes Lang's advice: vary your teaching methods within a given meeting, take frequent breaks for student interaction or to see and hear something else, check in with students to gauge their understanding, give students a change to digest and review material before moving on, etc. So although I'm sure I could do better on this score, I like to think I do fairly well in not making, well, 'lecture' be this passive, teacher-focused enterprise. Hence, an initial question I'd be interested in having comments on is whether any of you even think of ourself as delivering lectures in anything like the traditional sense.

As with the prior chapters, there's lot of solid, practical advice here, such as the communication tips about using one's voice, motion, etc. Let me make three points that struck me as I read:
  1. Lang is insightful about students taking notes in class and how it's very easy for us to proceed too quickly. (This is one of the definite downsides of PowerPoint, as we've discussed before.) This problem tempts me simply to provide printed notes to the students, but Lang is probably right that having to write something down is at least active and is likely to stimulate some minimal level of recall or understanding. One thing I do now to slow things down, while still giving the students the ooh!aah! of technology, is to use the computer projector in my classroom as a kind of typewriter. I boot it up, open Microsoft Word, and type the important items from my prepared notes into a document that the students all see projected on the screen. I also like this because Word is easier to modify than, say, PowerPoint, so I can change arguments, etc. quickly.
  2. This chapter returns me to a theme I've hit on before: teaching versus learning. The chapter is excellent on teaching via lectures and has some advice on how to help students learn from lectures. But I felt that Lang left a glaring question unaddressed: Do students know how to learn from lectures? Lang notes (pp. 75-76) that students will write down practically everything that's written down, but will write down very little that's said. In my experience, many students write down all and only what's written on a chalkboard, etc. So if I critique an argument, or a student raises an objection, etc., almost nobody writes this sort of thing down. This is particularly regrettable since, in the philosophy classroom, that rational give-and-take is precisely what we're aiming to teach. Part of the problem is disciplinary: Students don't appreciate that this give-and-take is part of what we expect them to master. But I also think that no one ever shows students how to learn from the typical college lecture. Or am I wrong about this?
  3. Lang recognizes that how lectures will unfold will vary from discipline to discipline. He says that the functions of lectures are to summarize, highlight, and clarify. (p. 73) Doubtless when I 'lecture', summarizing, highlighting, and clarifying are among the activities I engage in. But I also do a lot more: reason, wonder, analyze, show relevance, invite debate, etc. This is especially true when an argument is the focus of the lecture. Note that summarizing, highlighting, and clarifying are very instructor-based, verdictive activities. They're not really about inquiry (though they might be part of inquiry). In short, a philosophy lecture is very often a form of guided inequiry. It would be great to hear from commenters some ideas as to how 'lecture arguments' effectively, for it does strike me that this present challenges beyond the challenges of summarizing, highlighting, and clarifying ideas.


  1. Michael,
    I never think of myself as preparing or delivering a lecture, but rather as summarizing and highlighting arguments. This is sometimes a subtle distinction, but it is useful as it guides my approach and attitude. There are of course times where I explain background, context, and concepts, but all towards the aim of having some sort of discussion in class about the philosophical views we're considering. In some of my experiences with pedagogical training, professors are encouraged to go too far in the other direction and have the students "teach themselves". I seek student involvement at the level of evaluation and implications of arguments, once we've reached an understanding of the material.

    I have had the experience in my classes of students only writing down what I write down on the board, or what's on the Power Point slides. It is disheartening to grade an essay on an exam that merely repeats the sentences from a series of slides or from my notes on the chalkboard. Perhaps the lesson is to simply communicate with our students about how best to learn from a "lecture" and discussion in our courses?

  2. I agree with Mike that I often take myself to be responsible for providing background, context and concepts. Philosophy involves a high degree of technical terminology, much of which has the unfortunate quality of sharing a word with standard American English (think of how hard it is to disengage 'personality' from 'personal identity' or 'intention' from 'intentionality').

    I also agree with Mike that there is an education-wide contrast going on behind the talk of 'lecture,' with which we are asked to compare what is often called 'active learning'. I struggle here, in two directions. First, I think we should take the word 'lecture' back - to refer to exactly the sort of thing Mike refers. Especially in philosophy, where context can go flinging off into abstraction and where terminology must be learned by hearing and speaking, I think we have a special responsibility to, gasp, lecture. Second, the kind of 'active learning' models I have been exposed to, involving drawing pictures and small group work emphasizing agreement, are not well suited to philosophy and, I suspect, even less well suited to learning.

