Don’t lecture me

by Harry on January 6, 2012

Another great radio piece by Emily Hanford (I caught the end of what I assume was just part of it on the NPR afternoon news show on Sunday) here (audio and transcript both there). She reports the research on the effectiveness of lectures in prompting actual learning: not much. Anyone reading who lectures must listen to/read it. A long excerpt (followed by some comments):

Lecturing was the way just about everyone taught introductory physics. To think there was something wrong with the lecture meant physics instructors would “have to really change the way they do things,” says Hestenes. A lot of them ignored his study and kept teaching the way they always had. They insisted their lectures were working just fine. But Eric Mazur was unusual, says Hestenes. “He was the first one who took it to heart.” Mazur is a physics professor at Harvard University. He came across Hestenes’s articles in 1990, five years after they’d been published. To understand why the articles had such a big impact on Mazur you have to know some things about his history. Mazur grew up dreaming of becoming an astronomer.

“When I was five years old I fell in love with the universe,” he says. “I tried to get my hands on to every accessible book on astronomy. I was so excited by the world of science.” But when Mazur got to university, he hated the astronomy classes.”It was all sitting in the lecture, and then scribbling down notes and cramming those notes and parroting them back on the exam,” he says. “Focusing on the details, focusing on memorizing and regurgitation, the whole beauty of astronomy was lost.” So he switched to physics. It wasn’t as heartbreaking for him to sit in a physics lecture and memorize things. Mazur eventually got a Ph.D. in physics and a job at Harvard University. Like most Ph.D.s, Mazur never got any training in how to teach.

“I just mimicked what my instructors had done to me. I think that’s what we all do. So, I lectured.” Turns out he loved lecturing. It’s a lot more fun being on stage delivering a lecture than it is sitting in the audience watching. And that’s exactly what a lecture is, says Mazur: a performance. He decided to make it fun. “Thanks to the setup we have here at Harvard, it was very flashy, like a Hollywood show,” he says. “Attention-grabbing demos, me shooting through the lecture hall in a rocket car.”Mazur’s students apparently loved it. His classes were full and he got great evaluations from the students at the end of every semester. “For a long while, I thought I was doing a really, really good job,” he says.

Then Mazur read the articles by Hestenes and Halloun. Mazur’s first instinct was to dismiss the results. The test covered such basic material; he was sure his students were learning this stuff. But what if they weren’t? How boring it would be to learn physics and never really understand the fundamental concepts that make physics so fascinating. Mazur thought back to his own experience with astronomy; if his students were just memorizing information and solving problems, he had to know, and he had to do something about it. So he gave them the FCI, and he was shocked. “They didn’t do much better,” he says. “In fact, when they looked at the test that I gave to them some students asked me, ‘How should I answer these questions? According to what you taught me, or according to the way I usually think about these things?’ That’s when it started to dawn on me that something was really amiss.”

I am a culprit in the promulgation of the lecture. But this comment by Alan Bostick, alongside the critical comments of Keith M Ellis, haunted me for a long time. I now follow Bostick;s advice whenever possible with, in recent experience, quite spectacular results. I find, though, that asking a single undergraduate to prepare a lecture, is really too much pressure. That may be because they are never asked to do so, but they aren’t so I have to live with that. I have usually asked them to prepare in pairs; this past semester, mainly due to my own incompetence, I assigned them in 3s, which seems to have been ideal. In my class of 24 students, not one of the 8 classes which were run by students was less good than the average class run by me, and many were far better than my average (of course, I contributed in discussion, a lot I’d like to think, and I did select the for the first presentation a group of students whom I thought, rightly, would set a standard that would press the others to perform well).

Of course, in a class of 160 I cannot assign lectures to all the students. But I use the guidance that almost nobody can concentrate on even my lecturing for more than 20 minutes, and so break up the classes as much as possible with (I hope well considered) discussion questions, often starting out by asking them to talk to each other, then getting them to discuss in the larger format. I know this doesn’t work for all the students, and I know a lot of good students find the ramblings of their peers frustrating, so I do still lecture a fair bit, and exercise a good deal of control in the discussions.

My suspicion is that there is a small subset of students who can and do concentrate for more than 20 minutes; in fact they can concentrate for hours. I was one of those, at least when the lecturer met some low threshold of quality. The reason that many academics in the US system think their own lectures are effective is that they were in that small subset (and their belief is never tested, since they assign the assessments, which are not designed to test their belief in their own effectiveness…). We select for people who are like us.

(Crossposted at ISW)



Chris Bertram 01.06.12 at 2:32 pm

I think what you say in your final para Harry is absolutely right, and explains the stubborn resistance of so many of our colleagues to these ideas.

(Having said that, I suspect that many British educated academics, even including those who now promote the importance of the lecture, hardly attended any themselves. I went to all those in my first week as an PPE undergrad at Oxford, decided they were a waste of time, and stopped going. Most of my peers did likewise and I’ve given more lectures in that university than I ever listened to.)


Phil 01.06.12 at 2:35 pm

Not now! I’ve got enough on my plate writing/rewriting/updating the lectures (and checking/reworking/planning the seminars) that I’m going to be doing next week without worrying that the entire way I do the job might be wrong.

(Lead on three u/g units, 230 students total, Lecturer (0.7).)

Could you repost this in April, maybe?


Phil 01.06.12 at 2:38 pm

explains the stubborn resistance of so many of our colleagues to these ideas

That, and the whole meta-labour of rethinking & reworking not what you do but how you do it, which is difficult, stressful and time-consuming. (Everyone who does it says it’s tremendously rewarding when you get it, admittedly – but so does everyone who does est or becomes a born-again Christian.) I’ll think about it, though. Just not right now.


J. Otto Pohl 01.06.12 at 2:42 pm

I lecture two hours a week for each class like almost all other people here. My title in fact is Lecturer which is British for Assistant Professor. My smallest class so far, level 400, had over 70 students. I try and get students to ask questions and discuss every so often as well. However, often I find it impossible to get students to talk. I think lecturers in the US have an easier time of this due to the difference in the cultural dynamics. I do not know for sure since I have never taught in the US, only in Asia and Africa. It is probably true that lectures are not the best way of teaching, but they may be the only way of teaching very large numbers of people.


Tom Hurka 01.06.12 at 2:51 pm

Very interesting piece. Some random thoughts.

1) Mazur is bang on when he says “That’s the irony of becoming an expert in your field. It becomes not easier to teach, it becomes harder to teach because you’re unaware of the conceptual difficulties of a beginning learner.” I find I teach worse, or am in danger of teaching worse, the more I’ve thought about a subject, because I’m now more interested in details that are beyond what the students are ready to think about. And I think this blows up the common faculty association argument that there’s no conflict between research and teaching because the best researchers make the best teachers. Balls!

2) The suggestion that if lecturing is all there is, you should have faculty do it once, put it on the web, and then fire them is like the suggestion that once there’s recorded music or Youtube videos, no one will go to live concerts. Not true. There’s something in the personal connection with a performer at a concert that’s deeply attractive. Similarly, a presentation by a live person in a room infects the material with his personality and his love of the subject in a way even a web presentation of the same material would have a harder time doing.

3) Mazur’s specific teaching method seems harder to apply in a field like philosophy, where there aren’t single correct answers to questions that you can count the percentage of the class that are working toward.

4) I often associate philosophical ideas with pop song lyrics, and sing the relevant bits to my classes during lectures. (Mackie’s idea of “objective prescriptivity? “To know, know, know him/Is to love, love, love him.”) It’s the most (positively) commented on feature of my classes in evaluations.

Anyway, time to think about how to do it all better.


Alex 01.06.12 at 2:52 pm

There’s an interesting discussion over here of this meta-analysis of research into teaching. The recommendations, with their confidence levels, are as follows:

Space learning over time. Arrange to review key elements of course content after a delay of several weeks to several months after initial presentation. (moderate)
Interleave worked example solutions with problem-solving exercises. Have students alternate between reading already worked solutions and trying to solve problems on their own. (moderate)
Combine graphics with verbal descriptions. Combine graphical presentations (e.g., graphs, figures) that illustrate key processes and procedures with verbal descriptions. (moderate)
Connect and integrate abstract and concrete representations of concepts. Connect and integrate abstract representations of a concept with concrete representations of the same concept. (moderate)
Use quizzing to promote learning.
Use pre-questions to introduce a new topic. (minimal)
Use quizzes to re-expose students to key content (strong)
Help students allocate study time efficiently.
Teach students how to use delayed judgments of learning to identify content that needs further study. (minimal)
Use tests and quizzes to identify content that needs to be learned (minimal)
Ask deep explanatory questions. Use instructional prompts that encourage students to pose and answer “deep-level” questions on course material. These questions enable students to respond with explanations and supports deep understanding of taught material. (strong)

I certainly used, and use, the last of those as a study method, and I’d recommend it.


sc 01.06.12 at 3:01 pm

this was always one of my problems in lower-level core classes in university, and one of the reasons i dropped out.

there were some lecture classes (i fondly remember both biology and anatomy) in which the lecture presented no new material- everything was in the textbook, everything was rote memorization. there was no attendance policy. i finished both classes with close to 100% for the final grade.

unfortunately there were others in which same deal: lecturer basically reading the textbook/study handout/transparencies aloud. attendance was required and monitored. i didn’t do so well.

please, don’t force me to fake two hours of rapt attention listening to things i can read in 45 minutes. present new material, encourage participation, do something. this was all in the time before smartphones, of course. being able to text my way through such a class would have made it so much more bearable.


