June 17th, 2008

Active-Learning Advocates and Lectures


My blog entry for June 3 highlights some content from an article in which a chemistry prof recounts his experiences moving away from lecture. It promoted a “devil’s advocate” comment from Wendy. “When we went to college most faculty presented the material in lectures and we learned. What’s different today? Why are lectures no longer sufficient? Have learners changed?”

Yes, we did learn from lectures. Today’s professors were yesterday’s successful students. Did our fellow classmates learn as well from lectures as we did? I’m not sure about yesterday, but there is lots of evidence today that most students don’t learn all that well by listening. They learn better when they are involved, active, and engaged. If you read the Teaching Professor newsletter or subscribe to this blog, you’ll find lots of citations supportive of that claim.

The effectiveness of active learning is well established. I’m more concerned that those on the lecture side think those of us on the active learning side are totally and unalterably opposed to lecture. I was reviewing a book manuscript yesterday in which the authors observe, “advocates of active learning sometimes come across as being vehemently opposed to lecturing.” Do we?

I can’t claim to speak for all active-learning advocates, but I know that I still lecture, regularly, in fact. I do lecture considerably less than I used to; mostly I lecture for shorter periods of time. I think we may rant and rave about lectures because despite all the evidence supportive of active learning, so many faculty still rely on lectures exclusively or extensively. Lectures are a viable pedagogical tool, but their viability deserves to be challenged when they are the only approach or the primary approach (as 76 percent of faculty in a huge survey reported it was).

All of us who teach need to have an accurate understanding of how we teach—what methods we use and how much we use them. Said more bluntly, most faculty talk in class more than they think they do. I often quote Nunn’s finding from an observational study of classroom participation. Students spoke in those classrooms less than 6 percent of the time. That’s one minute for every 40 minutes of class time. I know, Nunn didn’t observe in your classroom.

Finkelstein, M. J., Seal, R. K., and Schuster, J. The New Academic Generation: A Profession in Transformation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Nunn, C. E. “Discussion in the College Classroom: Triangulating Observational and Survey Results.” Journal of Higher Education, 1996, 67 (3), 243-66.

—Maryellen Weimer