Lecturing is Dead?

by Harry on March 11, 2005

If you haven’t yet followed any of our numerous links to Scott McLemee’s columns in Inside Higher Education you might want to start by checking out this brilliant little essay about the lost art of the lecture (and no, he doesn’t pay us a cent for the links). Apparently the lecture is not only dead, but is widely regarded as

“another form of child abuse, aimed at nominal adults, of course, but still young people presumably subjugated and entrapped in an environment controlled by an authoritarian leader” — leaving them no self-defense except “to fall asleep to escape the painful environment they have paid so dearly to join.”

Worse, my former colleague Ron Barnett is quoted as saying that the lecture:

“keeps channels of communication closed, freezes hierarchy between lecturers and students and removes any responsibility on the student to respond.”

Scott defends the lecture against these charges so well to need no further help. But I would add two points. The first is about ‘active learning’. I am a great believer in active learning; and as a student I was never more active than when listening to a good lecture. Every second listening to Brian O’ Shaughnessy or Richard Wollheim my mind was abuzz, trying to following the train of thought in the confidence that it really was a train of thought and I should be trying to follow it. It wasn’t harder than reading, but it was as hard, and, often, more rewarding. The idea, put around by some educationists, that reading and listening are not ‘active’ is nonsense.
But the other is from my perspective, as the lecturer. Scott’s foil, one Stanley Solomon (whose essay, while purporting to attack the lecture is clearly a defence of it), says that

“The more I studied the advantages of discussion as a replacement for lecturing, the more obvious the evidence of professional benefits appeared, simultaneously with a notable increase in my leisure reading and television watching.”

I demur from this. I have a horror of not giving lectures: indeed in the job where Ron Barnett was my colleague I had no lecturing responsibilities and had to volunteer for lecture series in order not to be bored silly. Lecturing is merely fun, but preparing for lectures is incredibly exciting (if, as I have always been lucky to have, there is ample time built into one’s job to do it). Reading smart people addressing difficult problems and trying to figure out what they are saying, how to convey it to the ignorant, and simultaneously to be showing them how to do philosophy, all at the same time, is the best part of my job. I learn loads from it; and if I lecture well I even learn from my students in discussion.

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ben wolfson 03.11.05 at 3:27 pm

I had many a class of otherwise compelling lectures not ruined, but at least quite disrupted by fellow students who felt the need to drag the professor into tangential discussions.


trotsky 03.11.05 at 4:11 pm

My classical history professor (who later scandalized that nation on 9/11, but that’s a separate story) was famous for his lectures, not least for breaking down in tears while describing the battle of Thermopylae and, especially, the death of Alexander. Three hundred undergrads every Tuesday and Thursday and never did a soul fall asleep.


fjm 03.11.05 at 4:18 pm

My issue with lecturing is that we lecture most to the first years, who have no idea what they should be listening for, and least to the final year students who by that time know enough to listen critically.

But I’m not at all sure what a “tangential discussion” is.


Alan Bostick 03.11.05 at 4:34 pm

I note that McLemee explicitly ridicules a book by giving it a false title, and that this false title implicitly ridicules a book he otherwise does not mention, but whose ghost haunts his whole discussion: Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

If preparing for and giving a lecture is such a learning experience, why not structure a class so that it is the students who give lectures, not the designated instructor?


Scott McLemee 03.11.05 at 4:43 pm

First of all, many thanks to Crooked Timber for linking to my article. I would indeed be willing to pay any bribe for this honor — were that necessary, and had I any money.

Alan Bostick has me “implicitly” ridiculing the title of Paulo Friere’s book. That was certainly not my intention. Furthermore, he has that book “haunting [my] whole discussion,” when in fact the title that was on the back of my mind while writing the column was Neil Postman’s [ital]Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business[/ital].


michael palaeologus 03.11.05 at 5:05 pm

As something of a postscript to a period of work with a trade union representing university academics, I wrote that the appropriate response to declining per-student funding ought be resisting the proliferation of ‘seminar’ classes (20-30 students, discussion style) and instead returning to a lecture/tutorial mode, with lectures to very large groups, and tutorials geared to the learning needs of students at different stages (viz. early on teaching them learning habits, and later on substantive consideration of specific disciplinary material).