LFC 01.06.12 at 3:03 pm

This piece, which I’ve only glanced at, may be relevant (though personally I find $40 million a rather obscene amount to give to a university for any purpose).


Kevin 01.06.12 at 3:30 pm

Thanks for this, Harry. I’m intrigued by the thought of having students prepare and present peer lectures. I have a few questions about details of how you do it — e.g. How detailed or prescriptive are you in guiding students’ preparations for the lecture? A lot of extra background reading involved? Or just a focus on careful analysis and exploration of the course text and questions/issues arising?

Would you be willing to share more details about your ‘method’ here?



Anderson 01.06.12 at 3:37 pm

“It is probably true that lectures are not the best way of teaching, but they may be the only way of teaching very large numbers of people”

Before the invention of printing, yes.

Why not write out lectures and break large sections into groups that meet to study the lectures? Then spend your lecture hours in the office to answer questions.


Matt McIrvin 01.06.12 at 3:46 pm

I actually worked as a teaching assistant for a class co-taught by Mazur for a few semesters. But it was back when he was just starting to experiment with this stuff, and it was a mostly traditional lecture/section arrangement (and since it was the electromagnetism semester, and the class was mostly pre-meds who didn’t want to be there, it was a very tough sell). It’d be interesting to go back and see where he’s gone with this.


subdoxastic 01.06.12 at 3:49 pm

The suggestion that expertise in an are makes for a greater difficulty in teaching is interesting. The majority of studies examining this sort of thing that I’ve read deal with H.S. teachers and their classes where teacher expertise is positively correlated to student learning and performance (Young & Kim’s ( 2010) Meta-analysis in ‘Education Policy Analysis Archives’, 18: 19, 1-37 is the only source I can provide for this at present, away from home computer).

Perhaps the effects of H.S. teacher expertise on student performance don’t translate to the University environment. Or perhaps, it is not the fact that less able students in their ‘peer instruction’ are benefitted from being taught by a more able peer, better able to guide them; maybe, it’s just the benefit of repeated exposure to the concepts, and the chance to be accountable for their own learning in a more interactive setting. Certainly, there is no way to ensure that any one “peer instruction” group discussing the topic under consideration contains one or more peers who do know what they’re doing. Furthermore, the ‘cacophony of voices’ that results from this method by no means ensures that anything of relevance is being discussed.

I’m all for innovations in pedagogy with an eye to improving learning outcomes, but this article seems like nothing more than a gussied up version of the math and science wars of the 60’s onnward– obligatory references to project based learning and the focus on physics and science courses, but updated with the now stale paeans to ‘global competitiveness’ and ‘the global marketplace’ instead of the older allusions to the space race.


J. Otto Pohl 01.06.12 at 3:51 pm


Because I am required by the University to give a two hour lecture for each class each week. Office hours are in addition to not instead of teaching. Many students have asked me to write out my lectures so they don’t have to attend lectures or do the assigned reading, but I have refused. University is not supposed to be easy. If we are going to become a ‘world class university’ as is the official goal of the administration then students are going to have to attend lectures and do the assigned readings or fail the classes. Or at least the ones in my classes have to meet these requirements. I can not speak for all the faculty in the university.


Luis 01.06.12 at 4:21 pm

University is not supposed to be easy.
While that’s true, if the “hard” aspect is “you have to show up for my lectures” rather than “you have to think” then you’re doing it wrong.


J. Otto Pohl 01.06.12 at 4:31 pm

Louis: They have to think as well to answer the exams. But, they are not going to have any facts to support their argument if they don’t first attend lectures and do the assigned readings. I have no idea what goes on in the US. But, if you can miss all your lectures and still get into law school they are not doing it right.


Chris Bertram 01.06.12 at 4:31 pm

_University is not supposed to be easy._

No it isn’t, which is one reason why Harry is right about lectures. Many students like lectures, because they allow students to sit back and enjoy the “infotainment” without making much effort. Teaching methods that force greater engagement from them (and are objectively better for them) may well be resented for just this reason. I’m actually quite worried that in UK institutions (obsessed as they are by the National Student Survey) attempt to improve teaching in this way will get a negative reaction and (in the new fee-paying culture) will be understood by students as them getting less “value for money”.


Steve LaBonne 01.06.12 at 4:39 pm

Teaching methods that force greater engagement from them (and are objectively better for them) may well be resented for just this reason.

I have the scars to support that conjecture. ;)


J. Otto Pohl 01.06.12 at 4:45 pm

Chris Bertram:

I have been trying to make my classes as challenging as possible by upping the amount of reading assigned and asking exam questions that require considerable thought about the connections between events covered in class. But, the standard advice to be more interactive is much easier advice to give than to implement. Again, I don’t know what US or even UK students are like today. However, my personal experience has been that it is very difficult to get undergraduates to engage in class discussion. Since 1948 the UG has had a very traditional British style system with lectures. Remaking African students in the image of American students is simply not something that will work.


Jim Johnson 01.06.12 at 4:45 pm

Harry. Thanks! This is an interesting post. And guilt-inducing too!

I have always thought that running a good seminar is MUCH more difficult than lecturing. My problem is that I am impatient. This is not so much with undergraduates but with grad students. But both seem unable to engage in much active thought in class (some may be too embarassed to appear bright and curious – that’s not cool!). But I recently read an interview with Diane Ravitch in which she speculated on the imapact of student thought processes of having endured a decade or more of standardized test taking (and the teaching styles aimed at enhancing performance on such tests). So it may be that they are not educated to do the difficult thinking.

In graduate seminars, the equilibrium outcome is that the student asked to present over -prepares and offers a plodding summary/recapitulation of the material while everyone else under-prepares and has nothing to contribute. (My strategy has been to induce another equilibrium by pulling names from a hat on the day of the seminar. The hope is that that will induce everyone to prepare some.)

None of this is a defense of lecturing other than to say that it is easier.


Jim Johnson 01.06.12 at 4:46 pm

Sorry – I don’t know how I crossed out the passage above. read under the line?


William Eric Uspal 01.06.12 at 4:53 pm

Relatedly, in the Physics department at MIT, nearly all of the introductory courses have been converted to TEAL format:

I like what I’ve seen of it as a TA. It is a cliche, but nonetheless true, that the only way to learn physics is by working on problems. For a lecture-heavy course, a fraction of students will have both the motivation and resources (time, friends in the class, etc.) to perfect their problem sets. The rest will do a half-assed job and cram for the exams, especially if the psets are only 20% of the grade (as is typical.) Accordingly, their exam answers will issue from pattern recognition and repetition, not genuine understanding — hence the complaints when a novel and therefore “unfair” problem is given.


engels 01.06.12 at 5:03 pm

“People have now-a-days got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shewn. You may teach chemistry by lectures:– You might teach the making of shoes by lectures!”

Samuel Johnson (from Boswell’s Life of Johnson)


Colin Danby 01.06.12 at 5:09 pm

Ditto the last para and Chris’ first comment — I think many of us who ended up in academia figured out as kids how to teach ourselves: a course just provided a framework and a challenge.

My dad, who taught math and astronomy, made the same switch around the same time that Mazur did, possibly in response to the same research. One of the things that convinced him to change was looking at a sample of students’ lecture notes. The argument for lecturing hinges on the quality of note-taking.

I do class observations for colleagues from time to time, something I cannot recommend too highly if you teach. It’s a way to learn new techniques but it also gives you the sobering experience of sitting in a student’s seat for two hours. The “more fun” bit is exactly right: if you only perform, you forget what it’s like to be in the audience.

So I do a lot of structured small-group work, often with handouts: a short presentation from me, then some task where they have to think and talk, then some discussion. The challenge of getting small groups to do good work, to which subdox alludes, is real. But it can be met!


