Photo of Claire Lamonica QUOTATION I
“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.” (Foote 460)

“The active-learning approach challenges lecturers to re-evaluate what they can accomplish during class that offers the greatest value for students. [Eric ]Mazur, [Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics at Harvard University] cites a quip to the effect that lectures are a way of transferring the instructor’s lecture notes to students’ notebooks without passing through the brains of either. … ‘The danger with lucid lectures … is that they create the illusion of teaching for teachers, and the illusion of learning for learners,’ he says. ‘Sitting passively and taking notes is just not a way of learning. Yet lectures are 99 percent of how we teach!’” (Lambert)

Pretty regularly … maybe three or four times a year … someone sends me a link to an article referencing the now-ubiquitous findings of Arizona State professor David Hestenes, who conducted research into the effectiveness of his own lecture-based teaching and found it sorely lacking. The articles, like the one from which the second quotation above is drawn, are generally heralding—or calling for—an end to lecture-based instruction. But is that really a good idea?

I must that when I first arrived at CTLT, I might have answered my own (albeit rhetorical) question with a resounding “yes!” But in the years since, I’ve met a lot of outstanding teachers who lecture, and I’ve attended some outstanding lectures as well. I’ve also read with interest the work of authors like Ken Bain (I know, I cite him all the time) who call into question the belief that lecture is inferior to active learning in every context.

In his sixteen-year study of “the best college teachers,” Bain discovered that some of those teachers used lectures and some used other approaches. What mattered wasn’t the approach, but the teachers’ ability to create “natural critical learning environments in which they embed the skills and information they wish to teach in … authentic tasks that will arouse curiosity, challenging students to rethink their assumptions ad examine their mental models of reality. They create a safe environment in which students can try, come up short, receive feedback, and try again” (47).

Apparently, what matters is not the mode of instruction, but the ability of the instructor to engage students intellectually. Some instructors can do this effectively in a lecture hall; some do it best in a laboratory or a seminar room. The key is to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that the mode of instruction you’re using is, in fact, effective. What evidence do you have of sustained student learning? By “sustained student learning,” I mean student learning as evidenced “not by how much [students] had to remember but [by] how much they came to understand” (9). Sustained learning literally changes how students understand their world.

If we have hard evidence of such learning, then we can feel good about the approaches we’re using in our classrooms. If we don’t have such evidence, we need to seek it out. If we look for it and find it isn’t there, we should probably reconsider our approach … no matter what approach we’re using!

If you’re interested in applying this kind of lens to your teaching, watch for future CTLT events featuring Course Portfolios. We expect they’ll start coming this summer … to a teaching center near you. (301 S. Main, just north of Jimmy John’s, as we like to say.)

Works Cited

Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004.

Foote, S. “Amateur Hour Beginning in the Lecture Hall.” Pedagogy, 10 (3), 2010. 457-470. Cited in “What Lectures Can Accomplish,” Teaching Professor Blog. 14 October 2010.

Lambert, Craig. “Twilight of the Lecture.” Harvard Magazine. March-April 2012. Online.