Of course, to achieve net workload reductions, it requires the willingness to make bold curriculum decisions (in order to subject large numbers of students to a small number of lectures).


joel turnipseed 03.11.05 at 11:19 pm

“Here, here!” for the lecture. While some time reserved for discussion is O.K., and some courses — a creative writing seminar; a small senior seminar on practical reason in Aristotle — lend themselves much better to significant classroom participation, in most cases the tyranny of stupidity rules: ignorant students destroying the opportunity for the intelligent ones to learn from someone who knows. If it’s so important for students to teach themselves, why not just give them a reading list at 18 and call them at 22 or 23 to ask how they’re doing? You only spend about 40 hours with a professor in a given semester, a mere week, and with most schools, that may be the only week you’ll get to spend with that person the rest of your life. Is it really too much to ask that a) the professor spend time to learn how to present their field’s achievements/ongoing questions and b) students respect that committment?

fjm — sounds like the fault of the lecturer. I was an undergraduate TA in logic for a guy, quite smart, who couldn’t lecture his way out of a paper bag. I ended up doing extra sessions just to give the whole course myself (to the great laughter of at least one other faculty member): it just seemed liked such a gross and dishonest failure to let a hundred kids fall through the cracks because the department couldn’t get anyone else to fill the hole. A competent lecturer includes both background and propadeutic material sufficient to create a texture of conflict from which understanding a given idea/text can arise… it’s called “teaching.”


catherine liu 03.12.05 at 3:59 am

The most radical form of anti-lecture pedagogy that I have ever come across was the Harkness Table method that was tried upon a group of teachers by prep school instructors who were fanatical about the method.

We had to do a reading and then discuss it around a seminar table while the instructor sat back and took notes on how the discussion. The idea was that we “would teach other the material.”

I found the format much more coercive, much more surveilled as it were than the lecture format. The readings that each person offered were not in the least instructive to me. I would have preferred an expert give me a dazzling lecture, but I have been reading Hofstadter on American anti-intellectualism recently and am struck by own this continues the populist American suspicion of the “specialist.”

I learned something from this format though — when I get a question during a lecture, I often pause and let another student answer it. Some one does pipe up eventually — and in a productive way, and then I move on.


Keith M Ellis 03.12.05 at 5:32 am

Lecturing is a tyranny of the stupid, not discussion, because it is a pedagogical method most appropriate for…the stupid. And the lazy.

With all due respect to McLemee, with whom I otherwise tend to agree, this consensus of respect for classroom lecturing here is nuts. I’m hard pressed to recall even a single classroom lecture that wasn’t a complete waste of my time.

If I had been lucky enough to see Feynman’s famous lectures at Caltech, maybe I’d feel differently. But almost without fail all the classroom lectures I’ve attended were led by TAs or Profs who were bored with what they were doing; who were more or less talking through an outline of a chapter of a textbook that the students were afterward expected to read; who were too often unintelligible; who were lecturing to bored and often sleeping students; who too often digressed into inanities or a pet theory that (quite rightly) didn’t appear in the text.

At an early point in the history of university education, classroom lecturing was necessary because the lecturers were explorers passing along knowledge that only they knew. It had the added subtextual benefit of being reminiscent of a Sunday Sermon.

In today’s undergraduate university education dominated by survey courses and glossy textbooks, the classroom lecture serves only two purposes. First, it gives the students a clue as to which minutiae they will be expected to regurgitate on the next test. Second, it makes the lecturer feel authoritative and important.

Here we have an absurd institution: going to the trouble of insisting that dozens or hundreds of people be in the same physical space at the same time only so that they may passively listen to a single speaker read from notes in a monotone and perhaps show a few murky slides. Could the lecture be a reading? Of course it could. Could the lecture be a videotape? Of course it could. It would have more utility in either case.

Well, excepting the ubiquitous case of the lazy student who couldn’t be relied upon to do the reading or watch the videotape.

In the contemporary university, classroom lecturing assumes stupid, lazy students and, possibly, vain lecturers.


catherine liu 03.12.05 at 7:05 am

Stupidity is a dangerous accusation — one that Flaubert has an uncanny way of rebounding on the source.