Alex 01.06.12 at 5:32 pm

If you start looking at the students’ notes, there’s a pretty good chance one of them will spend a lecture writing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again. I know I would have.


Anderson 01.06.12 at 5:49 pm

Because I am required by the University to give a two hour lecture for each class each week.

I think that’s a good point, and a likely problem for profs who try to break the lecture hegemony.

… Btw, Woolf was well ahead of the research:

Why, since life holds only so many hours, waste one of them on being lectured? Why, since printing presses have been invented these many centuries, should he not have printed his lecture instead of speaking it? Then, by the fire in winter, or under an apple tree in summer, it could have been read, thought over, discussed; the difficult ideas pondered, the argument debated. It could have been thickened and stiffened. There would have been no need of those repetitions and dilutions with which lectures have to be watered down and brightened up, so as to attract the attention of a miscellaneous audience too apt to think about noses and chins, women sneezing and the longevity of flies.


Christopher Stephens 01.06.12 at 6:04 pm

Even if you’re required to “lecture” two hours each week, you don’t have to lecture two hours per week. I once taught at a University where I had a large class (100+) with no discussion sections. So (in lecture), I regularly broke the students up into small groups of 3-4 and gave them a specific group assignment to work on and turn in during lecture. You might be surprised at how much talking they’ll do in this sort of format. I then wander around the large lecture, asking and answering questions while they work on the group exercises.

You don’t cover as much material, but all indications are that what you do cover the students actually learn better.


Andrew Fisher 01.06.12 at 6:10 pm

At a previous institution I saw good evidence that students were downloading podcasts of their lectures, and positive feedback for the service. I’m a bit cautious of comments such as Chris’s and Steve’s @16 and 17 which imply a positive virtue in not giving students what they want. The whole idea of timetabling learning seems a bit problematic, to put it mildly, so that ‘objectively better’ methods of doing it still may not be very good.

Of course there is only so much flexibility you can actually afford in your delivery, given constraints on resources, but lectures seem to be quite cheap so I would have thought they still have a place alongside other methods which may suit other students better.


Anderson 01.06.12 at 6:12 pm

One reason not to write down one’s lecture is that noted by Craig Vetter:

This is your enemy: a perfectly empty sheet of paper. Nothing will ever happen here except what you make happen. If you are stupid, what happens will be like a signed confession of that fact. If you are unfunny, a humorless patch of words will grow here. If you lack imagination, your reader will know you immediately and forever as the slug you are. Or let me put it to you this way – and you may want to tattoo this somewhere on your bodies – BLANK PAPER IS GOD’S WAY OF TELLING US THAT IT’S NOT SO EASY TO BE GOD.


Steve LaBonne 01.06.12 at 6:14 pm

I’m a bit cautious of comments such as Chris’s and Steve’s @16 and 17 which imply a positive virtue in not giving students what they want.

When what they want is to memorize, regurgitate and forget without making any effort to understand, then there’s a hell of a lot of virtue in not giving them that.


bob 01.06.12 at 6:15 pm

Carl Wieman (Nobel Prize in Physics, 2001; currently a science adviser to President Obama) has long advocated enhancing lectures with interactive tools, and studies show that they are effective:


sc 01.06.12 at 6:17 pm

i’m no academic. see above: i dropped out. but christ – a lecture should have at least some value that makes the lecture worth attending. if the material covered isn’t anything different than the reading material (even worse, if it’s just reading the reading material aloud), why bother? dully droning on is not improved by asking for questions every half hour or so.

granted, at least in my experience, a lot of the lecture classes i attended could simply be eliminated or made half-semester or something. when the only grading in the class is attendance + a scantron test every five weeks + a fill-in-the-blank final… maybe the class is actually worthless. prepare for it or not at your leisure and take it like an SAT/ACT.

maybe i should have gone to a small liberal arts college.


mpowell 01.06.12 at 6:20 pm

@21: I wen through the program right before they implemented TEAL. I never understood the need for the technology aspect of it, so I was a little dubious about it although I did appreciate the underlying motivation for the format. Personally, I was glad not to have take TEAL courses because I would no longer be allowed to skip lecture and I was worried that it would force me to spend unnecessary time on a course which was not that challenging, but for many students it is probably a big help, given the struggles that many MIT students have with freshman physics.


krippendorf 01.06.12 at 6:20 pm

I wrestle with the “to lecture, or not to lecture” question every year. I teach a large (200 person, with the room-size cap) sophomore-level course. The topic is one on which virtually every student has deeply held priors, usually based on ideology/politics rather than on data. I have one TA, making discussion sections or labor-intensive weekly assignments (e.g., reading response papers) logistically untenable. This year’s student: TA ratio is a bit of an outlier, but not far off my running average of 125 students per TA.*

I have looked into various methods for promulgating discussion in large courses, but haven’t yet struck on one that would be effective in overcoming the “blind-leading-the-blind” problem. For example, whenever I’ve tried asking students to explain concepts to each other in pairs (per Felder and Brent), the majority of pairs just reinforce each others’ priors. The most viable options, then, seem to be to (a) lecture, or (b) cap the course at roughly 1/8th of its current size, which defeats one of my main goals in teaching the course at this level. So, I lecture.

* I teach in a reasonably well-resourced private institution in the US. Alas, teaching assistants are not allocated to departments on the basis of undergraduate enrollments or external funding, but on the basis of inter-departmental politics. No candidate for dean would survive if s/he didn’t promise to maintain the size of the graduate programs of departments that shall not be named, but whose publicly stated justification for their large graduate programs is that “otherwise, no one would take the classes that our faculty want to teach.”


MattF 01.06.12 at 6:22 pm

An additional factor that makes teaching difficult: many ‘professionals’ are self-taught. I went to a specialized high school (Bronx Science) many, many years ago– I recall that at the first session of the ‘honors’ calculus section, the teacher asked the class how many did not already know calculus; I think one student raised a hand, out of about thirty.


Davis X. Machina 01.06.12 at 6:32 pm

The only maths I ever absorbed, I absorbed from watching worked examples being worked, with an accompanying meta-narrative from a teacher….

Whats the ‘worked example’ of history? Of philosophy? And is that anything like a lecture?


Chris Bertram 01.06.12 at 6:35 pm

Andrew Fisher: there’s no virtue _per se_ in not giving students what they want. But when what they want fails to coincide with what they need, pedagogically speaking, there is every reason to go with the latter rather than then former. Which is one reason why “the student as customer” is a bad model for education.

(Is it overly unfair and cynical of me to note that you, an HE administrator, have posted a comment favouring (1) giving the punters what they (think they) want and (b) doing so a cheaply as possible? )


Andrew Fisher 01.06.12 at 6:39 pm

Steve @29
I’d lay money that pretty much none of your students actively wants to ‘memorize, regurgitate and forget without making any effort to understand’. Perhaps that’s what they need to do in order to jump through a hoop some of them feel the need to jump through. So ISTM you have chosen to describe their motivations in a way which deliberately obscures the motivations and belittles the students. Cause for caution.


Ben 01.06.12 at 6:43 pm

If a course of instruction of any type, can get students from the point where they have a bare rote knowledge to the point where they can solve physics exam final problems with facility, they have gained in understanding.

If a standardised Concept Inventory test doesn’t show any improvement, the test is bunk.

Because the ability to use knowledge is what understanding is.


Steve LaBonne 01.06.12 at 6:43 pm

Andrew, in all your comments here you have yet to demonstrate the slightest understanding that teaching is supposed to lead to learning. Cause for a LOT of caution. I’m with Chris, only I think he was being quite fair and possibly not even cynical enough.


SamChevre 01.06.12 at 7:09 pm

I’m with Davis X Machina–I’ve learned a fair bit on my own, but for math “demonstrate and explain while doing so” was for me extremely helpful.


Philip 01.06.12 at 7:31 pm

In the UK do lecturers or professors get any training in teaching? I certainly never got this impression, teaching quality seemed pretty random to me. There was one professor who was a nice guy and very intelligent but would go off on a tangent and lose most of the class, you would have to wait for the seminar to ask about points you were uncertain on. Other seminars were a waste of time and just went over the same things covered in lectures and very little discussion was created. Often students had to present in groups in seminars and this could work quite well, especially when the presentation was graded and the mark made a small percentage of your overall grade. You quickly worked out which lectures and seminars were worth attending, the most important seminars were the ones where you decide who would be in your group.

