Thursday, February 2, 2017

A few thoughts on college teaching: Lecturing and Academic Freedom

I was reading an interesting (although in need of proofreading) article called "Lecture is Not a Dirty Word."  One of the big reasons faculty don't like faculty or educational development is that they feel that lecturing is characterized as a horrible method in favor of "active learning strategies."  As a colleague says, it's a straw man because presenters often show the hilarious clips of Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller's Day Off (it is quite funny, but in no means the reality of lecturing for most professors I know).

One of the thoughts in this article is that students don't want to waste time in class on activities, discussions, etc. that do not help them learn directly and get a good grade.  Oh, woe is us, these writers say--the students should not be so extrinsic and should want to learn for the sake of learning, should be socially constructing knowledge and not just passing a test.

To that I say, get real.  None of the faculty members wanted to waste time on activities that would not get them grades in college.  I wouldn't. Time is precious.  If an active learning strategy is just a trendy thing to do and doesn't help the student get a better grade, there are two problems:  the assessment methods are not good and probably there are learning outcomes problems in the class design; a good grade should only prove the student learned, and therefore the point of the class was met.

Now, that is not to say I am in favor of 75-minute lectures, 2 times a week for 15 weeks.  I am in favor of short lectures with breaks (both physical and mental; students should have to get up and move during that period).  Some things in classes just need to be explained in lectures, which should be at most 20 minutes long followed by something to apply or reflect or discuss or write about or practice the knowledge.  A college teacher should be a good lecturer in the sense of (a) a clear explainer of concepts (b) having a loud and energetic enough voice, and (c) being able to add some entertaining examples and rhetorical variety. A good lecturer needs to be organized (organization goes a long way).  PowerPoint is a very good organizational tool, but busy notes on the slides is generally not that good because it discourages note-taking.

Obviously lecturing can have a number of bad characteristics, but other than poor rhetorical and nonverbal aspects, the worst is lecturing that gets the students off the hook for reading the material and working outside of class.  That is where students take responsibility for their own learning.  If a student can pass a class based on the PowerPoints and lectures, then a book should not be assigned (or bought).  But this is not an advisable strategy, since the classroom time limits who much material can be explained.  In my opinion, the textbook should cover the basics and the lectures the more advanced or specialized knowledge.

Another point in the article is that students don't like class discussions as much as instructors think they do.  This is a tough point.  What is the point of the discussion?  To let students express their opinions?  Why?  Seriously, why?  So the others can hear other points of view?  Why?  Do the students really think their peers know anything worth listening to?  If what matters is the content of the course and learning the concepts to pass the class, why would Joe Doe's opinion matter?

Before you get excited, there is a value in the students having to hear a diversity of viewpoints in some contexts (such as interpretation of an art work) and there is also value in their learning to listen in a civil and respectful manner.  But I would encourage the discussion to be directed to facts and experience rather than opinion.  Not that I am the expert on this (who is?), but yesterday I wanted students to talk about their experiences in job interviews as a way to draw out how their experiences were typical of today's workforce climate, how they responded to it and how they could have, what they learned from it, etc.  

This post has gone on too long so I'll get to academic freedom next time. 

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