Thursday, February 16, 2012

In Defense of Lectures

An article by Daniel de Vise on the Washington Post website today explains that colleges are widely questioning the value of lectures and are exploring alternate ways of structuring their classes. The exposition of the topic strikes me as a strange mixture of common sense and misplaced priorities. But then that probably describes the confused perspectives that researchers and policymakers have on various areas of education.

The anti-lecture movement is based on the belief that conducting classes according to that model drives many students away from courses in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and fails to promote active engagement with the material. I’m inclined to counter, however, with the assertion that nothing can drive a truly committed student away, and that it’s natural that lectures don’t determine how students respond to the material, because that’s not the class’s role. The purpose of the class is just to teach that material.

Part of the objection presented by de Vise, though, actually specifically regards lectures as the most effective way of teaching. It seems to me that that’s a decidedly positive trait, but educational leaders evidently see it as partial grounds for rebelling against the existing models. Granted, efficiency is not tantamount to effectiveness, but when the system is actually designed not only to teach well, but to teach large groups of people, efficiency is one aspect of overall effectiveness.

The problem that’s presented here seemingly not that so much that lectures are not a good way of conveying information, but rather that they’re not a good way of stimulating interest. Again, it is my earnest belief that at the college level it shouldn’t be up to the teacher or the class structure to do this. When I was a teenager, it was always my assumption that the students who went on to college did so because they believed in the importance of what they were studying and were genuinely interested in it.

A love of learning and an active work ethic may be things that need to be instilled in children at the primary and secondary levels of education, but that’s why elementary and high school classes don’t take the form of lectures. By the time you’re a college student, you should be able to sit back and listen to a lecture and then have the motivation to speak to your professor directly if you’re having trouble with a concept or calculation.

De Vise quotes Diane Bunce, a chemistry professor at Catholic University as saying, “Learning doesn’t happen in the physical space between the instructor and the student. Learning happens in the student’s mind.”

That’s right, it does. I don’t see how this makes the case that changing from lecturing to some other classroom model will improve educational outcomes. Learning doesn’t happen in the physical space between people no matter what methodology fills that space. If learning happens in the student’s mind, it is entirely up to the student to take ownership of that learning. It is up to the teacher to teach. He may do so effectively or ineffectively, but that’s a function of his merit and ambition, not of institutional policy.

De Vise goes on to explain that the anxiety over driving away students from STEM majors is based on the fact that only about half of the students who start college pursuing such a discipline actually complete their degree. “There are myriad reasons for the mass exodus,” he says. “The material is demanding. Math-science professors tend to be tough graders.”

The challenge of the material and the presence of objectively right and wrong answers aren’t going to change with classroom methodologies. It takes personal fortitude for a student to excel in a subject area that does not come easily to him, and that is not something that can be given to him by artificial means.

What I believe strongly but many educators seemingly find unconscionable is that some degree of attrition is actually a good thing. I didn’t even study a science discipline at university, but I still found myself constantly surrounded by disinterested and low-aptitude students. My education was rather effective on account of the strengths of my instructors, whether in lecture halls or seminars, but I can’t help but wonder how much better it would have been for all if a lesser caliber of student hadn’t frequently dragged down the tone of the class.

In high school as in college, I find that the majority impulse seems to be to manufacture an illusion of equal achievement, and that lowers the standard of education for all but the few students at the bottom who in all likelihood just aren’t interested in applying themselves to their learning. This impulse is more defensible at the secondary level, when part of the role of education is still to convince young and malleable minds of the value of education. But if you haven’t learned that lesson adequately by the time you’ve enrolled in college, you may not belong there. If there are students for whom lectures aren’t working, that classroom structure should push them towards one of two responses: either they work harder on their own time to keep up, or they drop out of their discipline or their school.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If a class has a particularly high level of student attrition, the instructor is probably doing something wrong. Perhaps his lectures are confusing, or his demeanor is overly aggressive, or he is never personally available to his students. But what’s of issue here is that it seems pretty unlikely to me that such problems can be solved just by changing the accepted model of classroom instruction. Students aren’t generally retained or lost according to the whether a class is a lecture, a seminar, or something else entirely. What matters most is the quality of the teaching.