I did my first degree ant Northumbria, a new university, then did some EFL teaching and after that went to Newcastle, a Russell Group university, to do my MA. At Newcastle the format was typically 2 hour sessions in small groups with a professor doing a presentation, a break, then more input or discussions from the students. I found the discussions to be good but the presentations from other students to be worse than at Northumbria. I think this was because you weren’t graded on the presentations so people would just produce notes and read them out, basically a mini lecture, as this is how they had been taught at university.

You’ve got to remember people have come straight from school where they probably haven’t been used to or wanted to take part in class discussions, I always liked to but I think I’m unusual in that respect. So you need some support, structure and encouragement to encourage good student participation and to do that staff need teacher training. I f they do get it in the UK I’m concerned about the quality. I remember in many seminars the professor asking a question on the spot and not getting a response, students need to be given time to consider an answer and need to understand why they are being given tasks to do. Discussing something in a small group then coming back together for full class feedback is great but you need to care about the topic or understand why it’s important. I think the problem is the assumption that the lecturer’s job is only to give the students information and it is the student’s job to internalise it but the result is just wasting a lot of people’s time.


ragweed 01.06.12 at 7:34 pm

Another factor to consider in defense of lecturing is that many students learn in different ways. While the more bookish sorts may do just fine reading the material, many people are auditory learners and do better hearing the material. Many understand it better with the human interaction. The “why not just read the book” solution does a dis-service to students who learn in different ways. There is an argument for a certain redundancy of information in multiple delivery methods.

Of course, that also supports the point hidden in the comments by “sc” above – if a student can learn the information without going to the lecture, then there should be no penalty.

A good lecture, if dynamic, interesting, and interactive, can be quite valuable. To this day I can remember vividly lectures by my high-school chemistry teacher, who had the ability to make lectures dynamic and memorable. (sprinkling in an occasional flare of lycopodium powder helped keep our attention, of course).

The suggestion that expertise in an are makes for a greater difficulty in teaching is interesting. The majority of studies examining this sort of thing that I’ve read deal with H.S. teachers and their classes where teacher expertise is positively correlated to student learning and performance (Young & Kim’s ( 2010) Meta-analysis in ‘Education Policy Analysis Archives’, 18: 19, 1-37 is the only source I can provide for this at present, away from home computer).

I wonder if this is affected by the scale of expertise. A HS teacher who has masters-level knowledge on a subject is likely to be abrest of the field and able to bring in more examples, or current examples, that make the class more interesting to their student. On the other hand, and advanced research PhD may be so specialized and focused that they can’t translate that into an introductory level. Though perhaps the issue is more that HS teachers with high levels of expertise often want to teach, wheras some professors would be much happier doing research without the distraction of all these undergrads.



Anderson 01.06.12 at 7:34 pm

I’d lay money that pretty much none of your students actively wants to ‘memorize, regurgitate and forget without making any effort to understand’.

Andrew’s experience with undergraduates sounds a bit rarefied.


chris y 01.06.12 at 7:40 pm

Feynmann on lecturing. Yet he too presumably lectured.


peterv 01.06.12 at 7:41 pm

“Why, since printing presses have been invented these many centuries, should he not have printed his lecture instead of speaking it? “

The answer is because many lectures are not intended to be one-directional broadcasts of static information. In mathematical subjects (including computer science, physics, and mainstream economics), lecturers usually aim, firstly, to direct the attention of the audience members to mental models of concepts, models which may be represented by visual images or even by 3-dimensional objects, and lecturers usually aim, secondly, to have the audience members reason about these mental models – in real time, in their own heads, in the lecture room here and now, simultaneously with the giving of the lecture. To achieve these two aims usually requires a subtle interplay of concatenated, parallel, and interleaved efforts to direct the attentions of the audience – from what the lecturer is saying, to what s/he or she is now drawing, back to what s/he said or is now saying, again to what is being pointed at on the visual (or other) image, back to what is now being said, which may be an implication or consequence inferred from that part of the model which has been revealed so far, back to what is now being further drawn, and so on. Such communication is rarely unidirectional, because the lecturer needs feedback from the audience so as to adjust the specific combination of attention-direction-efforts appropriately to the specific reactions of the audience members to make clear what s/he intends to convey. This is why, for instance, so few game theory textbooks actually explain the semantics of the diagrams the theory uses, leaving it to students to acquire that knowledge from a lecturer or from other students (eg, what,precisely, do those arrows mean in game trees?). Ditto for many mathematics textbooks, apart from those in category theory.

Most people strongly pushing video transmission of lectures do not comprehend the intense sublety of communications here – with on-the-fly combination of multiple, diverse communicative acts – and are operating from (or, at least, act as if they are operating from) a very impoverished model of what actually happens in lectures.


Retief 01.06.12 at 7:50 pm

As a student I usually found lectures an excellent indication of what the professor considered important from among the mass of reading and what she was likely to test on. But lectures may just be well suited to my style. I did a lot of learning in creating my lecture notes and making connections during the lectures.

When I did briefly teach much more simple material (remedial algebra) I found that the students didn’t have much experience in figuring out what to pay attention to either in texts or verbal presentations, or for that matter in working problems. They needed a bit of a framework before they could even think about the content. Whether that is an issue peculiar to my community college students or a more general one, I couldn’t say.


sc 01.06.12 at 8:10 pm

The answer is because many lectures are not intended to be one-directional broadcasts of static information.

this isn’t the case in my experience – then again, i went to a large state school of only middling reputation. then again, it could be my idea of a lecture class is the “pack 200 people into a room/scantron tests/no essays necessary” class. it’s not really required to bellyfeel why beethoven is from the classical period and wagner the romantic; it’s just more facts to cough up at the appropriate time.

of course memorize and regurgitate falls apart immediately with even something as simple as remedial algebra that requires one to not only know rules but also be able to apply them.


Anderson 01.06.12 at 8:16 pm

To achieve these two aims usually requires a subtle interplay of concatenated, parallel, and interleaved efforts to direct the attentions of the audience – from what the lecturer is saying, to what s/he or she is now drawing, back to what s/he said or is now saying, again to what is being pointed at on the visual (or other) image, back to what is now being said, which may be an implication or consequence inferred from that part of the model which has been revealed so far, back to what is now being further drawn, and so on.

Yes, I’m quite sure all that is happening when you lecture.


tde 01.06.12 at 8:19 pm

I found it impossible to learn just about anything from lectures.

I confess that I seldom attended any lecture in college or law school where it was possible to get somebody’s notes. Fortunately (or unfortunately) many law school classes lectures were so unvarying from year to year (including the same little jokes and asides) that very detailed lecture notes were passed down from class to class. I used to feel guilty for attending few lectures, but I am getting over that.

In a similar vein, I never took any mathematics after high school. Actually, I signed up for some classes and went to the first couple of lectures and was just absolutely lost. Might have well been taught in Farsi. But I have started working my way through Khan Academy mathematics “lectures” and they are fascinating.


Steve LaBonne 01.06.12 at 8:24 pm

Yes, I’m quite sure all that is happening when you lecture.

“The first principle that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman


bexley 01.06.12 at 9:10 pm

peterv that doesn’t sound like the lectures I attended when studying natural sciences (focusing on physics).

Certainly when learning foundational material at the start of my course the quality of the lectures were largely irrelevant to how well I would come to understand the concepts. It seemed to mostly be a function of how well written the course material was, the quality of the recommended textbooks and to a lesser extent the quality of the supervisions.


Jim Harrison 01.06.12 at 9:11 pm

I’m not sure the format of instruction is the most important thing. I learned the most from profs who were wrestling with the material as they presented it, even though listening to somebody thinking out loud is as exhausting as eavesdropping. I remember one young anthropology professor in particular who obviously spent a long time preparing for each class and yet just as obviously reconsidered the validity of everything he said as he was saying it.


Andrew Fisher 01.06.12 at 9:13 pm

Chris@36. I apologise for not responding in my 37 which I must have been drafting while you posted. I am sure your cynicsm is justified and would not dream of commenting on your fairness or otherwise.

But my own experience is that sometimes students want to learn in deep ways and sometimes they just want a qualification. This depends on their goals and priorities at the time, not some essential difference in their characters. My PhD is in medieval military history but I also have plenty of certificates in coaching, equality & diversity awareness, health and safety for managers and the like and I bet you too have learnt many things out of necessity rather than interest. I’m not advocating the importance of qualifications and credentials in today’s labour market or the role of university education in class formation – far from it – but blaming the students for it seems a bit rich.

And Steve @39, my point was simply that whilst teaching may be supposed to lead to learning in practice learning, particularly deep and insightful learning, can’t really be planned for and delivered to any schedule. Lots of other people on this thread have said the same thing in different words. That doesn’t mean I’m somehow opposed to teaching.


