Friday, October 17, 2014

In Defense of Lecturing, Part III

I have posted two blogs on Defense of Lecturing.  Now I will take the other side of the argument—an expose or attack on lecturing.

First, lecturing can be lazy.  Not in the sense that it doesn’t take a lot out of you and there isn’t any energy expended.  On the contrary, lecturing take a lot of physical effort, especially the way some of us do it.  I am quite active and animated.  I am known for it.  But I also tell my students that I could lecture in my sleep.  That’s an exaggeration, but not really.   I have given some of the lectures hundreds of times, at least. 

It is human nature to default to the easy, and sometimes I cherish  and look forward to those day when I get to go in, give that lecture I know backwards and forwards, for which I have all the jokes and stories and timing down, and that I know is pretty effective and clear.  It gives me comfort, in a sense.  “I can do this.  They like me, I’m funny and entertaining, and they get it.”  And they do like it  They can be passive, they know exactly what to write down for the lecture notes, I’m funny, and I give them stretch breaks.  Everybody is happy.


Maybe they are too passive, maybe they think I'm canned, maybe they wonder why I can't just write out the lecture, maybe their minds are everywhere else but there, in the class, in the moment.  And maybe I have defaulted to laziness.

That’s why we have to be teaching and developing new courses. 
That’s why every two years, at the least, we need to re-do PowerPoints, rethink the structure of lectures, really critique our approach to the lecture, really question our assumptions about the material and what I would call the syntax of the content—its method or order of being presenting.

The second argument against lecturing as a primary or sole method of teaching is that it violates communication methods.  Today I sat through a presentation on ESL students, a field that has all kinds of acronyms and I am probably using the wrong ones.  The presenter said a number of helpful things,but the one that rang truest for me was that people telling you they understand, or implying it, is often meaningless.  They smile and say they do, but they don’t know what they don’t know.  This is perhaps the worst thing about lecture.  Its unidirectionalness, its one-wayness, doesn’t allow for much admission, forced or otherwise, from the audience that they don’t understand.

When a political speaker wants to address an audience, he or she studies the audience, has researchers who gather data on the audience, and he/she crafts a message based on what would best reach the audience (or, of course, hires a speechwriter to do so).  A lecturer must take the same approach—before delivering a lecture, the lecturing professor must understand the demographics of class.  Example, and one related to the presentation today.  Much of our humor and storytelling is based on cultural and even pop cultural references that go over the head of people—of a different age, gender, ethnicity, and language—and we don’t even know it. 

The third argument against lecturing is that some of us don’t do it well, or as well as we think.  How do I mean that critique?  Some of us have monotone voices, or are very soft spoken and are just plain hard to hear.  We do not command interest very well as speakers.  To depend on lecture is to depend on your public speaking skills, which do not relate just to vocal skills but also to structure, creativity of examples, transitions, energy, storytelling, and sensitivity to audience feedback.  Some of us just have other strengths. So does that mean we shouldn’t be teaching?  No, it means we who have lesser skills in public speaking should not be depending on lecture very much. 

Which brings us to the question, are we as good at lecturing as we think we are?  Have we watched ourselves? Have we let others watch us and offer valid critique to which we are open?

On a related note, good oral communication skills are even more important in light of the diversity of our classroom.  In one class last year I had five Latino students (from different countries), one Kurd, one Viet Namese student—and this is a small Southern city!  I can’t list all the nations that have been represented in my class at this particular college, but let me try:  Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, El Salvador, China, Nigeria, Nepal, Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Canada, Viet Nam, Kurdistan, Ghana, Spain, Panama, India, Pakistan—21 and counting.  And most of them spoke English quite well but as a second language.  I know they appreciated that I spoke loudly and clearly, because they were struggling enough with the new environment.

