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.

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