Sunday, October 18, 2015

Ten thoughts about lecturing

I should probably have called this "Ten weird tricks about lecturing" or "Lecturing: what you learn will shock you!" to grab more page views.

But it probably won't shock you.  Twitter has lost its mind over the "Lecture Me. Really" essay in the New York Times yesterday. The essay suggested that sometimes a good lecture helps listeners to bring together information in a compelling way and that taking notes might students help to assimilate information. You know, learn something.

Twitter responded with roughly this sentiment: "Lectures are evil. Did we not drive a stake through the heart of this awful practice? Everyone knows that constant interaction on Twitter is the One Best Way to teach. Students alone know how best to learn, and they know what they need to learn, too. Why are you trying to impose your terrible methods on them all the time?"

Herewith are ten thoughts about lecturing, in no particular order.

1.  No one would say that lecturing is the best way to learn all the time, or that instructors should do this all the time, or that other ways don't work.

2. When I began teaching, having duly learned how evil lectures were, I did not do it. Ever. Students began to ask for lectures. They wanted some information explained, so I learned to give lectures and to make them good.

3. Lecturing is storytelling.  It ought to have a point, and an organization, and interesting information bits along with the things that they have to know, which might or might not be interesting to them.

4. Pictures help. Interaction helps.  PowerPoint is really for pictures rather than bullet points.   Ask questions. Ask them to respond to what they're seeing.

5. If you think of lecturing as if you're telling a story, you'll keep it short. Henry Ward Beecher and Jonathan Edwards are dead. No one can hold an audience spellbound for 3 hours or usually even an hour any more.  If you keep it to 20 minutes, or even less, it'll work better.

6. Brief lecture + an activity immediately after that to capitalize on what students have learned = a winning combination. Not every day, but some days.  You have to mix things up in the classroom. See point 1.

7. Keep lecturing for some of the "big picture" stuff. I had some instructors who could come into a classroom, open a book, and keep us more or less spellbound (with not much interaction) by analyzing poems for three hours. That's not a sustainable model for most of us.  Lecture entertainingly on the big ideas, and then follow it up with a group project or an analytical exercise about a specific poem or piece of prose.

8. Sometimes when you're discussing a poem, you'll hear students say something as though they just thought of it, even though you said it earlier.  This is a good thing. It means that they're internalizing the ideas and taking ownership of them.

9. When students work in groups, they may not get all the meaning that you'd like them to get out of a piece, the kind that you would have said if you had lectured about it. This is okay.  They will remember it better if they engage with it themselves.

10. Bottom line: three methods.
--Say you give 100% of some necessary information in a lecture.  Students may remember as little as 60% of it, depending on the student.
--If students discuss the work in groups, they may only get 60% of what you think they should learn, but they will remember it.
--When students present their work to the class, they may only say about half of that, or 30%. But they will have a better handle on that 30% because they've worked with it or listened to it from their peers.  That's why it's important to use more than one method.

Updated to add: Miriam Burstein has some good thoughts on this.


pat said...

A lot of the research that supposedly debunks lecturing is actually not at all about lecturing as we know it. I enjoyed this article: In Defense of Continuous Exposition by the Teacher ( ).

I also wonder how much of the twitter uproar came from STEM and nursing students. Like you, I'm often asked to lecture on a difficult topic - especially by students who will be facing it in the NCLEX or MCAT.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I lecture in my humanities class 100% of the time. Not exactly my choice, but that's the way the class is set up. After three full years in the program, I'm convinced. The lecture DOES have a place in the university. In some ways, I agree that it's storytelling, but I also think of it as a way for me to model argument and close reading. I have a thesis/conclusion that I've come to, and I show them how I've gotten there by using the text. That kind of close reading is not something I'm seeing in my students all the time, so if I model it for them, perhaps they will eventually get it. I need to be more proactive about saying, "This is what I'm doing -- coming up with a thesis and defending it before your very eyes." Maybe then it will seem more effective.

undine said...

Pat, thanks for this article. Lecturing can be a way to show students how to navigate a difficult topic when even the groupiest of group work can leave them stymied.

Fie, what you said is a great reason for lecturing. They need those models--don't we all need models of what to do?--and if they can see it happen before their eyes, it seems less like some kind of weird teacher magic and more like something that they can do themselves.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Excellent points. I especially like the point that no method is going to result in students getting 100% of what we'd like them to get -- which is both an argument for mixing it up, and one for realistic expectations on all parts.

xykademiqz said...

I am a STEM field and many of my colleagues are PPT abusers. Those can be awful lectures, as the slides were prepared years ago and the professor goes through the motions. Also PPT abuse means the pace is too high and the fact they are pre-prepatred means that steps are skipped.

My lectures are more like improv (although I am prepared, so I don't technically improvise), but it's me and the whiteboard and I draw and derive everything (the STEM equivalent of Fie showing them how to reason), so easily switch to tangents when there are questions and people can follow, because a teacher is working out every step in front of them. I don't think I have ever given the same lecture twice, as so much depends on the composition of the class, what they know, what they ask, what they are interested in.

I really take issue with people who dismiss lectures. My lectures take a lot of energy and focus on my part, and everyone is engaged, thinking and talking and asking questions. I also assign homework that requires a combination of math, programming, and are big on visualization (an important aspect of scientific computing).