No particular technique of pedagogy is more vulnerable to stupidity than any other — its the fanatical reform-minded types who tell us that lectures are dead that I thought McLemee was condemning .


Keith M Ellis 03.12.05 at 7:10 am

“No particular technique of pedagogy is more vulnerable to stupidity than any other…”

You can’t be serious, can you?


tad brennan 03.12.05 at 9:17 am

reparse Catherine’s claim as
“no particular technique of pedagogy is uniquely invulnerable to stupidity”
and I think she’s right. No change of medium will completely finesse the need for good teaching.

Example: videotapes will presumably be videotapes *of* something, no? And videotapes of really bad, crashingly boring teaching will have no particular pedagogical advantage over really bad, crashingly boring lectures, I shouldn’t think.


Keith M Ellis 03.12.05 at 11:36 am

“And videotapes of really bad, crashingly boring teaching will have no particular pedagogical advantage over really bad, crashingly boring lectures, I shouldn’t think.”

But they would. They’d still be really bad, crashingly boring lectures. But they’d be really bad, crashingly boring lectures that students could watch when it’s most convenient for them and that they could rewatch in case there were bad, crushingly boring parts that they wished to experience a second time.


joel turnipseed 03.13.05 at 3:14 am

keith ellis —
I think, at risk of flame that no one will even bother to watch as it extinguishes itself, that you are confusing “irresponsible lecturer” with principle of lecturing, per se. It is a truism that many professors (though fewer than are accused) sleepwalk through their teaching duties… of course, the question is: how many students sleepwalk through their learning responsibilities? I would argue that the latter far outnumber the former, and that the impetus behind the “discuss not lecture” movement feeds itself far more from laziness on the part of both parties than it does from a question of social justice.


Keith M Ellis 03.13.05 at 9:30 am

I am not concerned with the “discuss not lecture” movement, really. Social justice, or coercion, or whatever, it beside the point as far as I’m concerned. I really could not possibly care less whether students feel coerced to either sit in a lecture or sit in a discussion.
My only concerns here are to defend discussion as a superior pedagogy to lecturing; and also to deny that lecturing, as it typically exists in contemporary (US) universities, is anything other than an absurd waste of time.
You wrote: “It is a truism that many professors (though fewer than are accused) sleepwalk through their teaching duties… of course, the question is: how many students sleepwalk through their learning responsibilities? I would argue that the latter far outnumber the former…”
I agree and that’s the problem. Lecturing caters to lazy students. Cards on the table: my education was at an unusual school where every class is a small seminar built around a substantial reading. I noticed almost nothing but good came from this relative to lecturing. The only possible drawback concerns those students for whom participation is difficult yet are fully capable. In all other regards, it’s superior. Students are active and engaged in the material; they certainly cannot sleep nor even be merely inattentive. A seminar is something that can only be done most effectively in person (and in a small group); while, in contrast, the one-way transmission of information from a lecturer to students, particularly when the lecture is not extemporaneous, is a complete waste of the unique opportunity presented by gathering all those people in one place at one time.
I cannot imagine why anyone defends the lecture unless they’re doing so out of some misguided sense of traditionalism (or vanity on the part of the lecturer). Setting aside the matter of exceptionally good lecturers and lectures, what is good about and can be accomplished by lectures can be more easily and efficiently achieved via other means. While I do think that discussion is generally a much better pedagogy, the tradition of lecturing would bother me less were this not the case and lecturing were actually effective at what it attempts. But it’s not.
In far more respects than not, I’m an educational conservative. However, not in this particular case, if being an educational conservative means defending the tradition of lecturing.


