An interesting article in Change Magazine: In Defense of Lecturing, by Mary Burgan. Lecturing is difficult to defend nowadays, in the face of modern educational theories that decry “the sage on the stage” in favour of “the guide on the side”. I’ve written about this before – as the author of this article points out:

Many practicing faculty members find this jingle insulting; it embeds an implication that they are self-enchanted blowhards who don't understand that teaching involves more than shoveling information and interpretation into their students' heads. By the same token, these faculty colleagues may be insulted by the assumption, prevalent in some circles, that anyone who forgets to yoke "teaching" with "learning" is obviously an egotistical "sage." For a number of faculty, the educational p.c. ("pedagogical correctness") of these verbal maneuvers is aligned with a general dismissal of their training and expertise, as well as distrust of their good sense in their classrooms. In the process, the p.c. viewpoint also relegates the ancient and honorable tradition of lecturing to an Index of Forbidden Pedagogies.

The author goes on to question many of the assumptions behind the “learning by doing” advocates, which appear to “ask faculty members to believe that the seemingly uninterested students sentenced to their tutelage are actually eager learners who have long been thwarted in their longing to take part in mutual discovery”. She then proceeds to make a convincing case that lecturing can indeed be an effective form of learning for students – at least good lecturing.

I’m somewhat ambivalent about this issue. On the one hand, my main educational preoccupation nowadays is learning how to design online interactive mathematics widgets, to communicate mathematics to students and others as a supplement to or instead of lectures. On the other hand, for many years in my former career, I lectured to mathematics students, and much of what the author says in this article rings very true to me. So while I certainly think that ordinary lectures may not be the ideal way to communicate mathematics to young undergraduates, I’m not convinced that the "active" alternatives proposed by educational theorists are any better. The alternatives I’ve seen that do appear viable come more from outside the education community, from within the individual disciplines – the PhET program developed by Carl Wieman and others at the University of Colorado is a prime example.

There is a confounding issue here that rarely seems to be addressed: just where in the process is it expected that learning occurs? In school, most learning occurs in the classroom - students don’t just listen to the teacher explain things; they do problems, discuss topics, produce projects and so on, all of which support learning. In a university lecture course, however, most learning is expected to occur outside class time – or at least it was, back in the dark ages when I was an undergrad. During my final high school months, a wise teacher made certain that those of us continuing on to university understood this point: lectures were supposed to give you the basic content; you worked out the details by reviewing, rethinking and rewriting your notes later in the library, reading the text and doing the assigned homework. Over the many years I taught undergrad math, fewer and fewer incoming freshmen seemed to understand this distinction; they expected to learn during class time all that they needed to know, as they did in school. They rarely read the textbook, and resisted doing homework or much of anything else outside the classroom.

I think many universities are caught in a time warp on this issue. The lecture style of teaching worked well a generation or two back, when a university education was more directed at an academic elite of highly-motivated, independent learners interested in specific academic disciplines. Current students are often less well-prepared, less independent, and more motivated by career concerns than by academic interests; they need to be taught, not lectured at. Universities pay lip service to these realities, but most seem to ignore their implications for teaching and learning. (Or, as I and my colleagues often did, they blame the students for being different than we were.)

The change in student expectations is not necessarily for the worse. However, universities that decide to meet those expectations and their students have to realize that covering the same content in any sort of expanded in-class style requires expanded time – the standard three one-hour sessions a week aren’t enough. More lecture-time, tutorials, workshops, labs, discussion groups and so on have to be added, increasing both faculty workload and student time commitment. Another option is to cut content from courses to allow more detailed coverage of the remaining topics – Carl Wieman suggests cutting introductory physics course by a third, for example. (This may not be a bad idea in any case; many university courses have become very overstuffed over the decades. The last linear algebra course I taught had double the content of the first one I taught.) But less course content then requires more courses to cover the same content, so workload and time are still issues.

There's a third option which may not require as many additional resources: perhaps some of the learning can occur in front of a computer instead of in a classroom? Many of us involved in developing educational technology are convinced that using technology to educate at the university level can be at least as effective as other methods, and possibly more effective. We’re not there yet, not by a long shot; as with any innovation, we have to learn how to do it right – we have to learn how to *design* the technology and how to integrate it into student learning. But once designed and developed, technology can be highly scalable – for example, a well-designed widget could illuminate the geometry of derivatives for thousands of calculus students at very little marginal cost. Blogs, wikis and other social software already manage discussions and interactions on a scale that would previously have required large numbers of additional personnel to facilitate.

In any case, if universities want to change how they teach and how students learn, the issue of just where in the process learning is supposed to occur needs to be clarified. It doesn't work to assume that the content of a typical full course can be learned in only three one-hour classes a week. It never did.

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