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

  • Dispersemos

    At my small liberal arts institution we still use lectures regularly and with mixed results. I'm thinking primarily about our year-long required course for first-year students in which we meet once every two weeks or so for a lecture to introduce the next text on the syllabus. The lecture is probably the best way to convey this type of introductory material and contextualization of the new work, but students are always marginally engaged in these large lectures held in a very unappealing lecture hall. [This reminds me a lot of the now famous You Tube videos by Michael Wesch at Kansas State on how current students learn at the university level. See: <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o]<br />But I believe that even in a large lecture hall we can still engage students and facilitate learning. We must be aware of attention span limits, provide opportunities for feedback and quick assessment (one minute papers, clickers, etc.) and perhaps assign roles to some participants during the lecture: note taking on a shared website or wiki, searching for images, articles, etc. related to the lecture topic.Lectures are too efficient to drop entirely, but we must think carefully about the goals and methods used during lectures to engage students appropriately.

  • frank

    Ah, I see you addressed wendy's comment more… informatively… than I did. :oP :o)As for the success of lecturing, I'm thinking some students may learn better through lecture as opposed to active learning, possibly because they were raised to learn through lecture. If you had to depend on lectures as your primary means to get a good grade, you don't just learn the material, but you *learn* to *learn through lecture*. Treating "learning through lecture" as a skill and "learning through active learning" as a skill, I would rather my (yet non-existent) students learn the latter skill because I believe it's more applicable in the "real world".Also, thank you for citing your references.