    More importantly, the 'active learning' rubric suggests that reading is inactive, that listening is inactive, that writing is inactive, that paying attention to an extended argument from an expert is inactive. The rubric is not so subtly anti-humanities and, I fear, anti-intellectual. I think it is pernicious and we should resist it.

    No one thinks standing in front of people reading aloud from notes or monotonously talking is a good way to teach. Some teach that way, but not because they have decided that it is for the best. No one is advocating for that, and let's not call that lecturing - it's just bad teaching.

    I lecture. There, I've said it. And I have no problems getting students to talk - they talk throughout my 'lectures,' which are peppered with focused questions, like 'what does this premise mean?' and 'what do these premises lead to?' The notion that a lecture cannot be a looser art, with questions and dialogue throughout, though the teacher is (goodness forbid) a leader in the discussion, is a fantasy borne only of the very worst recollections of our student days.

  3. I agree with Becko. We need to take the word 'lecture' back.

    I lecture, too. But as Becko said, that doesn' t mean that I stand at a podium reading from notes, ignoring my students. I have no notes in front me. I wander around the room (probably too much). I field questions, ask questions, have students write "minute papers" in response to questions, (happily) allow students to respond to other students, etc. That's what I think of as lecturing.

    Lecturing is not the only thing I do, of course, but the sort of interactive lecture that Becko and I are describing is my primary method of instruction. My students say they like it, and I'm generally pleased with the amount of learning they're able to show in exams and papers.

    As for getting students to write things down: Since we know that people will write down whatever we write on the board, I make a point of writing the important points (and not much else) on the board. But I think that a well-written lecture also helps here. I find that repetition, intonation, and explicit verbal marking of some ideas as "really important" cause students to write things down, even if I don't write them on the board.

    One question for everyone: How do you break bad lecturing/classroom habits? As I said, I move too much. I pace back and forth. I wish I could stop—but I don't know how to break this habit. Any advice?

  4. Thanks everyone for these thoughts. I agree with the general sentiment that some critics of 'lecturing' are attacking a straw man in that few instructors actually stand in front of the classroom and expound for hours at a time with no interaction with their students. (Though I should mention that when I wander the halls of my university, I hear and see a fair amount of traditional lecturing.) And it seems like all of us think of some form of instructor-guided inquiry, using exposition of key ideas or arguments to stimulate discussion, as one of, if not the main, formats we use to teach. In the end, I'm not really concerned with reclaiming a word. We can call this form of teaching "lecture," but might as well mollify the critics of lecturing by just denying that's what we do!

    That being said, I don't think the criticisms of lecturing are completely misplaced either. Many students are accustomed to, and very happy with, a very passive approach to their own learning. And so long as instructors or students are talking, such students can remain passive. (I've also heard of studies suggesting that we "lecture" more than we think — that the typical instructor greatly underestimates how much of each class period the instructor speaks.) Moreover, as I said in my original post, I think few students know how to learn from lecture (or whatever we prefer to call what we're doing).

    And Becko -- I'm very pro-active learning. Almost all of the research about learning supports it. But I share your worry that a few advocates of such learning are simpleminded behaviorists, so that thinking, writing, etc. aren't active but the manipulation of objects in space is active! I think we humanists have to defend ourselves on this terrain. (I share a similar worry about the mantra 'learn by doing,' which is quite popular on my campus.)

  5. I really liked Lang's observation (67ff) that the lecturer is a completely separate learning tool from the book. I'm not sure I'd ever really thought about that before. The lecturer tries, like a coach, to get the students excited about the material with the hope that they might actually get interested enough to read some of it. The lecturer can't be--and shouldn't try to be--an effective replacement for the book.

  6. Hi Everyone:

    Michael let me know about this discussion of On Course, and I just wanted to chime in and say that I'm reading and really enjoying these discussions of each chapter. I believe Michael makes a good point about whether students know how to learn from lectures--I'm not sure about that, and it's worth thinking about. Sometimes when I catch a glimpse of a student's notebook, I'm baffled by the things they omit and the things they choose to include. Most of them need help in understanding how to understand a lecture.

    But I've done a lot of writing on this stuff already, so I'm looking forward to hearing more of what you all have to say!

    Jim Lang


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