Why Lecture Matters: A View from the Trenches

So, those who were up late last night with nothing better to do than check Twitter may have noticed a strange, parallel, angry non-conversation taking place between me and David Perry. Normally we get along decently well, but yesterday a column was published in The New York Times titled “Lecture Me. Really,” by Molly Worthen, UNC Chapel Hill, which praised the lecture as an excellent tool for helping students process, interpret, and think critically about the argument of the lecture.

There are three key passages, I think:

  1. “In the humanities, there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections. Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.”
  2. “Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article. In the humanities, a lecture “places a premium on the connections between individual facts,” Monessa Cummins, the chairwoman of the classics department and a popular lecturer at Grinnell College, told me. “It is not a recitation of facts, but the building of an argument.””
  3. “This kind of work prepares students to succeed in the class format that so many educators, parents and students fetishize: the small seminar discussion. A lecture course teaches students that listening is not the same thing as thinking about what you plan to say next — and that critical thinking depends on mastery of facts, not knee-jerk opinions. “We don’t want to pretend that all we have to do is prod the student and the truth will come out,” Dr. Delbanco told me.”

So, the key things here are that a) even a lecture-based course has or should have a seminar component; b) lectures aren’t a data-dump, but the construction of an argument; c) you don’t achieve superior student seminar performance without training and practice.   And d) because of these things, the lecture is extremely valuable to student learning, despite the near-constant emphasis on “active learning” methods that don’t include the lecture.

None of these points should have been controversial, but I was curtly told to “read this,” “this” being Derek Bruff’s September 15 post “In Defense of Continuous Exposition By the Teacher.” A very good column, though he relies on Bligh’s now-dated analysis of what a lecture is and what it does:

“more or less continuous expositions by a speaker who wants the audience to learn something.” Bligh goes on to summarize the research literature: Lectures are as good as other methods at transmitting information, but lectures are generally not effective at promoting thought, changing attitudes, inspiring interest, or teaching skills.

Bligh’s own area was philosophy, psychology, and teaching physiotherapy, and his own conclusion, even with the too-narrow definition of lecture, was that multiple teaching methods and strategies should be used in a lesson. Bruff says that he reads pieces defending lecture as defending “continuous exposition,” versus “research-based” pieces such as that by Annie Murphy Paul that question the effectiveness of that method. In other words, frustrated get-off-my-lawn diatribes by people who clearly espouse inferior pedagogy.

Two points here. First, both Bruff and Paul, and to a lesser extent Bligh deal in STEM–those are their examples, not really the humanities. Second, there is more than one way and format in which to lecture, and saying, as Bruff does, that if you use “active learning” techniques in lecture, you’re not really lecturing, is disingenuous. It’s still the Sage on the Stage, and the focus is still on you and what you’re saying or asking next.

Rightly or wrongly, my ire at being brusquely told to read Bruff was aroused by what I perceived as the assumption that I hadn’t done my homework, and was apparently denying “facts,” although neither was or is the case. This is because, while not disputing the 2014 University of Washington (STEM) study that Bruff cites, there is another study that suggests a different set of dynamics and outcomes for lecture-based classes (also STEM): a 2011 study from Harvard’s Kennedy School. I assume that my colleague didn’t know the study, since I was the only one to mention it, but it does exist, and in the last few months I’ve grown tired of seeing, on Facebook and Twitter, studies dismissed because they challenge your opinions. Refute them later, but at least accept their existence. Heck, I just had to do that in a long Facebook exchange on gun control, and I’m the better for it. Apparently, from what I could gather on Twitter, we are to dismiss the Harvard study because it was produced by an elite institution –to which I can only shake my head at the number of logical fallacies contained therein (at least 2, by my reckoning, perhaps as high as four).

That lectures have, and will continue to have, a role in college education is taken almost for granted by publications such as the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learningthe link should take you to the many articles that in some way or other deal with lecture. Many, such as Smith and Cardaciotto 2011, stress the need to find ways to work active learning methods into lecture classes, citing G. S. Gremmel’s wry 1995 statement that we are under such pressure to cram everything into an hour that we unload our “dumptruck” of pedagogy on our unfortunate students. Others, such as Sagayadevan and Jeyaraj 2012 examine the role that students’ emotional engagement plays in lecture classes.  Brost and Bradley 2006, in a fascinating study, examine the reciprocal responsibility of teachers (lecturers) and students in assigning and reading assigned material, respectively (I’ve actually had a lot of success with some of the exact techniques that they recommend). Incidentally, it is quite clear that the lectures they describe embrace a wide variety of techniques, some more effective than others. Finally, Lawler, Chen, and Venso 2007 provide interesting data on what students themselves value in lecture: “showing enthusiasm for the subject, having good communication skills and explaining complex concepts
clearly” being the top three.   I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point: there has been a lot of work done studying lectures, and whether or not they will ever equal that 10-student seminar (no, they won’t). But they are here, and we’ve been working on making them darned effective.