Jake 03.13.05 at 10:32 am

I suspect I know which school you went to. I attended a school that was similar in many ways. But if you’re saying that every class where the format was discussion was superior to a lecture, I don’t believe you. I’ve sat through appallingly directionless seminar meetings where the amount of information or even worthwhile thought could have been produced, by a decent teacher, in a quarter of the time actually spent.
Undoubtedly such skills as learning how to debate, how to criticize one’s own thoughts on the fly, etc. are better developed in seminar. But not every class has to be part of developing that skill. Perhaps my imagination is lacking, but I cannot see how an introductory science course could be improved by turning it into a seminar.
Also, you’ve not fully addressed the problem of seminar students who can’t be bothered to read the material, for whatever reason, and are silent deadweight in class–a high enough proportion of those students and a seminar turns into something creepy; and worse, the students who haven’t read the material or haven’t bothered thinking about it and nonetheless feel free to take part, frequently slowing or derailing the discussion. A good lecture rewards those students willing to pay attention; the dross is minimized. Your statement that the lecture is most appropriate for the stupid and lazy is incorrect, unless you mean solely as a method for a university to garner more money per unit of its effort. Getting something out of lectures requires active listening; just because you may not be able to interrupt the lecture to ask for clarification or further defense of a point doesn’t mean you don’t have the opportunity or responsibility to look it up later and figure it out for yourself.


Sean Stickle 03.13.05 at 10:45 am

I went to the same same unusual school that Mr. Ellis did, based on his description. After that, I joined the Navy and went to nuclear power school where they taught by lectures. So I think I am fairly well informed on the merits of both. My experience of lectures is similar to that of Aristotle’s analysis of the polity. A monarchy is the best possible government when you have an enlightened ruler, but turns to tyranny when perverted. Whereas, discussing democracy, “if liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost”. This seems to me to be a relatively accurate assessment of the lecture format vs the seminar debate as well. When one has an excellent lecturer, say Heidegger, then the lecture format is brilliant. When the lecture is run by someone less competent, or less interested in the education of the ignorant through lecture, then the results are boring and fundamentally useless. On the other hand, taking the authors of great books to be the teachers, a seminar can engage the active participation of the mind with the ideas far more powerfully than can a desultory declamation.
I think the more important point to be made is that, regardless of what format that is used, most schools continue to allow a fully elective series of courses to be selected, buffet-style, by the pupil. It seems to me that the pupil is, as Mr. the professor in Mr. McLemee’s story describes it, someone who “[dosen’t] know anything”. Why, then, are they allowed to pick their own classes? There are the obvious political and market reasons, of course, but I think very few if any sound pedagogical reasons.
The unusual college I went to and the Navy as well were run in such a way that you were told what to learn, for different reasons certainly. But the fundamental reason was that you didn’t know enough at the time to figure out what you needed to know. That, it seems to me, is far more profound an educational decision than what format to present the material in.


Mr. Name to you 03.13.05 at 11:41 am

Is Ellis writing funny material or what!? I mean really, here’s a guy who doesn’t know jack about the lecture, who’s never experienced a good lecture and therefore is drawing on a rather one-sided exposure to it lecturing the world on the flaws, deficiencies, drawbacks, and just plain don’t likes of the lecture. And this ass is doing it in the most condenscending way, using a dismissive tone, feigning a tired detachment to the topic and basically farting itself into cyberspace. Discuss that, slick.
Ellis is pretty much exhibit A for self-refutation. There’s a pragmatic middle ground lurking somewhere but it’b been banished. Smug educationists have discovered the one true way to democratize the classroom. But this democracy, this definition of active learning is just so much bullshit concealing an organization agenda. Its education as fast food. Its quick, convenient, the crap hits all the obvious sensors indicating it tasts good and the user feels full. Its the appearance of learning. The activities and levelling result in fewer consumer complaints – which in itself is a measure of good teaching. And in so doing our intrepid learning mediators have secured sinecure and authority largely by conning the world into thinking that the mindless chatter of consumer students fulfills the role, goals, objectives of the ed-biz. That one correct way isn’t so much discussion mode classrooms as the imposition of multi-method teaching modes that turn classrooms into corporate training seminars outputting little drones who have had an “experience” and thus feel fufilled and so their ego’s remain buff and at the same time the classroom learning facilitator can provide the necessary documentation to satisfy their organizational objectives.
Oh, organisms like Ellis are just so loathesome.