In fact, alternate methods can create new problems just as well as it can solve old ones. De Vise’s article describes some of the classes that have already moved away from lecture-based instruction in STEM courses, and to differing extents these involve students working together to discuss material or solve problems. This isn’t going to work for everybody any more than lectures have. What happens when an exceptional student is paired with a terrible one? Isn’t it just possible that some students focus better when asked to pay attention and take notes than they do when they’re made to work in groups? Surely, some students perform better when they listen attentively to a lecture and then take that as a starting point for personal engagement with their course of study outside of class.

But to explain the social transformation that is governing this shift, de Vise says, “Gone are the days when the professor could recite a textbook in class. The watchword of today is ‘active learning.’”

The watchword of the day? Shouldn’t that have been the watchword of always? If a professor is reciting a textbook in class, he’s certainly not encouraging active learning, but it’s worth keeping in mind that encouragement is absolutely the most that the professor can provide in that domain. It would be preferable if he taught more actively, but as Professor Bunce said above, learning happens in the student’s mind. Active learning can be applied to coursework for any discipline, no matter what the professor’s methodology or talent. The effectiveness of that active learning will frequently be affected by how good an instructor one’s professor is, but there’s no catchall methodological shift that will make a student’s commitment a foregone conclusion. Student and teacher really do need to meet each other half way with active learning and active teaching.

De Vise later quotes Harvard physicist Eric Mazur to reiterate the pejorative notion of what lecturing is: “You have a professor reading a book to you. It should be insulting. But this model is so ingrained.” Commentary such as this makes me seriously wonder whether this article is talking about lecturing, or just bad lecturing. Maybe I’m quick to defend the old style of education because I’m jaded by how talented the faculty was at my institution. I’ve never known a professor to stand in front of a room and read a textbook. I have many problems with the bureaucracy of my alma mater, but I’m pretty sure that if an instructor did that he would be immediately fired. Indeed, so should be such an instructor who does that at any university. The problem, though, is not that he’s lecturing, but rather that he’s lecturing with absolutely no effort.

A quotation from GWU biologist Hartmut Doebel elsewhere in the article speaks somewhat to my point: “If we want to get that whole human being out at the other end, we have to offer them a variety of experiences. And the lecture is part of it. I don’t think we will ever get away from it completely.”

Nor should be. Doebel’s commentary shouldn’t be so peripheral a notion as it is in the context of de Vise’s article. The notion of providing a variety of experiences for the sake of a complete education is a tragically groundbreaking concept. The value of diverse instruction should be obvious. I hope that it is obvious to the good instructors in the country, and that they’re not caught up in this ridiculous debate about whether they should be lecturing or doing something other than lecturing. I would expect that they would already be doing both.

Near the end, de Vise point out that “other scholars are working to improve, rather than replace, the lecture model.” Well thank God for that. Lecture or don’t lecture; I don’t really care. Whatever you do as a teacher, just do it well, for Heaven’s sake. Be malleable, recognize your own failings in the classroom, and reach out to your students. I’m sorry to be indelicate, but if students are failing in droves, the last thing I’d blame would be the institutional policy as to the structure of classes. It’s far more likely that either the teacher sucks as teaching or the students suck at learning. And as a rule of thumb, I’d advise that you assume the former if you’re the teacher, and assuming the latter if you’re a failing student.

At the conclusion of the article, de Vise gives a case study of destruction of lecturing. “Not all the ideas are new. At the University of Maryland College Park, engineering professors eliminated introductory lecture courses in 1991. Since then, students have spent the crucial first year engaged in actual engineering, building swing sets, helicopters and hovercrafts.”

I don’t understand. Why the hell weren’t they doing that before 1991? The problem was not the ineffectiveness of lecture courses, and the solution was not their elimination. The problem and the solution here is tailoring the content of the instruction to the needs of the class. Engineering students should be engineering. That seems pretty obvious. If you find that that doesn’t fit into a lecture model, very well, get rid of it. But just as easily, a portion of the classes could teach concepts and practices by lecture, so that students may apply the information that they obtain therein to the actual engineering that they do at home or in another portion of the classes.

It doesn't matter what means of instruction the professor chooses if he uses it well. The student will work to master the material if, but only if, he's genuinely committed to doing so.

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