Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A defense of lectures

Adam Kotsko at IHE gives one of the better defenses of lecturing I've encountered. Kostko's point is a simple one, and easy to forget: Discussion is a wonderful mode of learning, but it presupposes that students have knowledge and skills they often don't have.

Kotsko begins with an observation that resonates with me: Students often tell me they enjoy discussion, but they want more lectures because they feel they learn more from them. (Does everyone else have this experience?) Tempting as it is to dismiss this as students being lazy or passive, Kotsko suggests that this preference reflects students' (accurate) self-perception that they are not prepared for the lofty pedagogical ideal of a "lively discussion of a book by a small, engaged group." What do students lack that they need in order to be real participants in discursive inquiry? Kotsko's answer is familiar:

A big part of that has to be getting them to a point where they are good readers. That means being actual baseline good readers who are able to identify key themes, sympathetically state the author’s argument in their own words, talk about what each section of the book is supposed to be contributing to the whole, and so on — that kind of thing is the necessary foundation for the “critical reading” stage.

I think that the assumption that students have baseline reading skills is behind the thinking of people who want more or less exclusively discussion-based classes — lectures, they suppose, are just trying to transmit information, which the books can do by themselves. If we assume that the students are reading attentively outside of class, we can use the class time to practice our critical reading with each other. I don’t think it’s at all clear, however, that students typically come to college with the skills necessary to make such a model work. Some will, but it’s much safer to assume that your students need help. And I believe that we should interpret students’ desire for more lectures precisely as a cry for help.

Kotsko's suggestion is that lecture can serve to develop these reading skills, and indeed, has significant advantages over other instructional modes:

Lectures can play a significant role in getting students to that next level if they’re used not primarily to transmit information, but to guide students in their reading and in certain modes of thinking. Lectures have significant advantages over written texts — including the ability to use the full range of tone and pacing that an improvised oral delivery allows, as well as the ability to check in periodically to make sure students are still “on board” and change the presentation if necessary — and those advantages should be mobilized in a way that feeds into the reading process itself. A simple example is telling students what they should be looking for in their readings and giving them an outline of the basic argument ahead of time (my own students have requested as much). This will give them more confidence going in and give them a way of seeing what it looks like for themes to emerge or arguments to be strung together. After a few classes worth of that kind of directed reading, perhaps they’ll be ready to begin drawing out themes and arguments themselves. Again, these skills are not something we should be taking for granted!

Kotsko doesn't quite put it this way, but his thought is that lecturing is a form of modelling. We philosophers can reconstruct and represent our own forms of thinking and inquiring, which, after all, is what we want our students to ultimately develop. The hope is that once these forms of thinking and inquiring take root, students can then tackle course content on their own and will be ready to participate meaningfully in critical discussions that presuppose at least modest mastery of that content.

A final comment: Kotsko also reminds us that while lecturing can be criticized for being too passive to instill deep or genuine learning, lecturing is only as 'passive' as the lecturer. Yes, delivering information in a droning, unenthusiastic way is misguided. But if we approach lecture autobiographically, as a way of having students rehearse philosophical inquiry with us — and we do this with energy — it can be as intensive and intellectually active as any other teaching method.

ISW'ers: How do we make lecture something more than just the passive dissemination of information? And in particular, how do we use it to foster the skills requisite for discussion?


  1. I'm tackling this in a new way next semester. Our standard Ethics section is 50 students. We're at a CC -- frankly, I can barely expect them to be able to read at a high school level -- say nothing of college.

    50 students in a section is also too many for a good discussion. Generally, a few students dominate and the rest watch. It's a rare section with pretty widespread participation in class discussion.

    The other problem with a 50 student section is integrating enough writing.

    So, I'm trying a "blended" course. I'll see all 50 students on Monday. I'll lecture on the topic for the week. On Wednesday and Friday I'll have 25 students each day. The other 'day''s worth of discussion will happen on-line. I'll post prompts, they'll get points for responding to me or to a classmate's response. This gives an easily graded writing opportunity as well as a chance for the quiet ones to speak up.

    I'm not sure it will work -- but, I think it's worth a try. I'm hoping that lecture, then discussion will be helpful.

  2. Some thoughts:

    1. I find that most of my students cannot pay attention for more than 20-25 minutes. I wonder how much of this functions to make lecturing problematic. I've certainly had my own problems with paying attention at talks that go longer than 60 minutes.

    2. With that in mind, I usually structure my class sessions as one long lecture with periodic shifts into short discussions. The shifting helps to keep student attention fresh, check for comprehension, and reinforces the lecture's points. The downside is that discussions are short, but if I find that a particular discussion is going well, I can let the discussion continue longer than usual and cut out the next break.

    3. Occasionally, I'll use one of my shifts to show students how I worked out an argument from a particularly dense text. If I have enough time in class I will actually work the other way around, that is, I'll work interactively with students to hash out the argument in a text and then make the point in lecture form. This second approach is more productive (and satisfying) but time constraints keep me from using it too often.

  3. I applaud his argument for content rich exams. I think it is vital that students dedicate themselves to learning some basic 'facts' about the philosophical ideas and theories that we attempt to teach them. Since they are poor readers and writers, unless they have mastered or at the very least been encouraged to achieve competency in the vocabulary of ideas, how can they discuss or express informed opinions?

    We too are facing larger sections and the challenge of continuing active discussion becomes unmanageable with such.

  4. I am becoming a big fan of Team Based Learning. I have seen it used in a 100+ lecture center general education course in "Morals and Society" successfully.

    One of the keys of this approach is effective activity design, which I think applies to effective discussion. This document (PDF) discusses some of these ideas (in particular, see p. 10ff).

    I agree that when we lecture, we do well to model the kind of thinking that we want our students to develop, but I also think we often rely too heavily on it when it might not be the most effective approach.

    For example, I think leading students through activities where they practice reading tough paragraphs and do some peer review of each other's work will probably do more to help them develop reading skills than telling them how to read will. BUT, showing them a page from your book (literally) and how you've marked it would be an excellent accompaniment to such an activity.

  5. Funny...I never told any of my professors, but I loved sneaking a peak at their lecture notes or the notes in the their books. It taught me a lot about how normal they are (scattered, emotional, passionate, confused). Ever since, I have openly (albeit irregularly) shared my books and lecture notes with my students, and they too seem to gain the same thing from them.


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