Last year, Brad deLong did a most excellent dissection of the lecture, how it came to be, and why universities need to rethink the whole approach to learning concept before they get eaten by technology development providing even cheaper content delivery.
I’ve been meaning to editorialize on this for a while, and then Chad planning for start of classes prodded me into action, doubly so when Chad posted a link to jolly nice resource for active learning in physics at Learnification
So I guess it is up to me to risk the wrath of education research pundits everywhere…
So, we, the professors, pretty much all sat through lectures, and yeah, a lot of them kinda sucked, we know.
And, yeah, so there’s a lot of research on all these newfangled scientifically proven better educational techniques.
Yet still we lecture, occasionally with some minor tweaks or half-hearted attempts to incorporate fads like clickers.
There are so many possibilities:
- We’re all just stupid.
- We want everyone else to suffer like we did.
- We’re lazy and just keep doing the same stuff over and over again.
- It is a cost effective way to deliver formal instruction to ridiculously large introductory classes.
- We are radically contrarian and do the opposite of what earnest education researchers advice just to piss them off…
Hey, wait a minute here: we are so totally not stupid!
Ok, so the lecture thing.
Yeah, it really did start as a way to get books copied, for free, a typical set of term lecture notes is about 2-300 pages, your basic monograph.
My set of lecture notes, that I copied meself, are one of the few things I have always carried with me, moving back and forth between continents:
Intro Mechanics; Probability Theory; Wave Theory; Functional Analysis; the legendary Applications of Classical Physics I, II and III; Order of Magnitude Physics…
Even Solid State Physics, which really truly sucked beyond belief.
Ideally, the primary teaching delivery would be a wise person at the end of a log, with patience and no committee assignments; unfortunately wise people are in desperately short supply, so apart from a handful of lucky graduate students, and even fewer random undergraduates, about 99.9% of university students don’t get that.
The next best thing is the tutorial – a PhD some comfy chairs and 3-5 students for an hour, couple of times a week.
That is some Active Learning.
Though, I have to say, tutorials work really well when done in parallel with lectures.
Labs. Well you gotta have labs (for science, natch).
Good departments fight for lab resources to the bitter end.
“Recitation sections” – grad student TA and 20-30 students, for an hour, to complement lectures.
This, as I noted, is the cheap version of tutorials, and, to be honest, they generally don’t work; sometimes, with the right students and awesome TA they help some students, but lets just say attendance at recitation sections if often poor for good reasons.
So what is left is “the lecture”.
Ok, so there are also books, peers, and online resources.
And, you don’t have to actually lecture in lectures; especially not by reading sections of “the book” in deadly monotone as 19 year olds all around catch up on their sleep.
Yet, we do.
With feeble attempts at intonation, humour and the desperate struggle to draw some sort of proactive response from someone, anyone, in the audience.
The lectures, as a series, ideally, provide a coherent framework to guide the student to study.
Now, the student can, of course, get that by other means. They can self-guide, or follow the book, some book, if they must.
Yes, about 15% of them can, self-guide through the material, at any given time.
Some who can not do that fresh out of high school can some time later, and vica versa.
The “15%”, btw, is based on anecdotal observation of students over the years, from a sample larger than most education research samples (most faculty who have taught for any length of time have experienced a sample size large compared to many educational research samples, and many of us assimilate and analyze that data), and, from the graduation rate of for-profit colleges.
The lectures are there to define the topic, the range of topic and the depth of topic, and to lead the student through the topic one step at a time. In the order carefully chosen by the instructor according to the very finest pedagogical concepts…
(quick: intro astro – do you do planets first or last?)
The classic error many students make, is to assume that a university lecture delivers the full content of the educational material intended to be assimilated.
It does not, generally, and I’d argue that to limit the material to just that covered in lecture is a mistake.
Further, being in the lecture, even paying attention, even taking notes, is not sufficient and is not meant to be sufficient.
The lecture tries to hit several input channels for learning: the student, generally, needs to listen, watch the material presented, read the presented material in many cases, and, concurrently, take notes.
For most lectures, trying to do verbatim transcription is an error, except when it is necessary – you should be able to figure out which is which. The essence of the notes is to make the student assimilate the material and summarise the essential points on the fly.
But you’re not done then: you should read the notes, and not just the night before an exam. Ideally, you should also rewrite the notes, organize them and make them coherent, and at the same time read beyond the material and add your own notes.
Yeah, it takes time, a lot of time.
It also helps you get really good grades in hard classes.
You also need to do homework/writing assignments, read through assigned reading material, and further to that – work the examples, do additional problems from the book, or invent your own, and keep reading beyond the assigned reading, find alternative sources then “the book” or the lecture notes.
Ok, so there is still a need to engage the students, to generate interest, and to make them engage actively with the material.
This can be done during the time assigned to lecture, through feedback gimmickry, or through peer instruction (though scaling is a problem there).
One problem there is that this takes time from presenting the material.
Sometimes it is appropriate to reduce the scope of the lectures and focus on themes or concepts, particularly for gen ed classes: but, you can’t really cut mechanics in lectures to engineers, and for majors the cutback in topic coverage causes serious problems later on. We won’t even touch the whole pre-med thing.
We could go to 5 year BSc, in some ways we’re already there, much as the UK went from 3 year to 4 year degrees. But that has issues all of its own.
The real fault there is the failure of K-12 education to provide coherent multi-year education in the sciences, and the overload of gen ed material that really ought to have been done at the K-12 level, but that is beyond the scope of the issue of lecturing.
< curmudgeon-mode-on >
I was going through some active learning guide material and it showed a picture of happy engaged students discussing lecture material in class, as an example of effective learning.
Damn right it is.
Talking the material over with your peers and shaking out misconceptions and then going back and asking the instructor about the issue is very effective learning.
But WHY DO YOU NEED TO DO IT DURING LECTURE?!
Students ought to be talking to each other about what was in the lecture all the time: walking after class, over coffee, on the library steps, over lunch, drinking beer and during the all valuable late night sessions back in the dorms!
< curmudgeon-mode-off >
I mean that.
Dammitt, that is how professors learn -we sit through each others lectures (but we call them seminars or colloquia to make us feel more important), we are mostly unashamed enough to interrupt to ask questions, and then we arrange for discussion periods, over coffee if we can.
This is how we structure our own continuing education: intense lectures, questions on the fly, and with separate periods for peer discussion and rehashing the material.
Nothing pleases a workshop organizer more than watching the crowd chatter during breaks, even if that makes the next session start late.
Yes, talking to peers works well overall, but it cannot be limited to a couple of minutes a couple of times during class. It ought not to be needed during class.
Turn off the TV, kick the xbox under the couch, mute the cellphone and just talk to the other students all on your own, you don’t need me to tell you when to chat.
You might even like it. Or them.
Oh, and the wise person on a log thing…
Come to office hours.
You are paying for them.
It trashes my precious reading time, but I checked, I compared performance of students who came to office hours before and after: one office hour visit, on average improves grades on tests by 15%.
(caveat: for a sample of student taking large intro gen ed classes who were motivated enough to show up without prompting, your grade improvement may vary).