Lecturing is not bad (but…)

My course evaluations for Fall 2015 were, by and large, fine. The ratio of positive comments to negative comments about flipped learning and specifications grading was about 3:1, with the majority of students saying nothing about either. I can live with that. A good course design and especially a grading system ought to work like the HVAC in your building — that is, you never think about it if it’s working.

Sometimes the comments students leave that are negative are legitimate and instructive, and I really value those. Other times… not so much. Often the comments I get that are the most negative are of the form:

I paid for this course, and I expect some lectures.

Actually it’s pretty uncommon for a student to pay, in full, for a course. But this doesn’t stop the “vending machine model”. Reflecting back on this reminds me to say something about lecturing.

You might get the impression that the message around here is “lecture is bad”. Far from it! A well-crafted and well-executed lecture can be memorable, even transformative. The perspectives of experts are one of the most valuable elements of a university education. Many of us pay money to listen to good lecturers, and many of us can remember distinctly some of the great lectures we heard during our own college days, despite how long ago they took place. There is and will always be a vitally important role for lecture in higher education.

The problem is not with lecture itself, but in the way we have built our system of education around it. The prevalence of lecture during class meetings in the traditional model indicates what we think. We think that students are largely incapable of learning new things on their own, hence we deliver all their information to them. We think that people learn by hearing, hence we talk. We think that the purpose of the class meeting is to do what works for us, so we do what worked for us during our own college days — often blind to the fact that the instructor’s job is to do what works for students and that this does not, according to the science, look like nonstop lecturing.

We go through college and graduate school and a handful of truly excellent lectures stand out to us, and we forget about the dozens — hundreds? — of lectures that were mediocre and unmemorable and therefore truly a waste of tuition dollars, and so we falsely extrapolate that lecture is what education is all about and this becomes the basis for our pedagogy. Worse, we often imagine that we ourselves are capable of producing excellent lectures on a consistent basis — when in fact this is highly unlikely too. Very few professors have the rhetorical skills to stake the education of their students on being able to lecture excellently all the time. I certainly don’t have those skills.

In short we often believe not that lecture is a tool that can be used to enable education, but rather that lecturing is education. This is like saying that a wrench is plumbing, or sauteeing is cooking.

So bear in mind that lecture is not bad. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for teaching and learning either. It is not necessarily even the tool that we professors ought to reach for first, when we are solving pedagogical problems. It is incumbent upon anybody teaching in the classroom to back away from preconceived notions about lecture and ask: What is the proper time, place, context, and duration for lecture? An honest answer may diverge significantly from what we ourselves experienced, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And the result is worth paying for.


Originally published at rtalbert.org.