April 28th, 2009

Lectures Can be Effective


“The lecture when done well, goes far beyond covering the material. It is a carefully planned performance with student learning as its focus.” That quote by Harold B. White appears in a commentary column that is regularly included in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education.

It’s a good quote because it reminds us of what lectures can be. They can be learning centered.

Often they aren’t, but they do have that potential. White confesses that he still enjoys lecturing despite a commitment to PBL and other learner-centered pedagogies. When he lectures now he’s more aware of what he’s doing, why he’s doing it and how it might impact student learning. He attributes this heightened awareness to these newer methods.

White also fesses up to being a “chalkaholic”—he still writes on the board, doesn’t use PowerPoint slides or overheads, and doesn’t post copies of his notes on a course website. Truly an academic Neanderthal! Writing on the board slows him down—the pace is better.

Maybe he’s just resisting change, although his use of other pedagogies disavows this; but maybe lecturing is something he does effectively. I don’t want to give faculty who don’t lecture well or lecture all the time reasons that justify not changing. They should be working to improve their lectures and incorporating other approaches as well, but the poor execution of the lecture does not justify removing it from the repertoire of pedagogical methods. Most of us have learned well by listening to lectures. It’s good to remind ourselves that students in college today can learn from lectures, especially if, as White reminds us, they are carefully planned presentations with the goals that go beyond covering the content.

We ought to be anti-the-lecture-poorly-executed but not anti-lecture.

Reference: White, H. B. (2008). Commentary: Lecturing with stone-age technology. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 36 (1), 65.