Close All The Lecture Theatres?

12 01 2012

The lecture format, which has been a staple of undergraduate education in the West since the Middle Ages, is coming under increasing attack by academics in many disciplines who charge that it is massively inefficient way of transmitting knowledge to students.

I’ve known historians and other social scientists who have been saying this for years. Now some physics professors are coming around to this viewpoint. As National Public Radio reports,  some physicists who were previously fans of this mode of knowledge transfer have concluded that while it may be enjoyable for the lecturer and even the students, it simply doesn’t work very well as a way of imparting knowledge.

Let me quote the NPR report. I’ve put the sentences I consider key in bold.

When Eric Mazur began teaching physics at Harvard, he started out teaching the same way he had been taught.

“I sort of projected my own experience, my own vision of learning and teaching — which is what my instructors had done to me. So I lectured,” he says.

He loved to lecture. Mazur’s students apparently loved it, too. They gave him great evaluations and his classes were full.

“For a long while, I thought I was doing a really, really good job,” he says.

But then in 1990, he came across articles written by David Hestenes, a physicist at Arizona State. Hestenes got the idea for the series when a colleague came to him with a problem. The students in his introductory physics courses were not doing well: Semester after semester, the class average never got above about 40 percent.

“I noted that the reason for that was that his examination questions were mostly qualitative, requiring understanding of the concepts rather than just calculational, using formulas, which is what most of the instructors did,” Hestenes says.

I think that the shifting attitude towards lectures has been driven, in part, by technology. The lecture format dates back to pre-Gutenberg period, when books were so expensive you could only really afford one per class: this precious book would be read aloud to students who would then take notes. Today, when there is so much information available cheaply to students thanks to cheap paperbacks, the internet, etc., the lecture is somewhat obsolete. The problem students face nowadays is navigating the internet and trying to determine which sources of information are reliable, which is sometimes like searching for a needle in a haystack. In this new environment, it makes sense to shift from the Sage on the Stage to the Guide on the Side model of the professor’s role.

Moreover, there is another problem with the lecture format. The average university lecturer is an adequate but not stellar public speaker. Over the years, I’ve gradually improved my ability to give lectures, but I’m still not as good as, say, Harvard’s Steven Pinker. The problem is, students can watch the psychologist Steven Pinker (and his equivalent in other disciplines) online, which may be a better use of their time than listening to a really bad lecture delivered by someone who happens to be employed by the university they attend.

I recently heard some chemistry undergraduates on a train talking about their lecturer. The train was passing through Birmingham, so they were probably at some a nearby university. Anyway,  the students were really worried about the final exam, since their lecturer wasn’t explaining organic chemistry properly, so they had gone to iTunes to download some lectures that were really clear.  The lectures were from an equivalent course at a university in Australia. Given this technology, it might be better for the chemistry lecturer in question to shift to the seminar format, whereby he had can help guide his students to the right resources. Or maybe he should just focus on research. I suspect that the chemistry guy in question is a competent and caring teacher who simply isn’t suited for the lecture format.

So there would be some advantages to ditching lectures altogether.  On the other hand, you can’t ask a question to a YouTube video of Steven Pinker. Moreover, live lectures allow the lecturer to tailor the material to local conditions. You can even refer to current events (so called teachable moments), which date very quickly in a recorded lecture.

I can see that there are still some merits in retaining the lecture format for some types of undergraduate education. However, we do need to give careful consideration to the idea that maybe we would all be better off if we nailed the university lecture theatres shut and then turned them into small seminar rooms.



4 responses

13 01 2012
J Liedl

I agree that the lecture as a performance isn’t everything we want. I’m trying to turn the ‘lecture theatre’ into a large-group interactive haven. There’s always a question for the whole group at every class (these are circulated in advance so they have a chance to prepare) and I try to stop every few minutes to throw some more at them. Next year, the first year class will include daily workshops, right there in the big room, on various analytic, historical and technical topics.

Learn how to research a primary source author. Five tips for easy formatting of your paper in a word-processor. Super-search challenges. How to read a textbook chapter/journal article.

Breaking up each session into more transparent modules also helps. If students know I consider all four of these events important building blocks for X, they can consider how they might approach them or whether they want to add in others from their readings.

19 01 2012

Those sound like really good strategies.

16 01 2012
Jonathan Weisman

Perhaps the lecture should be a more advanced example of synthesis, and not a way of conveying basic information. It has little appeal to me either as a way to reveal a secret lesson conveyed only implicitly in the readings or as a repeat and summary of more explicit material.

if we assume (demand?) that students will learn from the written materials, there is considerable scope for aiming a lecture just over their heads, challenging them to make the connection between their understanding and the lecture material. There lies the role for tutorials.

Some classes, of course, will have no use for such lectures. Fine.

19 01 2012

Hi Jonathan,

I just saw your comment now. I certainly agree that the lectures should challenge the students and should be aimed a little bit above their heads. Students will naturally gravitate to the simplest secondary sources, such as textbooks that have chronologies, colourful flow charts, and other simple factual statements. The lectures are a chance to expose students to scholarly debates and to get them to think more analytically.

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