October 14th, 2010

What Lectures Can Accomplish


“I have never believed that there was intrinsic damage being done to students in what has been called the ‘sage on the stage’ model of teaching. I don’t think it’s always bad to listen to an expert talk about what she knows best, and I don’t think that the discussion format is inherently better than the lecture format merely because the latter allows the students to express their opinions. On the contrary, I think that a truly great lecturer has the capacity to change a student’s life, and I think that there is something valuable in students listening to a person who has an effortless command of a subject, in seeing the kind of dedication and erudition a fine lecturer embodies.” (p.460)

This quote appears in an essay by an English professor who is describing the experience of teaching Introduction to Fiction in a large class format. It’s an insightful essay. I’ve excerpted the quote because it so clearly captures what makes lectures an effective pedagogical strategy. I do believe most faculty rely on the method too much, the vast majority of lectures are not great and most do not change students’ lives, but there is no arguing their potential for greatness and transformation.

I’m sharing the quote to remind us that no pedagogical method is inherently good or bad—no pedagogical method is always better than another. Much of what we read and hear now is anti-lecture. Given what we know about how people learn and the attention spans of today’s college students, most of us should probably lecture less. But that doesn’t mean we should completely stop lecturing or feel guilty whenever we do.

Lectures belong in an instructor’s repertoire of instructional approaches. Part of what makes them successful is a clear understanding of what learning outcomes they are best suited to accomplish and purposeful decision-making about when to use them.

Reference: Foote, S. (2010). Amateur hour beginning in the lecture hall. Pedagogy, 10 (3), 457-470.

  • Larry Spence

    A lecture may be a device of entertainment, communication, or rhetorical performance. It is not a way to teach. What is teaching? Is it a transfer of information – a way of getting the thoughts and ideas of one person into the brains of others? No, teaching guides student practice – the practice required to change and improve mental representations of reality.
    Human beings are the only animal that teaches, writes David Premack. Other animals learn from their parents and elders by mimicry. A chimpanzee mother will crack nuts with a rock – one of the most advanced technologies of the species. Her offspring will copy the action over and over. The mother does not watch, does not notice what the youngster does, or does not care if there is any improvement. Thus, it takes the young chimp many years to learn.
    Only a human will demonstrate a skill, and then watch carefully to correct and guide student practice. Using that crucial information — how I am doing and what I need to do or try –the student learns quickly and with more accuracy than by copying. Without demonstration, practice, correction and answering novices’ questions there is no pedagogy.
    Students learn from lectures just as inefficiently as chimps do from mimicry. It can be done, but at a cost of time and a loss of creativity. Should we feel guilty when we lecture? There are times in the class room when we need to entertain, communicate, or exhort. But none of that substitutes for teaching.

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