But there were other reasons that Molly Worthen’s column on the lecture spoke to me. Above all, it is because, now that I’m back in regular civilian classrooms and teaching mostly freshmen for the first time in three years, lectures seem to be crucially important to my students’ success. The reasons for that are two-fold: a) a generally great lack of experience in historical analysis, and b) ditto for analytical thinking and questioning. This has nothing to do with aptitude–I’ve never had a student that wasn’t tip top, and my current bunch isn’t letting me down. But it does mean that college courses are often drastically different from high school courses, requiring a different kind of thinking, a different kind of engagement, and above all (because this is history), some basic familiarity with historical data (which at the same time is not mere regurgitation).

We actually just discussed this after my latest midterm. A few students stayed behind to ask about what the exam evaluated, and why I structured it the way I did (these weren’t complaints, just honest questions). One of my students questioned whether giving them terms requiring a short answer was the best teaching method, which was completely fair, and I said it wasn’t. But,  it did accomplish several things. We wound up chatting for a while as I cleaned up the classroom and here’s the gist of what we came up with:

  1. History is hard, because it deals in both concepts and data, not one or the other, and the relationship between them.
  2. Shifting back and forth between the two is the essence of good college history writing and speaking. My favorite piece of advice to students: big concepts, small examples.
  3. College history is also a lot like the game show Jeopardy–you have the data, the issue is what kind of question are you going to ask?
  4. Unless you’ve had the blessing of a great HS history class, you’ve probably never been exposed to these kinds of methods.
  5. You’re probably good with broad concepts, because in my experience most students are.
  6. So, here’s the rub: if I have you write an essay, it will probably be vague concepts with no examples, because data is boring and hard, and I’ll grade you down for that. If I give you nothing but terms and word banks, what does that accomplish, except for you to regurgitate stuff?
  7. So, I opted for the intermediate goal: short examples that help you develop your skills reasoning from specific terms, working on moving from data to its significance. This works with the skills you’re working on in your first paper, and will ultimately be building blocks for the second paper and the final exam.

My approach to the midterm derived directly from my experience in class to that point: whether for the Rise of Islam or the New Imperialism, students actually do need some kind of lecture to explain big concepts, suggest connections among the readings, alert students to ways to interrogate the sources, and generally employ a range of visual, audio, Socratic, artistic, and rhetorical methods to create an argument about the historical concept or phenomenon in question. Then we can analyze and discuss with a purpose. In fact, I ditched my beautiful syllabus structure a couple weeks in, so that often we have discussion and activities in the first half or two-thirds of class, and my lecture on upcoming set of materials in the second half of class. Active learning and active lecture in the same class session, and from what I’ve seen so far my students, who work very hard, appreciate this. It motivates them to actually work more, not less, because they feel more confident in trying to find their own voices in study and in the classroom.

Further, while I appreciate Paul’s analysis that lectures disadvantage underrepresented groups, my intro courses actually have a high ratio of women to men, and both expressed strong preference for lecture before getting to active learning. Now, this is anecdotal,  of course, but to me it suggests that we shouldn’t forget our students when designing our courses. I have  noticed that men do tend to speak up first and more confidently in Socratic sessions, and that’s something I’m working on.

But here’s the bottom line: I, and many other teachers doubtless better than I, lecture, not because we’re “having a bad day,” as was put last night, but because we and our students see tangible benefits to it. (Another factor is the number of students we often have to teach in a semester, but that’s a topic for another time–though it is in many ways integral to the effectiveness of the lecture format, beyond what I’ve discussed here).

And, contrary to what you might have read last night, not all studies dismiss the lecture so completely.  So, lecture on Dr. Worthen. We know that, Bligh notwithstanding, there is such a thing as “active lecture,” we know the formidable array of SoTL scholarship devoted to helping us achieve it, and we’re not going to sacrifice our recent high school graduates on the altar of perfect pedagogy. We will do what the best teachers do–engage, challenge, model, question, mentor, and, yes, lecture too.

Vade, et tu fac similiter.