Steve LaBonne 01.06.12 at 9:24 pm

And Steve @39, my point was simply that whilst teaching may be supposed to lead to learning in practice learning, particularly deep and insightful learning, can’t really be planned for and delivered to any schedule.

But if you’re not even trying to do it, don’t pretend to be in the education business. And no, it won’t always be what the students think they want. Doctors are also not in the business of giving patients what they think they want. (Sometimes they could be arrested for doing so.)


Gene O'Grady 01.06.12 at 9:27 pm

Back in the 19th century when I was a college freshman one of the history lecturers became a legend by falling asleep during his own lecture.

Oxford classics in the good old days was an endless source of stories about bad and unconcerned lecturing — I believe one fellow once delivered his lecture even though no one had shown up, and another famously lectured to one guy for a whole term who had been assigned to report back to his fellow students if anything worth mentioning ever happened. (It didn’t.)

On the other hand, I have heard that German classicists and ancient historians gave better and more serious lectures, perhaps because they were typically working up the lectures into books. (I heard particularly strong admiration for Wolfgang Schadewalt, perhaps unfortunate given his political antics.) Can anyone say if German lecturing is in general stronger than the Anglo-American variety, or is that some sort of urban legend.


Manuel 01.06.12 at 9:28 pm

JH (comment 52) nails it. The ability to convey to students the intellectual excitement of a topic, and to engender in the students a sense of enthusiastic curiosity regarding the topic, is what leads students to pursue that topic, i.e., learn. There are many formats that might work, and the challenge for each teacher/professor/instructor is to find one that works well for him/her. We spend too much time worrying about student modes of learning and not enough on finding the best mode of teaching for each instructor.

My Intro Bio classes have roughly 500 students. Some will learn best interactively, some visually, some aurally, and some, I assume, through interpretive dance. I cannot teach in all of those ways. What I can do, however, is find the teaching style that does the best job with the most students in terms of creating in the students a desire to learn. I’ll spend more time in my university’s Teaching and Learning Center when it spends more time helping me find a teaching mode that best achieves the goal described above.


js. 01.06.12 at 9:31 pm

Oh man, easily the most dispiriting thing to read while taking a break from preparing lectures!

As others have mentioned though, it’s awfully hard to move away from a lecture model when you’re teaching an intro course to 150 or more students in a giant auditorium type setting. (When teaching smaller classes, I’ve had no trouble getting students to engage in fruitful discussions.) I find that it’s just much harder to get students to talk or engage in a discussion. There can be really basic problems, e.g., in these auditoriums students often can’t see or hear someone sitting far away.

On the question of whether lectures can or should add anything to what’s present in the readings, I think a lot depends on the subject/content of the course. Say, e.g., that I’m teaching Hobbes in a class where 80% of the students have never had a philosophy course before. Even the most diligent student who reads the text carefully is going to have relatively little idea what the hell to make of the text. And in a situation like this, I’ve found the most helpful thing to be to clearly and patiently explain what the argument is supposed to be — this shouldn’t be the only thing one does in lecture, but it is I think the most important.


Steve LaBonne 01.06.12 at 9:36 pm

As others have mentioned though, it’s awfully hard to move away from a lecture model when you’re teaching an intro course to 150 or more students in a giant auditorium type setting.

It really isn’t, provided you have enough TAs and are willing to make the effort to get beyond the lecturing mindset. The intro physics course I took at Harvard way back when I was a wee lad was self-paced, conducted primarily in the sections with lectures strictly optional (and largely an ornamental display of the department’s luminaries). I found it a very good way to learn, much better than being lectured at in a cattle-car environment.


Andrew Fisher 01.06.12 at 9:39 pm

I don’t want to derail this thread, having done that to a previous thread and regretted it. Let me therefore offer my apologies for the offence I have clearly caused you in my posts @37 and 27, which were unduly personalised. I should either have found a more appropriate way of making the points I thought I had, or shut up.


sc 01.06.12 at 9:44 pm

The intro physics course I took at Harvard way back when I was a wee lad was self-paced, conducted primarily in the sections with lectures strictly optional (and largely an ornamental display of the department’s luminaries).

this reminds me of my aforementioned intro-biology course. three one-hour lectures a week, plus one, separate, 2-hour lab section. i attended the lab every time. after the first week of classes i only appeared in the lecture to take the test.


js. 01.06.12 at 9:53 pm

@58: I certainly will not deny that I could probably teach large classes better, and in less lecture oriented fashion, than I maybe do. But here again, the difference between subjects might prove crucial. I might be assigned TAs for a course who themselves have little to no familiarity with the texts I have assigned (or, say I’m teaching Intro to Political Philosophy, and one or more of the TAs has little prior knowledge of political philosophy) — I’ve certainly had to TA classes in the past where I hadn’t read the majority of the texts assigned. In this situation, I can’t really rely on the TAs to take on something like the primary instructor role (which anyway seems kind of unfair to the TAs — maybe I’m misunderstanding your point?).

Look, I’d much rather never have to teach one of these classes. I’ve taught the same type of intro classes (indeed, the same intro classes at the same institution) that were 30 or so students, with no TAs. You interact with students differently, the students interact with each other differently, it’s worlds better (though I’m sure you already know this). But as long as I am required to teach intro classes to 150+ students, I have a really hard time seeing how I move away from a primarily lecture based model — though, again, this may well be a failure of my imagination.


Harry 01.06.12 at 9:54 pm

js. Try this. Put a piece of text up on powerpoint. Get the students to talk in groups of three or four about what it means/what animates it/how it relates to some modern idea. Call on a group. Then another.See if they can correct one another. If not correct them. Try it more than once


js. 01.06.12 at 10:11 pm

Harry @62,

That’s quite helpful actually, and you did mention something like this in the post above. I still hesitate, in part because often students can’t hear each other very well in some of these rooms, but certainly one could somewhat get around this by asking the students to speak louder, etc. In any case, I would like to try new things, and this seems worth a try. Cheers.


Colin Danby 01.06.12 at 10:42 pm

re Andrew Fisher:

“I’d lay money that pretty much none of your students actively wants to ‘memorize, regurgitate and forget without making any effort to understand’.”

Bracketing off the last six words, I have had students who expressed clear, articulate, and heartfelt preference for memorize-and-regurgitate classes. In fact I once had a paper from a student who said look, I did two years at [another institution] and I learned what to do: read the textbook, go to lecture and write down what the professor thinks is important, memorize it before the exam and give it back, and you get a good grade. I get to your program, continued the student, and I find that professors speak almost informally to their classes, there’s a lot of discussion, and *I don’t know what to write down.*

From the point of a student who just wants to get through college, this is completely rational. It’s not their fault — it’s what they have come to believe, from considerable experience, school is about.


LFC 01.06.12 at 10:43 pm

often students can’t hear each other very well in some of these rooms, but certainly one could somewhat get around this by asking the students to speak louder, etc.

What about a hand-held microphone (or two) that is passed around? (That should be doable — many universities have technology assistance offices, don’t they, which could doubtless work that out. It’s pretty low-tech, after all.)


LanceThruster 01.06.12 at 10:58 pm

A previous comment reminded me of a maxim I remember hearing about educators (and I am both a poor student but one possessing an inquisitive mind).

I learn in different ways, at different times, with different subjects, and different teachers. Though there is often no “one size fits all” approach, the “proof” of their impact is most often established by my desire (and self-directed action) to learn more, whether to further my own understanding, or just to satisfy idle curiosity.

The best teachers are those able to share their own enthusiasm of the subject with the student.


Harry 01.06.12 at 11:08 pm

js; hope it works. I am fortunate enough that because of space constraints on campus, I usually have a room too big for the # of students so it is easy to get them to talk audibly to each other. As for speaking to the class, the trick is to feel comfortable interrupting them and just telling them to shout (which I do). If a kid is sitting at the front, which many of the more attentive do, you can simply repeat what they say, or ask them to stand and turn their back to you.


sam bradford 01.07.12 at 12:25 am

As a student (mostly literature/philosophy), I’ve done well out of some lectures because most of the time I was interested in the material. I’m one of those students who wants to ask and answer questions; you know, the ones who can either rescue a lecture by making it clear to a lecturer when they need to explain again from a different angle, or who can derail a lecture by going off on an overlong, half-baked rant. I’m sure I’ve done a bit of both. Being constitutionally lazy (not wanting to prepare anything before class) but also genuinely interested in the topic, this all suited me.
I know that I’m the exception though, and I’ve had (very smart) friends in lectures who just didn’t want to talk even though they would have had plenty to offer.

