An analysis of more than 2,000 college classes in science, technology, engineering and math has imparted a lesson that might resonate with many students who sat through them: Enough with the lectures, already.
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Exchanges about the relative merits of lecture and active learning continue, and these exchanges are becoming more acrimonious and polarized. Either you are for lecturing (and against active learning) or you’re for active learning (and against lecturing). Active learning advocates have the evidence; those who lecture stand on tradition. Where is this debate headed? How accurately does it reflect what’s actually happening in classrooms? Is there a viable place in the middle?
Researchers Daniel Smith and Thomas Valentine begin by making an important point. At two-year colleges “the classroom serves as the epicenter of involvement.” (p. 134) The same could be said for commuter campuses as well. Students who attend two-year colleges often do so part-time and regularly do so combining school with work, family, and a host of other responsibilities. The same can increasingly be said of many students who commute to campus to take classes. At many institutions students now spend considerably less time on campus, and so if they are to be engaged with academic life, that involvement pretty much begins and ends in the classroom. So, are faculty using instructional techniques that do involve students in the classroom?
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Have you heard that advice about chunking content in 10- to 15-minute blocks because that’s about as long as students can attend to material in class? It’s a widely touted statistic and given the behaviors indicative of inattentiveness observed in class, most faculty haven’t questioned it. But Karen Wilson and James H. Korn did. They got to wondering how researchers made that determination. “What was the dependent measure, and how did researchers measure attention during a lecture without influencing the lecture itself as well as students’ attention?”
Once I passed my 50th semester of introductory biology, I began to regret that my profession doesn’t have a real apprenticeship for teaching—why should every young professor facing his or her first big class…have to make the same mistakes I did and, perhaps more important, why should they not know that everybody…has the same problems?
Most teachers work to add interest to lecture material in an attempt to gain student attention. If they aren’t attending, they aren’t listening, and if they aren’t listening, it’s pretty hard to imagine them learning anything from a lecture. But is there a point at which the interesting details are more arresting than the content? And if that’s so, do those kinds of details get in the way of attempts to learn and apply content?
“Is The Teaching Professor anti-lecture?” the sharply worded e-mail queried. “No, we aren’t,” I replied, “We’re anti poor lectures … just like we’re against group work that doesn’t work and any other instructional approach poorly executed.”
But the note did remind me that we haven’t provided much on lectures recently, and in all the classrooms I visited this semester, lectures were certainly alive and well (although some were not very healthy). My search for current resources uncovered the article referenced below, which identifies 10 “worthwhile considerations” that should be addressed by those who lecture. The author teaches in a science area and pulls examples from that content.