Adam Kotsko 03.13.05 at 3:47 pm

I don’t know why people are so down on the idea of people absorbing information and then showing that they have absorbed it. Rote memorization is a valuable skill as well. When I see those routines on late-night shows where people don’t know who Thomas Jefferson is or who the vice president is or whatever, I am reminded again of the value of having information, in one’s head.
And maybe listening to a good lecture, finding out through the trial and error of taking notes what the most important points are — maybe that helps to develop good reading skills, too. Maybe someone who can’t listen to a lecture and figure out what is important (with all the aid of the prof. maybe going slower, maybe emphasizing certain points through his tone of voice) also won’t be able to figure out what is most important in a written text.
I’ve had shitty lecturers before, for sure, but I’ve also have professors who knew a hell of a lot and who just sat back and allowed the most ignorant students to talk for ten minutes at a time. I would tend to side with the lecture format unless I knew for sure that I had an engaged group of students who were actually going to read the text carefully beforehand — hardly a sure bet at most universities.
And finally — enough with efficiency. It is not a self-evident value. I don’t see why education should be “efficient” or even what it would mean for it to be efficient.


JennyD 03.13.05 at 3:48 pm

I run one of the discussion sections out of a large lecture, and I have to say that the paired format–90 minutes of lecture Monday, followed by 90 minutes of discussion Wednesday–is a terrific way to run a class. Best of both worlds.
What’s astonishing is that students have to write weekly reflections on the readings, discussion, whatever. And they write often about the lecture. They are listening. They think about what’s said. And then they get a chance to respond.
Ellis doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Remember, WE are supposed to be TEACHING students. The requires a transmitting some knowledge to them for their future intellectual disgestion. Why is a lecture somehow bad for students, while making them read an author’s book (again, one-way method of transmitting information) a good thing?


Michael Palaeologus 03.13.05 at 7:44 pm

Nah, you see the thing is, crap lecturer – you JUST DON”T GO – whereas in the seminar type course where students do much of the presenting, there is a sense of civic responsibility and plain courtesy to show up with your fellow students.


Keith M Ellis 03.13.05 at 11:00 pm

I have attended a good lecture or three, occasionally even in a classroom.
Mine is a pragmatic argument. Part of what Scott and others here are complaining against is (I think) just another educational fad cooked up by someone at an education school who’s sure that they’re the first person to have discovered/created the most effective pedagogy. I share that complaint. I also agree that people vary considerably with regard to what teaching style is most effective for them and thus, ideally, we’d figure out what that is for each student and provide it.
But we’re talking about, really, contemporary universities and colleges with limited resources and poor to mediocre students. How best to teach them? Well, I don’t think it’s the lecture format. None of the defenses above are persuasive to me.
If students are inclined to be lazy, it will be much more evident in the seminar than the lecture hall. Immediately evident, which will make the student subject to peer pressure. If you don’t want to somehow engage the lazy students or shame them into working, but rather get rid of them, there are better ways to do that than lecturing or discussion.
A complaint about seminars is that they can be derailed by irrelevancies or just bad will. That’s true. Of course, it’s a teacher’s job to control that. In contrast, when you’re up there lecturing, aside from squinting into the lights to see if people are alseep, you can’t do anything at that time to detect and solve problems. In a seminar, topics that a teacher thinks are relatively trivial and will gloss over in a lecture often are suprisingly difficult for many students—but you figure that out and help them.
JennyD wrote, “Remember, WE are supposed to be TEACHING students”. Yes, and the best teaching is interactive. We know this, it’s intuitive. When your child comes to you with a question, you don’t have him/her sit patiently while you lecture them on everything they should know about the topic for twenty minutes. (I hope not, anyway.) You interact with them. This interaction is important for many reasons, but one of them is that learning itself is active, and people learn more quickly and more permanently when they are an active part of the process.
But aside from that, it’s not the case that many lecturers are really teaching that much, anyway. We live in a mostly textbook world, people. 90% of all lectures are a summary of the chapter that the students will read, presumably, later, with a few thoughts of the lecturer’s thrown in. If a teacher is truly the author of the material, and if they have a particularly engaging and effective speaking manner, then a lecture format makes a lot of sense. But that’s a tiny minority of university lectures.
I’d like to repeat: my argument is threefold. First, in general I’m arguing that discussion, in general, is better pedagogy than lecturing. Second, I’m arguing that lecturing is more effective in only a small number of exceptional cases and which does not include most contemporary university classes. Third, given the previous point, whatever is being accomplished via a lecture in most cases can be better achieved via some althernative lecture-like format (not necessarily discussion). A videotape, a reading that would otherwise have been a lecture, whatever. Because it’s a lot of damn trouble to get a bunch of students and a teacher in the same room at the same time. If you’re not utilizing that opportunity for something to which it’s suited, it’s wasted effort.
I just can’t get beyond the sense that a large portion of the instinct to defend lecturing isn’t pragmatic at all, but rather about prestige.