My experience of group work was that it was sometimes good; but only when paired with people who were equally engaged and able to listen as well as talk. It comes down to social as much as intellectual skills, and those aren’t always abundant in philosophy classes. I can get more out of listening to an informed lecturer just talk than an ill-informed classmate. The ideal, obviously, would be small group discussions led by a lecturer – in a class where everyone really wanted to be there (including the teacher), etc… and I did actually get that in a couple of Hons classes this year. It was good fun.


F 01.07.12 at 12:37 am

64 and Andrew Fisher

Of course most students want a qualification. It’s much easier. And with the obvious caveat that what is and what should be are often very different, universities should always be about learning things in deep ways, and never about a qualification. Schools that offer nothing but a qualification are simply trade schools.


Dr. Hilarius 01.07.12 at 2:38 am

My lecturing days are long past but my wife teaches science at a large, well-respected state university. Because of budget cuts separate classes have been combined into monster size lecture classes. Some classes mix majors and non-majors, further complicating how to present the material.

Her experience with many students is similar to that @64. “What do I have to know for the test?” Deviations from “test material” are resented as confusing and a waste of time. There are lab sections small enough to allow for one-on-on interactions with the TAs as well as hands-on tasks. The labs are popular with the students who actually want to learn. The labs are unpopular with students uninterested in the material (beyond knowing enough to get a particular grade) because the labs require the students to show up and participate. Again the problem of large classes with a mix of students.

Lectures involve the use of “clickers.” Questions are asked during lectures and students answer them using their clicker; each clicked answer is recorded in each student’s on-line grade file. The clicker questions count for a small part of the overall grade so lectures can be skipped with only minor damage. Clickers are a minimal form of interaction but there’s only so much you can do with a class of 200.

Lecture notes are available on her web site, along with supplemental material (my experience as both a student and lecturer is that possession of lecture notes can lead to the delusion that mere possession is equivalent to actually knowing the material). She spends (too much) time interacting with individual students via email.

Student evaluations are highly bi-modal and often appear to track a student’s motivation for taking the class more than anything else. She would love small, highly interactive classes of motivated students but that’s not possible given current funding.


john in california 01.07.12 at 3:23 am

In the early 70’s i attended Santa Barbara j.c . My Philo prof, Dr. Peter Angles, required students to prepare and present at least part of the lectures in Symbolic Logic. He said it was the Socratic method. I believe that experience, that active learning, gave me the confidence to do what I found was most necessary, subsequently, at Cal. That is, learn on my own. This was most true in my Physics classes, as the nominal lecturer was often not the guy in front of the class, but rather a T.A. Later, in my professional life, I found the experience just as valuable when I taught entry level engineers various stages of semiconductor manufacturing. And I too gave Socrates the credit.


Aulus Gellius 01.07.12 at 4:20 am

“On the other hand, I have heard that German classicists and ancient historians gave better and more serious lectures”

To give some second-hand, anecdotal evidence on this: An older German classicist I know has claimed that one of the best lectures he attended at university consisted wholly of his (very well-known) professor reading aloud, in Latin, from the Aeneid for the entirety of the period.

American professor: But if you didn’t understand something, could you approach the professor outside of class with questions?

German professor (shocked): Oh, no, of course not!


Marc 01.07.12 at 4:32 am

There is no one best approach, and there are subjects for which lectures are perfectly appropriate.

For example, I teach astronomy. A lot of what we’re doing involves the equivalent of storytelling – for example, answering questions like “how do we know there is a giant black hole at the center of the galaxy?” It’s storytelling informed by physics, but the lecture mode for topics like this works very well. Other subjects benefit, of course, from different methods. But to assert that one should never prepare a lecture on any topic is just silly.

Another matter is that teaching is very much an individual art; methods that fail in some hands work well in others.


Tony Lynch 01.07.12 at 5:01 am

Just to say that since I started lecturing 1st year students in politics (2 years) the numbers have doubled and my upper level classes have pretty much done the same. Nothing else has changed…

I NEVER missed great lecturers (like David Pears or Peter Strawson…)


ckc (not kc) 01.07.12 at 5:39 am

Assuming that content is there, the most useful thing a “lecturer” can do, IMHO, is to convey that:

1. the “lecture” is not the truth/unchallengeable/the only way to get “credit”,
2. challenges, questions, honest diversions will not cost the students in an informal setting (during the lecture), and will be considered fairly in a formal one (exams) – most good lecturers welcome these challenges,
3. thinking about the content critically is as important as accepting it as “established”

Of course, convincing resistant students of these points is difficult – their intellectual curiosity is often underdeveloped or has been quashed by experience or concern for the competition for position that higher education too often involves. And sometimes what looks like “authority” needs to be wielded to correct errors (and then, of course, students will say “but you told us to think for ourselves!”).

The point made that some students progress better from reading material than from attending lectures or vice versa is a valid one – I never feel offended by students who do well without attending my lectures (though I feel occasionally that they are depriving their fellow students, as they are usually ones who could contribute to the lecture experience).


Meredith 01.07.12 at 6:26 am

I find this post far too vast, yet enticing for just that reason.
Too vast in that so many variables are at play, for starters: the size of a group (from, say, 30 to 500) to which a teacher does most of the talking (is that what lecture means?), the nature of the subject, the specific goals of the course (from its level to its fundamental nature — Bio or Physics 101 is so different from a Nabokov lecturing at Cornell, or some modest literature professor speaking on Homer or Shakespeare, anywhere). Then there are different students, in their backgrounds, preparations, and expectations. In broad terms, a community college has different students from an Ivy League university.
Well, I could go on, but instead I’d rather just say that the teacher’s challenge, whether in a lecture course or a seminar or an independent study or thesis project — no matter who our students, all of whom should and must be held equally dear — is to disappear, to be the invisible mediator between these coming-into-being, (usually) very young people we are working with and something incomprehensibly larger than any of us, from the structure of a molecule to the text of a Milton or a Kant (with an infinite regress of said structures and texts). To share with our students that we are all servants, explorers — choose your metaphor — in this infinite regress of discovery, invention. And companions with one another in the endeavor. (Though the teacher has the burden of modeling this endeavor, somehow — each must find her or his own way.)


Belle Waring 01.07.12 at 8:02 am

Self-selection: I agree completely. I found the process of writing down what the speaker is saying, and then retranscribing/typing up the notes at the end of the term to study was always the most effective for me. I am a very fast writer and can write down almost everything the professor says (some things are condensed or skipped, naturally). Just the physical process of listening and writing at the same time helps me remember things. So I found lectures interesting and useful.


peterv 01.07.12 at 9:29 am

Harry @ 62: Two serious issues with your proposal:

1. Most large lecture rooms have been designed acoustically for 1-way broadcast from the front to the audience, not for multi-way broadcast from the audience to the audience. I have never encountered a large lecture room where students could speak to the entire class and be readily heard. In most large rooms, the only way that everyone can hear a contribution from a member of the audience is for the speaker to stand up and say their statement twice, once while facing forwards and once facing backwards.

2. I doubt your propsoal would work for mathematical subjects, except perhaps in the first lecture of a first year class. Most of the classes I have experienced (as student and as lecturer) have several students well ahead of the material being presented in the lectures (including some geniuses), and the vast majority always well behind. Dividing the class into small groups does not nothing for those groups without a genius present, since nobody in those groups has anything relevant to say, and is usually worse than useless for those groups with a genius present, since the others in the group feel inadequate or are condescended to. The generally macho culture of mathematics makes this proposal adverse for actually helping the average student.


gray 01.07.12 at 11:23 am

Very interesting thread. I teach high school history so I find this very relevant.

They told me in teachers college in the early 90’s that lecture was among the least effective teaching strategies but once I left uni I found the practice overwhelmingly established in high school humanities teaching. The main reasons I surmised, were ease of preparation and class control and probably simple instructor conservatism.


LFC 01.07.12 at 2:17 pm

I have never encountered a large lecture room where students could speak to the entire class and be readily heard.

See the first link in this Crooked Timber post.


skyman123 01.07.12 at 2:19 pm

This is very interesting. My 20 odd year experience lecturing at the University level has taught me a few things, however, that stand in direct contradiction to this (I teach Computer Science and Math).

It is my job to distill the material and present it, not read from Power Point slides, or follow the book. The book is the supplemental material for reference. My students generally have very little knowledge of the subjects (think about your first programming class or calculus classes on average) or blocks to learning them. I am there to break down those blocks. I present in a variety of ways so that people who are written learners can take notes, as well as visual, etc learners can thrive. I try to be entertaining.

