Long Live the Lecture?

It seems that every few months someone new steps forward to sing the praises of the lecture.  While research has promoted more active learning in classroom environments, there has been a lot of resistance to this shift. Initially, I totally understood this push back. Many people’s vision of the collegiate learning space is some brilliant orator standing behind a podium giving a rousing lecture that educates and inspires. As the lecturer passionately finishes his final argument, the class stands and applauds.  Through the tireless efforts of the lecturer, minds are changed and new information is obtained. It is clear that real learning has occurred through the attentive listening on part of the class.

But that’s not really how it happens.  Evidence shows that the lecture is not an effective method of learning.  You may recall the meta-study that examined the research on active learning vs. lecture-based classrooms.  In the study, the authors write that ““If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.”  The control group in question?  Lecture-based classrooms.

Despite this convincing study, there are always deniers.  Take this post from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  In the post, the author, Miya Tokumistsu, defends the process of lecturing and the “benefits of collective listening” on the part of students.  While Tokumitsu presents a thoughtful argument that draws on sociological, philosophical and political perspectives, I find the readers’ comments equally interesting.  When posts like this are shared, they always seem to draw other lecture supporters into the fray.  Examining their comments, I thought I’d gather a few of the common arguments made by my lecture-supporting colleagues.

It’s the students!
The argument goes something like this:  Lecturing used to be an effective means of instruction but students today have been changed so much due to (insert a chosen innovation or development) that they can’t learn that way anymore.  Maybe it’s smartphones.  Or YouTube.  Maybe it’s due to the evils of multitasking.  Regardless of the chosen scapegoat, lecture supporters see today’s population of students as being incapable of and uninterested in handling lecture-based instruction.  One commenter bemoaned “the Sesame Street generation” while another wrote “education is not an errand to be wedged between Uber shifts.”  Tokumistsu takes it further by blaming other educators, saying “(t)eaching methods like online modules and recorded lectures have become popular because they make it easier for students.”  Honestly, I don’t care if students have changed or not.  And I don’t care what instructional methods may have worked in the past.  My job is to help my students learn and I need to utilize the methods that work with these students.  I still hold my students to high expectations but I use active learning strategies because they help the students learn.  Criticizing today’s students as lazy, unmotivated or entitled isn’t supporting anyone.

The research on active learning isn’t convincing.
This argument is pretty interesting.  As scholars, we’re trained to challenge ideas and question beliefs.  We’re also taught to critically analyze research.  In a way, that’s exactly what’s at the heart of this argument.  Take one commenter who attacked the meta-study shared earlier.  The commenter writes, “research does not support active learning being superior. A recent flawed PNAS study of studies did not even define active learning except as anything-except-lecturing.” Here, the commenter is attacking the researchers’ ability to operationalize active learning and draw effective conclusions.  I appreciate this argument because it’s a real “inside-the-academy” attack.  While the argument is scholarly in nature, more than anything, I disagree with the conclusions.  All research is tentative to a degree.  But educators need to make evidence-based decisions and the evidence for active learning is pretty compelling.  Has active learning been proven to be more effective than lecturing?  Most of my colleagues would hesitate using such a positivist approach to describe any educational research.  Educational research will never prove that a certain instructional technique works in every context or environment.  But to hold any research to this standard demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the nature of science.

Listening is an active process.
I appreciate this argument because it turns active learning against itself.  Since there isn’t a single established definition of active learning, can’t lecturing and listening be included?  Tokumistsu writes that listening isn’t a passive process at all.  In a lecture, students “take notes, they react, they scan the room for reactions, and most importantly, they listen. Listening to a sustained, hour-long argument requires initiative, will, and focus.”  Another commenter writes, “If a student chooses to attend a lecture passively, that is the student’s shortcoming – not the mode of communication. The “active” in active learning is simply a matter of strategy on the learner’s part. In the matter of attending a lecture, being inactive is a matter of habit.” Although this spills into the “it’s about the students” argument a bit, there is a distinct difference here.  These authors put the onus of active learning on the students. While one active learning mantra is “whoever does the work does the learning,” the instructor should help to facilitate the learning by leveraging appropriate active learning strategies. Ultimately, we’re the experts of our content areas and we need to be the ones orchestrating the activities that support student learning in our classrooms.

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2 thoughts on “Long Live the Lecture?

  1. This is an interesting post Ollie. I too find that active learning is a must in classrooms. Attention span for most people is very short. I read we have an attention span less than a goldfish. Well, maybe not a goldfish? But we do live in an age of eLearning and creative options. I find that having management students learn how to work on teams, how to “report out” to the class and team leaders write Executive Summaries of their team’s findings really engages the students, especially in a 3-hour class. I for one don’t want to listen to a 3-hour lecture at 6pm at night, nor do I want to give one.

  2. Pingback: Teaching: Transmission, transaction or transformation | The 8 Blog

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