Keith M Ellis 03.13.05 at 11:25 pm

Oh, and I think Sean will back me up on this, but it’s astonishing how much more effective teaching math and science in a seminar setting can be than in a lecture setting. In fact, difficult, technical topics are well suited to a seminar…which is of course why grad school is mostly seminars. In a lecture, a difficult idea will often present an immediate and unresolvable roadblock for many students. They not only will fail to understand that idea, they’ll likely miss much of what follows, as well.
I’d like to add one more thing. Of course the best students do well in a seminar setting. But it’s my observation that mediocre students do well, too. I think the biggest reason for this isn’t so much directly about how people learn as it is simply about viewing one’s education as something one is a part of, not a passive acceptance of information from a teacher. Mediocre students who have been passive all their lives are suddenly taken seriously. They’re expected to think about these things and demonstrate that they’re thinking about these things. Peer pressure shames them into doing so, and success at doing so gives them pride in themselves. (And, if not, it becomes apparent to everyone early on that they should probably be doing something else.)
Finally, I’ll admit the real necessity for lectures: given that it’s not feasible to replace all lectures with seminars, the alternatives (I listed) to lecturing leaves a great deal to a student’s self-discipline. And, frankly, that’s not going to work. In a very cynical view of contemporary university education, one might say that lectures are necessary and prevalent because it’s just about the only thing that you can get students to (mostly) reliably do. I don’t know if that’s a defense.


Mr. Name to you 03.14.05 at 8:46 am

I think Keith Ellis pretty much misses the point and simply scuttles what could be an interesting topic, at least for academics. McLemee does a nice job reasserting the value of lecturing. And in my mind, the more fruitful way to go would be to explore how to make the lecture format work – what’s required to do it well. Lectures won’t go away for both practical reasons – classrooms are a numbers game – and pedagogical reasons – there’s something valuable in attending good lectures. An alternative path would be to explore how we’ve managed to ruin what could be a productive way of teaching. For faculty, teaching load and classroom body counts certainly militate against good teaching, regardless of style and format. But the faux-authority of educationists also become just so tiresome.
I think the claim Ellis makes about the superiority of seminars and a discussion format can be easily dispensed with since he largely contrasts the strengths of seminar teaching with the more blatant weaknesses of lectures. But most of that contrast melts away if you consider that what makes a seminar format work so well is the same thing that can make a lecture shine as well: motivated and knowledgable students and teachers. If either party is lacking, then the classroom and resulting interaction will collapse into the stereotypes with which advocates of each format present to make their cases. Students know well how to fake it – boredom, sleeping, idle day dreaming, etc. are not uncommon in seminars. In both cases, the classroom is a staged performance and both the master of ceremonies and the audience can figure out how to phone it in.
And lets not play fast and loose with what these formats involve: a seminar can easily involved extended forays into lecturing – explaining points, providing context, background and lectures can easily become a dialogue, where Q and A can occur in both directions between students and teachers.
Evangelists for discussion like Ellis are every bit the pompous ass as their curmudgeonly know-it-all kin lording over the class room from the podium. They’re tolerable nuisances in the department until they find themselves in positions of authority. Then they become meddlesome fucks.