Interesting point: those people who take the first semester of a sequence online, and then have me live nearly always drop out or do very, very poorly. Why? Well, most people aren’t equipped to deal with the unstructured way of learning that online classes presents. They need the reinforcement of peers, the different perspectives of the professor and the structured learning a lecture schedule provides. Generally they come in very, very weak even if their online grade was good.

I am intrigued about asking students to prepare lectures and will try that. But I think this is a novelty…we did it in business school a lot and, frankly, I can’t tell you much about those lectures/presentations but I certainly remember vividly the lectures my International Business professor gave. He was that good. Same for other professors years after I had them. I can practically recite their interesting lectures (I had a history professor that was so good years later I can remember the concepts and events in Elizabethan England). So not sure of the value of this study.


Anderson 01.07.12 at 3:02 pm

An older German classicist I know has claimed that one of the best lectures he attended at university consisted wholly of his (very well-known) professor reading aloud, in Latin, from the Aeneid for the entirety of the period.

I think that mainly tells us how awful the other lecturers were.


Salient 01.07.12 at 6:16 pm

I doubt your propsoal would work for mathematical subjects, except perhaps in the first lecture of a first year class.

This past semester (in a fledgling ‘mathematics for the social sciences’ trial course) I spent the first couple class periods for each topic on a more informal group “motivation” discussion, in which we opened a problem, tried to reason out a solution or guestimate off the top of our heads, and then thought through the circumstances under which our estimate could fail us.

Most interesting insight gleamed from this: Math students are used to solving math problems, not solving non-math problems using math. Anticipate significant recalcitrance and disorientation if you try to goad them into doing the latter. An example exchange (paraphrased somewhat):

Student. “The book gives us a formula. Are you seriously saying we won’t get credit if we use the formula from the book to get the answer?”

(note — I am not saying this, and it doesn’t make much sense in context; we’re not even seeking a numerical answer.)

Me. “What do you mean, what answer?”

S. “The answer to the problem on the board.”

(note — I’m aware that there is no formula in the book that would directly or indirectly provide the answer to the question on the board, though there are a couple common-sense answers that will do perfectly fine.)

Me. “Okay, so, what are we trying to find, and which formula do you want to use?”

Student sighs. “Can’t you tell us?”

For the upcoming semester I plan to start giving entirely pre-conceptual quizzes. Not even quizzes on mechanics, or conceptual quizzes on the presented material. Pre-conceptual quizzes that check for understanding of (1) what we’re even trying to accomplish in the first place and (2) what the common-sense answer is in simple cases and (3) under what circumstances the common-sense answer might fail us and thus (4) why we need more sophisticated or elegant or precise tools in the first place.


EB 01.07.12 at 9:00 pm

We are using the term “lecture” to mean a variety of different things, ranging from a mere repetition of textbook material students were supposed to have read outside class, to presentation interspersed with discussion, to carefully-crafted syntheses based on the outside readings but going far beyond them, as great History lectures do. The last type can be wonderful and a very efficient way to learn, for students who are able to think as they listen/take notes. But commenters are right to notice that not all students can do that, or can’t do it in all subjects.

The poster who described what goes on when he lectures in math (PeterV, #45) made some good points; that dynamic IS important, especially to learners who are not naturally gifted in the subject.


Antti Nannimus 01.07.12 at 9:04 pm


Most schools at every level are organized to collect as much money as often and quickly as possible, distribute that money throughout the hierarchy, and then control the behavior of the victims. For a lucky few, actual learning is an accidental by-product. For most of us, that model has long been broken.

Manual skills, for example, are necessarily, best, and most effectively learned “hands-on”. Intellectual skills are likewise, necessarily, best, and most effectively learned “brains-on”. Both of these imply a high degree of interactivity with the learning process and subject matter. If you’re lucky, you can finally get that in advanced degree programs.

Although it is obvious that some learning can occur in lecture halls, the one-way, broadcast-mode, of lectures has no way to assure that. For most of us, it usually fails. The process entirely depends on testing for those failures after the fact, and rewarding only those who have somehow avoided it.

This system is mainly designed by the schools to pluck the goose in such a way as to elicit the minimum number of squawks. Anyone who “teaches” in it needs to understand that doing it any other way will be at great risk to the career.

I’m not pretending to be superior to anyone here. When I taught, I lectured. Shame on me.

Have a nice day!


Harold 01.08.12 at 12:27 am

I remember reading a history of education, I think it was by Gerald Graff, which stated that until about 1850, classes consisted entirely of having students go around the room translating passages of text fromancient languages and or oral recitation of passages memorized from books. A teacher could even be fired for interpreting or adding background material. It was considered that everything there was to be known had already been learned, and the teacher just had to present the material.

Lecture classes, introduced in Germany, were at the time considered a great advance and were greeted as a welcome reform.

I never minded the lecture format per se myself, personally. Though there were some professors who read the same lecture word for word, year after year, or, worse, used notes of lectures inherited from the more distinguished professors who had taught them in their youth (whose contents they clearly didn’t even understand, some of the time). People will always invent ways to cut corners and ruin things out of laziness and stupidity (even professors).


Christopher Stephens 01.08.12 at 1:20 am


I’m not convinced. I’ve used Harry’s method in a decision and game theory class – not exactly math, but partially a math class, and it works well. I divide the students up about once a week in the lecture, and they work collectively on a problem set. It might require some practice to find just the right sort of problem, but the better students in the group often deepen their understanding of the mathematics by having to explain it to someone who doesn’t get it.

As for groups “without a genius present” – they do better on the problems struggling as a group than alone. They’re more likely to ask questions, because the questions come “from the group”.

I encourage you to try it.


mjfgates 01.08.12 at 6:28 am

So, I read the articles… and then I went to class. In Calculus, we had a fifty-minute lecture broken into thirds by Q&A on last night’s homework and an in-class exercise. in Discrete Structures, we had more lecturing, except that we also spent some time building truth tables, and again with the homework Q&A. English was a killer– a two-and-a-half-hour lecture with… oh, wait, actually it was maybe half an hour of lecturing and two hours of an exercise on avoiding cliches, a walk around campus writing down observations (I observed a classful of kids getting up and walking around, TOTALLY discombobulated by the notion of walking around as part of class), reading a short story, and a ten-minute break.

It seems like every time I see something that might be considered a criticism of The State of Teaching Nowadays, I go look at people doing teaching and they’re already doing the things they can do to fix it. Kind of neat.


Emily. 01.08.12 at 6:56 am

So, for those of you doing a lecture where you want students to ask questions and otherwise speak up sometimes, how do you go about doing that? I see the reluctance to outright refusal to speak in my peers (I’m an undergrad in American Studies) and I love to interact somewhat during lectures, as it’s the only way I can keep paying attention. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work when one other person at most is willing to ask a question, and I see that me being too willing to ask and answer questions discourages others from making the effort (which is incredibly frustrating because they know things I don’t and I learn more when they share and ask questions).

I know the culture of K-12 education in the US tends to actively discourage participatory learning in things in the lecture or lecture-ish format, and setting a tone and rhythm for interaction seems to be an important element, but have any of you developed any techniques for encouraging questions at the very least? I think encouraging engagement from a good number of students is the only way lectures are tolerable for me, and I think that’s true for others, and I feel you all are likely to know if it’s possible and how.


John Quiggin 01.08.12 at 10:37 am

A purely personal observation on notes. I changed schools about Year 10. In my old school, the teacher wrote notes on the board which we transcribed. In the new one, my fellow students had learned to take notes as the teacher spoke, but I never got the knack. So, I listened and asked questions, or just thought about what was being said. This was always a bit unusual, until I finished uni and started attending proper seminars, where no one took notes, even though the material was often work in progress, without even a paper, let alone a textbook.


Omega Centauri 01.08.12 at 8:42 pm

I always thought having to transcribe notes (which was the norm), was a particularly wasteful use of good braintime. I made it a point to NOT take notes, but to think and ask questions. The better teachers gave out copies of notes. One thing that is important to keep in mind, is that different people learn more effectively via different modes. For some, it is easy to remember that which they heard. For some it is easier to remember stuff that they read. For others still, they can remember what they’ve written. For the later group, the tradition lecture given to a class full of scribes might be the most efficient mechanism. Because of the large variation in learning styles, I would suggest that a diversity of presentation styles would reach the greatest number of students.


Z 01.09.12 at 1:23 pm

Very interesting program. Coincidentally, I had a similar discussion with a colleague very recently. Considering that in the upcoming semester, I have possibly the best audience one could possibly get for such an experiment (a small group of motivated and talented students), I have decided that I will give peer instruction a try.


ex 01.09.12 at 8:48 pm

#91: “For some it is easier to remember stuff that they read. For others still, they can remember what they’ve written. For the later group, the tradition lecture given to a class full of scribes might be the most efficient mechanism. Because of the large variation in learning styles, I would suggest that a diversity of presentation styles would reach the greatest number of students.”

