Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What Lecture Does (and Doesn't Do)

One helpful side effect of the national dialogue about higher education is the realization that it is very difficult to teach a large enrollment class (<100 students).  This realization is especially important as budgets are cut and fewer new faculty and lecturers are hired.  Consequently, fewer sections of courses are offered and class sizes are in turn rapidly increasing (my own course doubled in size from 220 to 400 because of need for seats).  Large enrollment courses are traditionally taught via lecture with PowerPoint, Prezi, vel sim.  They are taught in large auditoriums with tiered seating and projection screens at the front of the room.  To the students in the audience, the experience of going to lecture is not particularly different from that of going to a film or a live performance of a ballet or play (apart from the fact that few professors deliver their lectures in a pink tutu).

It's no wonder that students sit back in their seats and assume the role of the passive observer.  Sure, they may take some notes (usually nothing beyond writing down the phrases on our presentation slides); but, on the whole, they are taking in the show rather than actively engaging in and helping to create their own learning experience on any given day.  It's also no wonder that they don't learn very much--a situation not aided by their own expectation that learning happens only in the classroom.  As many studies have documented, the lecture--however entertaining an individual lecturer might be--is not particularly conducive to student learning.  Certainly, a powerful lecture can inspire students to go off and learn on their own; but qua teaching tool, the lecture relies on the flawed idea that knowledge and conceptual understanding can magically travel from the mind of the instructor to the mind of the student.

If lecture doesn't work very well as a learning tool (and assuming that we care about learning and not just student evaluations that reflect not their learning but their enjoyment of their classroom experience), what are we left with?  More to the point, if learning--especially deep learning--requires active engagement, practice, and regular feedback, how can we facilitate that in a large enrollment classroom?  The techniques of blended learning provide some of the answers: shift (some) content delivery to outside of class--and set up a system of incentives for your students to do that work; and then use class time to facilitate active learning via i>clicker and other student response systems; peer discussion; and larger class discussion.  (Erik Mazur has spoken eloquently about his conversion from lecturer to facilitator of learning.)

Lecture may not be a very effective tool for the transmission of knowledge, especially more conceptual knowledge; but we should be careful not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water.  In a large enrollment class, a class in which the instructor has very little personal contact with individual students and is often a mysterious figure at the front of the class, lecture *does* transmit a tremendous amount of significant information.  First and foremost, it gives the students a sense of connection to the course.  It gives them a sense of who the instructor is, and lets us construct a professorial self for the students.  Sure, this can be done to some extent via pre-recorded lectures, but, given that we lack acting experience, it's difficult to do more than deliver content.  It feels weird to crack jokes and we have no audience to play off of.

I was reminded of this benefit of the in class lecture yesterday when I told my class the story of the Roman republican consul Regulus.  Regulus was captured by the Carthaginians and, eventually, killed in rather gruesome fashion.  The stories vary: in some versions, he was put in a box and spikes were driven in until he stopped screaming in agony.  In others, he was put in a spiked barrel and rolled down the hill.  After warning my class that I had a dark sense of humor, I told this story to my class with a certain amount of glee, emphasizing the gruesome aspects.  As I told the story, I watched their reactions and adjusted accordingly.  After class, one of my TAs found a great medieval illustration of Regulus' death, which we posted on Piazza.  This led to additional commentary by one of the students, who noted that I told the story in class with a smile on my face.  This exchange was such a reminder for me of why a certain kind of lecture matters.  I try to avoid using class time for the rehearsal of facts and figures, focusing instead of stories and interpretation.  But, after shifting all content--including the stories--outside of class last semester, I realized that I had thrown out the baby.  This semester, I've tried to leave the bathwater outside of class while bringing the baby back into class.

To my mind the truly significant challenge of teaching a large enrollment class these days is figuring out how to make the best use of technology.  To do so requires an intimate understanding of how students learn; and of what each learning tool can and cannot do.  It requires figuring out what to use the in class lecture for (in the case of my course, story-telling and modeling interpretation); and what to shift to outside of class.  It requires having a good sense of students' tolerance for watching lectures out of class.  It requires understanding their behavior and working with it to create an assessment structure that rewards them for making good choices.  It used to be that large lecture classes were a kind of plum for distinguished professors.  They walked into class, awed the students with their learning and, in some cases, their entertainment skills, and then went back to their research.  They had a team of teaching assistants to handle student questions (though, of course, instructors also held office hours) and to grade the 3-4 midterm exams.  These days, effective teaching in a large enrollment class requires enormous effort and a significant investment of time by the entire teaching team, from the instructor down to undergraduate student teaching assistants.  The in class lecture is just a small but significant part of the package of learning tools we instructors provide our students.

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