Lecturing and passive learning

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A common question for educators that is often raised is that of lectures and passive learning.  There are two reasons why it is  good to ask about this:

  1. Is the lecture/passive learning method a successful means  for teaching our students?
  2. Do we employ it simply because it is how we were taught (keeping in mind that many of us enjoy our subjects and therefore often enjoyed many of the classes we took)?

I think, firstly, that we as educators have to admit that we frequently enjoyed our lectures as undergraduates and, for those of us who sought grad school, avidly attended many conferences when feasible.  Because of our interest we were seldom passively learning, however, and often making connections to other material or asking questions.  We frequently enjoyed lectures.

On the other hand, what about students who lack that interest or experience with other material?  Is it impossible to inspire them to be interested?  I can freely admit to sitting in class, genuinely interested in what the lecturer was saying, but totally unable to keep my eyes open unless I got up to get some water.  How much more difficult is it for someone who has not yet learned to appreciate the subject or gained experience with related subject matter?

Lecture is effective as long as it is engaging.  There are many ways for lectures to be active learning experiences, but we have to be honest and acknowledge it is easy, without vigilance and planning, to make it a struggle for everyone.  Whenever I feel I’ve fallen into the dull lecture trap, I like to return to the Ken Bain book I was assigned in a graduate level historical teaching course: What the Best College Teachers Do and especially the chapter, “How do they conduct class?”  This book is the result of asking people about their best experiences with college professors to create an interview list of the top instructors in the country, as well as inquiring about their worst experiences to create a negative persona, Professor Wolf, with the bad examples.

Below, I want to provide my own summary of this chapter.  (Keep in mind that I’m prioritizing my summary based on those things I am either most passionate about or those points about which I think I need the most improvement, personally–other points within the book might apply differently to other instructors.)  The headings are directly from Bain.

Create a Natural Critical Learning Environment (99)

The gist, here, is that students should be engaged, probing materials and assumptions, seeking answers and asking questions.  They should be grappling with the same questions and problems that scholars do.  They should be doing this while they are sitting in class with the instructor!  The biggest and most common mistake an instructor can make is to provide answers to unasked questions.

This learning environment pushes students to higher-order intellectual activity: “encouraging them to compare, apply, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize, but never only to listen and remember.”  (102)  Bain describes the story-telling and Socratic-questioning of Donald Saari (filling me with all sorts of envy that I never took his class) that challenges the students to develop the concepts of calculus: “‘When I finish this process,’ [Saari] explained, ‘I want students to feel like they have invented calculus and that only some accident of birth kept them from beating Newton to the punch.'”  (102)

Questions are a great means of reinforcing processes and building to the next step in the lesson:

  • What’s the next question?
  • What can we ask now?
  • (in response to questions asked by students)  What do you think?
  • If this is true, then why (how, what, where, when, etc.)…?
  • What major conclusions did you draw?
  • What questions remain in your mind?

Of course, there are many ways to create this environment–lecture is not required, but nor is it true that lectures are incompatible.  Investigations supply a vocabulary of the field and the experience of thinking like an adept in the field.  Bain found no professors who relied solely on lectures, but none of those who used lectures provided an “encyclopedic coverage.” (107)

Start with Students rather than Discipline (110)

Bain speaks briefly about the need to get the attention of students and hold it in his 2nd heading of this section.  He begins this under this heading by stating that it is necessary to gain students attention for higher purpose, to initially focus on something the students get, are concerned about, or assume before our own stories, theories, or outlines.  Another professor Bain interviewed, Michael Sandel, reminds us that Socrates began by staring with what people thought they knew and then tried to “systematically to wrench them from their familiar place.”  (110)  Thought exercises/experiments can introduce familiar scenarios that test for assumptions and force students to reason forward, applying critical thinking, self evaluation, civil argument, and defense.

“Many of the best teachers,” Bain writes, “make a deliberate and carefully measured effort to confront some paradigm or mental model that students are likely to bring with them to class.”  (112)  This is a student-centered ethos that serves to draw students in and introduce them to the type of thinking and questioning that is required for solving problems in the field.  It starts with the students and elevates them from where they began the process to a new level within the field.

Help Students Learn Outside of Class (114)

Students should be armed with the necessary skills and preparation for the next homework assignment.  This is in opposition to merely “covering” material or assigning something because it “deals with” some subject.  The best teachers plan in reverse, says Bain creating a map with intellectual way-stations that provide the opportunity to develop through the course.  In other words, they know what their end goal is for the students and develop a course that will guide them there.

This means that they are properly prepared to advance both their knowledge and their thinking by doing the assigned work outside of class.  It should contribute both to their knowledge of content and the skills they need to employ while working in the field itself.

Engage Students in Disciplinary Thinking  (114)

Any course that is not designed with this tenet in mind is a waste of time and money.  Just read a textbook or watch a few documentaries if we are going to ignore how this information is gained.  If, as a professor, I present my discipline without teaching you how to replicate the field’s problem-solving, them I’m swindling you, withholding the sacred knowledge, keeping you beneath me.   That is unacceptable.

Besides, we should take advantage of our disciplines to advance our students’ thinking skills.  What could we possibly gain by neglecting this fundamental duty?

Create Diverse Learning Experiences (116)

Alter the rhythms of learning: supplement oral information with visual information; allow for group discussion of problems; and, use case-studies.  Diverse materials, experiences, and input reinforce both content and method.  Interviewed professors relayed to Bain, “Some material was organized inductively, from facts, data, and experimentation to the general principles and theories; other things, deductively by applying principles to specific situations.  The teachers gave students an opportunity to learn sequentially, a piece at a time; they also gave them space to learn globally, through sudden insights.  Some of the learning involved repetition and familiar methods; some, innovations and surprises.”  (116-7)

The key to successful lecture, thus, begins with a successful concept of the course, including a commitment to engaged learning, followed by the notion that it is more of a conversation–a collaboration, if you will–than a performance or an exhibition of one’s knowledge and know-how.  Passive learning is, in actuality, ineffective.  But, this does not mean that lecturing has to equate to passive learning–good lecturing is, without doubt, a means of engaged and active learning.

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