I’ve heard that diversity in learning claim followed by that diversity in teaching recommendation many times, or at least variants of that sequence. But if the first claim is correct, shouldn’t the teaching recommendation instead be: find methods to categorize the student into learning types and teach each group in the way that best fits that group. That’s often not feasible for a teacher “on the ground”. But shouldn’t that be aimed for at some other level (course design, university level, or even the national level).


christian_h 01.10.12 at 1:42 am

So how is it physically possible to divide students into groups of (say) 4 in a lecture theater with stadium style fixed seating? And get anything done in 50 minutes keeping in mind the course may be only one of a sequence (calculus, say) and has to cover a lot of material so wasting any time (otherwise also known as patience) is a very bad idea? I very much try to encourage student interaction (I use “step-up, step-back” to prevent the same few engaged students speaking up all the time and encourage the others to interact) but in some courses it’s almost impossible.

As for lecturing as such I’ve always found that its purpose (in math anyway) isn’t to present more material than a book does, it’s to emphasize what’s important – what the crucial arguments are (in a book the straightforward but lengthy technical argument may well look much more important due to the space it takes up than the core of the argument). I’m prepared to accept, however, that this may be much more so for an audience member who is well prepared (an exceptional student, or someone attending a research lecture) than for the average student.


hellblazer 01.10.12 at 6:48 am

As for lecturing as such I’ve always found that its purpose (in math anyway) isn’t to present more material than a book does, it’s to emphasize what’s important – what the crucial arguments are

This. Also, to see the *process* of argument; to watch someone cook, rather than just assemble a huge mass of recipes to read yet never attempt.


Daniel Nexon 01.10.12 at 5:41 pm

“We select for people who are like us.”

This goes far, far beyond the great lecture debate. The learning styles of academics tends to be different from the majority of our students, but the students who share our learning styles tend to do well in our class. The implications are very disturbing.


Salient 01.10.12 at 8:13 pm

So, for those of you doing a lecture where you want students to ask questions and otherwise speak up sometimes, how do you go about doing that?

The strategy I employ [grad student, 101-level math classes, standardized material and format mostly outside my control, non-original idea stolen from some other folks]: Collect notecard answers from the whole class and spend time in that same class skimming through the cards for what seems most useful, call on a couple of those students, interact until their question is understood and answered. If students are recalcitrant, make some sort of ‘participation and attendance’ grade dependent on contributing something via notecards, even if they’re not called on (easier if you do attendance-by-signature, be generous assigning credit, and just sort out the few blank/incoherent/no-credit notecards as you sift through them according to whatever standard you want no-credit to mean).

Sometimes I solicit answers to a (broad) question, sometimes ask for student questions (the special point of the exercise versus a quiz is lost if I ask questions that have ‘correct’ computational answers, so I shy away from that). Usually the former is preferred by students who have a pretty good grasp of what we’re doing, and the latter is preferred by students who don’t, so I go for a 50-50 mix. If students don’t have a response, I ask them to make an observation instead, something they noticed or rephrased in their own head or whatever, or a conjecture about when or where this might be useful. Asking students to make guesses about potential applications usually results in data that helps me figure out how to introduce and motivate a topic better next time — it’s my favorite strategy for spot-checking for actual mastery of an idea and usually generates at least a couple of really cool thought-provoking responses.

During the time I spend standing there sifting, the students catch up with notes of whatever is written on the chalkboard. (Fellow math teachers who want to drive themselves crazy should try not ever speaking at any time when students are writing down chalkboard notes.)

In some classes, depending on atmosphere, I ask a question of the form “explain to me what I just told you.” It’s possibly the question requiring the least thinking, but it’s also useful to see if people literally heard what was said. I used to be very proud of myself when I said some super-perfect sentence that got the idea presented exactly right, without realizing that any sentence not written down is likely to be garbled by a huge number of listening students (an inherent consequence of any talky-talky lecture presentation format, not of students’ inattentiveness or negligence).

I try for a mix of open-ended questions and softer ‘gimme’ questions for morale-building purposes. At least a few times each semester I get such a bewildered mess of responses to some seems-simple-to-me question that I just back up and try to clarify and obtain sturdier footing before moving on (when this happens I try to note the general confusion somewhere, to better address next semester).

I don’t do this every day, and sometimes I don’t even go to class with a particular question in mind. It’s a very flexible tool. It also makes participation grade assignment easy and makes me comfortable assigning that a significant portion of the total course grade — I get useful feedback data and guidance about how to improve understanding, which is basically the main point of student participation, and students think they’re getting an easy A on a course component worth a whopping 10% of the grade, incognizant of just how much total work and effort they’ve put into the notecards. It’s also a halfway decent focusing tool — sometimes I design whole lectures around a good question I intend to ask.

This semester I’ll be asking a lot more pre-conceptual notecard questions, early into a topic, because I’m heartily sick of seeing half my class demonstrate they know how to try to do something without having any idea of what it is they’re trying to do.

In the super awesome future everyone will submit responses via tablet computer and it won’t be such a waste of paper.


Salient 01.10.12 at 8:21 pm

Also, to see the process of argument; to watch someone cook, rather than just assemble a huge mass of recipes to read yet never attempt.

This, too. This is also, sort of paradoxically, a reason to not present polished techniques and procedures. It’s hard to learn cooking from someone who never reflects on whether or not we should mince up some garlic or add a pinch of salt. Solicit a few ideas about how to proceed. Suggest some plausible ideas, ask if they’re worth trying. Suggest some possibilities students will recognize as erroneous or incorrect, ask if they’re worth trying. Try some knowing they won’t work. Ask students what they want you to try to do. That’s the easiest way I’ve found to avoid the “obviously knows what they’re talking about but can’t make it clear to us” category of negative evaluation. (This does seem to mean inevitably hearing some “didn’t know what to do” / “had to ask us for help” evaluation comments from some of the mathematically-minded students who don’t catch on to the gimmick, but that’s not a heavy price to pay…)


Chris Johnson 01.10.12 at 9:51 pm

I went to a very small liberal arts college (Haverford) 40 years ago where all the classes were small — I recall maybe 25 as the biggest I ever had. All teaching was essentially by seminar method, although the teacher would get the ball rolling. Most were face-to-face around a table. The place is bigger now than in 1970, but not much.

Then I went to medical school, where I suffered through the standard big lecture auditorium format, at least for the pre-clinical years. For the next couple of decades as a faculty member I had to give those lectures, year after year. (Med students in their clinical years are generally taught in small groups, or even individually.)

Here’s how I would judge the difference in the methods I experienced and perpetrated on my students. The culture of the small place, the small classes, was that each student genuinely felt some degree of ownership in how the class went. Not doing the reading would be instantly obvious to all, and no student wanted that kind of exposure. So, perhaps for the wrong reason (peer opinion), everybody took part. Lectures, those I sat through and the hundreds I gave, were mostly performer-spectator affairs. So, as has been suggested upthread, any teaching method that expects students to take an active part — gives them no way to opt out of that — is probably a good thing.


Brian O'Connell 01.11.12 at 3:12 pm

Well! This thread has certainly given me much food for thought. I am in my second year teaching fresh English, to English Majors at university in China. I have many years of administrative work and some T.A. at American university, with lots of experience in training seminars, HR, and conflict resolution. My students are really, really good at – read the text, listen to the teacher, take notes, memorize, take the test. So I know it freaks them out when I wander around the class and randomly ask them questions, they have little experience with the give and take that I want, they are all very afraid to make mistakes. Let alone – Question The Teacher! So I break them up into groups of about 5-6, give them a topic or 3-4 questions to answer, then join each group for a while. Then have students go to the board and write down the main ideas or answers depending. I will hear some Chinese spoken by the other groups while I am with a group, but can’t be helped, because I really value the personal interactions. In my Oral English classes I will go around and shake every students hand (~30 per class) and have a small conversation at the beginning of each class. Helps me to memorize their names and get to know them individually. I also tell them I am a poor speller (which is true) and will give them extra credit for pointing out any mistakes I make writing at the board. Good fun, very little space for me to lecture, I need to get them to use English.

I now have two pages of notes, the germs of ideas that I will use next semester. Of course, as I was reading the thread, I kept saying to myself, “Dang! I should have thought of that.” Next term I’ll also be co-teaching a Translation Seminar to grad students with Prof. Wei. Can’t wait! Sigh…now back to grading my finals…

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