Steve LaBonne 03.14.05 at 10:01 am

“Lectures can easily become a dialogue, where Q and A can occur in both directions between students and teachers.” This is a key point. At small colleges like the one where I taught in a previous life, even lower-division science classes are small enough (70 or so being a “large” enrollment) to allow a considerable amount of this, and it really helps to keep the students from zoning out. Given that I knew this and applied the knowledge as best I could, the educationist claptrap about the inherent evilness of lectures used to irritate the hell out of me. But I imagine it’s a lot harder to do in a class of 500.


Moebius Stripper 03.14.05 at 12:13 pm

The lecture format is beyond limited. There are much more effective ways to teach/learn math (which I teach), and I’d love to implement one in my classrooms. I’d do so in a heartbeat in my precalculus class if I weren’t required to deliver four chapters’ worth of material in three months, let alone to a class of students who are five grade levels behind the level of my class and who would rather poke their eyes out than think about math. My students have recently been giving me comments about how I should “be more interactive”. I do allow for interaction within the lecture format, pausing frequently in the middle of the material I present to prompt them for the next step. About 90% of the time I am met with silence.
In terms of efficiency, the lecture format wins. Every step I take to engage the students slows down the pace of the class. There’s only so much leeway I have when I’m not the one who sets the curriculum. In one of the first-year classes I teach, if I were to run the class with groupwork and discussion – assuming my students were motivated, which they’re not in the slightest – I’d be lucky if I got through a third of the course.


Steve LaBonne 03.14.05 at 1:06 pm

Is there a _good_ format for teaching seriously unprepared, unmotivated students? Somehow I think class format is the least of the problems…


Moebius Stripper 03.14.05 at 1:24 pm

Steve Labonne – the best method I can think of is to start with the junior-high-level material they should know by now, and teach it slowly, in an interactive way, over the span of several years. When given three months to teach that group, divine intervention is probably the only hope.


Steve LaBonne 03.14.05 at 1:33 pm

Well, that problem won’t go away as long as 4 year colleges corruptly covet tuition money and / or enrollment-based state aid from students who really need a couple of years in a good community college to get them up to speed.


clew 03.14.05 at 1:45 pm

I can handle either underpreparation or unmotivation, but not both at once. (And I only tutor.)
In physics and history, you can at least tempt people with explosions and murders; “at the end of this section we blow things up!”
I was struck some posts ago by a comment about the lecturer peering into the dark to see the students; I’ve been in very few lectures in a dark room since high-school; my (mostly v. good) lecturers clearly scan us for a sense of following/disbelieving/leaping ahead/bewildered. Of course a lecturer is going to do worse when the students are invisible. It’s another argument against filmstrips/Powerpoint, in my biassed opinion.


chris 03.14.05 at 10:10 pm

1) As a friend said to me, “You passed Trusts? Why the fuck did I stay awake?”

2) The weight given to the term “good” in “good lecturers are valuable” is evidenced by the efforts to universities take in selecting for it, training for it, and giving promotion credits for it (0,0 and 0, respectively)

3) let’s not forget the practical reasons for having a lecture theatre rather than videos; it is
(a) one frail tool against having 300,000 linguistics students taught by the same person, thus creating something like 25,000 PhJobs
(b) a reason for the existence of university campuses, adjacent to good coffeeshops
(c) an argument for paying large sums to go to university rather than staying home, reading the textbooks, and then presenting yourself for examination, as in ancient China. Which I have always thought a superior model.


Nicholas Weininger 03.15.05 at 11:22 am

Catherine Liu: I went to the original Harkness Table school, and the instructors there wouldn’t be so passionate about the method if it didn’t work. Also, it’s a bit strange to accuse a bunch of prep school teachers of being populist or anti-intellectual!


screw the pooch 03.16.05 at 4:17 pm

I am a public school teacher who has been educated in both the U.S. and the U.K. I’ve attended, at various times, several different universities. Basically, it boils down to whether or not you have prepared students and whether or not the professor likes his or her subject matter enough and is charismatic enough to pull off a lecture. I have had some brilliant lecturers and some horrible seminars. Likewise, I have had truly poor lecturers and some wonderful seminars.
I think they should be used in tandem. Getting rid of one to favor another pedagogy reduces the means by which information can be disseminated; this is to be avoided at all costs.
I suppose you could sum it up thus: good lectures are useful and have their place, seminars are useful and have their place.

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