October 1st, 2014

When Should We Lecture?

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There are purists among us who would say that we should never lecture, but I don’t think that’s terribly realistic, and I’m still not ready to totally rule out lectures. As faculty, we bring expertise to learners and having an expert around when you don’t know something can be very helpful. Do most teachers still talk too much? They do. Are lectures fraught with well-established impediments to learning? They are.

What’s missing from the conversation are guidelines that teachers might use to determine when they should lecture. And that’s what I’d like to propose in this post. Please consider the questions posed here as an initial exploration, which can be deepened and made more meaningful with your ideas, insights, and experiences.

Should the decision of whether to lecture be influenced by what we are teaching in class that day? Are some kinds of content better explained by the teacher than discovered by the students? Is it complex content that you know from previous experience often causes students to struggle? Can the teacher’s explanation lay the foundation, set the parameters, or provide the context so that students can start dealing with content from a place that expedites understanding? Is a lecture the best way to clarify what students find confusing?

Should we use lecture to present threshold concepts, those building blocks in the discipline which, if understood correctly from the start, provide stability for the knowledge structures built upon them? If we do, we should test how effectively the lecture established those foundations. We should collect data from students and use it to ascertain the level of their understanding as compared with their learning via other methods.

Can you determine when a lecture might be needed by watching the learning experiences of students? If they are attempting something that is challenging, if they are working hard, but still not getting it, if levels of frustration are rising, is that the time for a teacher to step in? Most of us know firsthand that sometimes learning can be so frustrating, emotions so strong and raw, that insight and understanding escape us. This is what some call just-in-time teaching. When students experience a learning impasse, the teacher steps in to provide the answer or additional information – or tells students where they should look for it.

Sometimes lecturing is simply the most efficient way to share information. We don’t give student blank copies of the periodic table and let them try to fill it in. We don’t let them try to set the basic principles of accounting.

Maybe we know when to lecture by ascertaining what will best convey the content. Does it need to be: explained clearly, maybe from different perspectives; illustrated, with examples or visually represented; structured with main and supporting points differentiated; or positioned to connect to what’s come before and linked to what will come after? What the content doesn’t need is to be transferred—passed from teacher to student. “Don’t be a mother robin—chewing up the text for the students and putting it into their beaks through lecture,” Richard Paul and Linda Elder admonish.

Should we use lecture when students don’t think they care about the content, don’t think it’s interesting, or don’t think there’s any need to know it? A lecture where the teacher peppers the content with spicy facts, intriguing questions, colorful anecdotes, and relevant details can cultivate student interest. Teachers talking about how they connect to and with the content, why they love it, and why they think everyone else ought to also can be very motivational.

So we still have lots of questions when it comes to lectures, but we do know that we shouldn’t use lecture as the default instructional method. We need to decide when lecturing makes sense so that it’s a conscious, purposeful choice. And then there’s the matter of length for any given segment of teacher talk. As I review these possible justifications for lecture, I’m hearing a call for mini-lectures, not lengthy expositions that take all or most of a class session.

Now it’s your turn. How do you decide when a lecture is in order? Or, taken from the opposite direction, how do you know when what’s needed to promote learning is not a lecture?

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