So, let me give some advice on lecturing:
  • Be purposeful.  Use lecture ON PURPOSE, for good reason.
  • Tie the lecture into clear objectives.  Answer the so what question. 
  • Be organized.  Have a beginning, middle, and end.  Don’t stop in mid-sentence because the time is up.  Don’t walk into class talking, dump your books, and expect the students to catch up.  Grab attention, state an overview, use transitions, and end with a clincher.
  • Don’t cover the material, uncover it (I know, that’s a cliche, but it’s still good advice).  What does that mean?  Ask questions and interact, focus on the text, ask honest questions that you don’t have prefab answers to, listen.
  • Lecture 20 minutes, do something short to let them clear their minds or refocus, preferably an activity or even a physical thing (it’s just not good to sit for longer than an hour, for anyone), and then go for another 20 minutes.  Our periods are 75 minutes long, so I could do that 3 times.
  • Tell stories—but not your life story.  Too many lecturers actually do a monologue about themselves in class.  My mother died this summer and I have mentioned it two or three times in my lecture, but I did it in the context of communication and how to approach specific assignments.  One of them is a tribute speech, and I always tell them that if they want to tribute an older family member, to sit down, interview the person, and also videotape them—and I tell a story about my mother.  A little self-disclosure is a good thing, but as I have written on this blog elsewhere, it has its limits in lecturing.
  • Don’t use PowerPoint everyday; use it for the visual capabilities; DO NOT put big chunks of text to read to the students.  Again, the worst method is the one you use all the time.  (I hope it is understood that the fault is the lack of variety, not the method itself; it’s not a literal statement) 
  • Have a continuous quality improvement attitude toward your lecturing.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

In Defense of Lecturing, Part II

There are of course many arguments for and against lecturing. In interviewing more than twenty faculty members at my college, one of the main reasons for a dependence on lecturing was “so much material to cover.”  In some cases the covering of so much material is mandated by state standards or accreditation necessities; for example, Anatomy and Physiology, the bane of pre-nursing students.  Students cannot legitimately be expected to learn material that is not discussed in class.  Lecturing is an efficient way to do that, using visuals like PowerPoint, either provided by the textbook company or teacher-created.

A second argument is that the students like it.  They see the professor as doing his or her job by showing up and “teaching” what will be on the test.  In talking to nursing professors, this was particularly the case.  Since there is a high stakes test for nursing students at the end of their course, it is vital for them that they be ready for the test.  They want the needed material “covered” so that they can pass the test.  “Learning activities” are well and good, but they can’t work as a nurse without passing the boards, so they expect no less from the instructors.

Many professors report that students complain and resist the “flipped” classroom and “problem-based” learning approaches.  With some cajoling they might get on board, but the students recognize that, even if the teacher claims they will learn more, that a non-lecture approach is much harder work for them. 

A third argument is “this is what we do” either as professors in a discipline or as professors period.  The students, consequently, should adjust to that, rather than the professors adjusting to them. real

A fourth argument is that only bad lecturing is a bad teaching method.  Some of us are really good lecturers and presenters; we can keep an audience engaged, can sense lagging and know intuitively what to do about it.  We are funny, organized, and know our students.  And some of us aren’t. 

Finally, some concepts just have to be explained orally as well as read about.  Plain and simple.  And some students learn better that way. 

But I am going to take this to a different level.  Lecturing is really a matter of epistemology.  How is knowledge “made” and what is it?  Ever since Paolo Freire termed old-fashioned lecturing as the “banking model” of education (banking, of course, being bad), and ever since constructivism became the flavor of the month, knowledge construction has been seen as existing in the personal realm rather than an initiation into a body of knowledge.

I use the term little-k knowledge for this personal knowledge, which may or may not be congruent with communal, disciplinary big-k knowledge, or Knowledge, just as there is for some “truth” and “Truth,” distinguishing personal belief and value systems from absolute, eternal truths.  Constructivism is a workable theory to some extent but has its limitations; I think the students recognize this.  They can do lots of activities to “construct knowledge,” but is it a stacked deck?  Are they supposed to come to the same conclusions through the activities that the teacher would give them in a lecture?  So, from their standpoint, what is the point? 

I have been guilty of asking questions that are supposed to make them think but really just think my way, just come to my conclusions.  That is disingenuous, to say the least. Why pretend to be “constructing knowledge” through clever, engaging activities? 

Of course, I am creating a straw man of the “flipped classroom” just like others make straw men of lecturers.  It is arguable that less, but deeper, learning may take place with methods other than lecturing.  How much learning is enough?  In some classes the professor has the freedom not to teach all the chapters in a book; some do not have that freedom, because the students must be ready for the next course in the sequence. The expert I mentioned in the previous post is in this situation; an accounting teacher doesn’t have that out. 

I think it’s time to stop with the shaming of lecturers.  Shame never gets you anywhere.  The lecturers will only entrench themselves.  They may be doing a better job of facilitating student learning than others.  It’s also time to stop the either-or thinking. 

I go back to what I heard at a Sunday School teaching seminar.  The worst teaching method is the one you use all that time.  I confess to lecturing, and I confess to trying to create engagements, something that I wake up at 3:00 a.m. sometimes to work out in my head.  Good teachers don’t stop teaching at the end of the course period.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

In Defense of Lecturing, Part I

This article also appears on my general interest blog,

Before I begin this article, which may be considered a reflection, a polemic, or a diatribe, depending on the reader’s viewpoint, and which to be is an honest exploration of an important topic in higher education, I feel I should give my credentials for writing about this subject.

If there is anything I know about, it is college teaching.  I have been doing it since  January 1978.  That is 37 years come January, and that is a long time by most accounts. Yes, I started at 22 (not kidding there).  I have taught in private colleges, technical and community colleges, a university, and a four-year state college.  In most cases, the institutions were more or less open-access. I have, by my accounting, taught over 20 different courses over the years.  I have also taught many of them in hybrid or online versions and developed a number of online/hybrid courses.  Here is my list:
Business Communication at freshmen and junior levels
English 1102
English 1101
World Lit I and II
History of Oratory
Communication Theory
Small Group Communication
Fundamentals of Speech (a lot!)
Human Communication
Humanities I and II
First Year Experience
Developmental Reading and English
Business English

Finally, I have been the director of a teaching and learning center, edit a journal on the subject, and am earning an Ed.D. in Adult Learning.  Consequently, I spend a great deal of time thinking and practicing epistemology. I think I am qualified to weigh in on this subject, which may seem minimal in importance to some but is vital to any who enter a college classroom to conduct learning experiences.

The impetus of this article is two-fold.  I receive a newsletter from a well-known speaker and writer on college pedagogy, a woman who holds conferences and whose work I have read and whom I have heard speak.  I will not mention her name, although many will recognize her by the description.  I forwarded this newsletter to two colleagues who I had often heard bemoan the fact that presenters and “experts” on teaching and learning berate the lecture as the world’s worst way to teach. 

The irony is that many of these speakers basically lecture the college faculty for two to three hours in order to communicate how bad lecturing is.  One of these colleagues teaches communication, the other history.  They shared that, basically, they were tired of hearing lectures treated as horrible and would like to hear presenters or “experts” talk about good lecturing.  As one stated, they set up a straw man, invariably showing the clip of Ben Stein monotonously calling for “Bueller, Bueller” or the classic Father Guido Sarducci “Twenty-Minute University.”  “This,” we are told, “is lecturing, and of course, this is bad.”  Bad because it reduces students to slobbering, somnolent, and stupefied and results long term in no real learning.

Straw man, indeed.  AT this point I will invoke a speaker I heard at a Sunday School teaching conference a few years back.  “The worst teaching method is the one you use all the time.” 

My thesis is, then, that lecturing is good, if done well and engagingly and not used exclusively (perhaps not more than 75% of instructional time, depending on the student level and discipline.)  However, in today’s constructivist, collaborative, student-centered-learning environment, 75% is seen as wildly extreme for lecture.  The author of the aforementioned newsletter wrote that lecture might be useful occasionally, that some things just need to be explained sometimes.  She allowed as lecture might actually relate to some students’ learning styles.  But it was clear from this article that it pained her to write that.  Of course, she is all about “a different type of learning.”  She has a monetary investment in lecturing being fruitless as a teaching method.

I am going to stop here.  Tomorrow I will post about the origins of this “lecture BAD” mentality, followed by reflections on why lectures could be effective and/or ineffective and what to do about the lecture problem. 

I write all this as someone who lectures and who does it, from what I have been told, fairly well.  But I also use lots of collaborative activities and expect the dreaded “group work.”  In teaching hybrid classes, I try to approximate the “flipped classroom” model, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  So I am not emotionally tied to lecture as the main or only way to teach.  I just believe it is unfair, discouraging, and counter-productive to tell good faculty and engaging lecturers that they are hurting their students by doing what they do best.