Why Are We Still Having This Debate?

A recent article in The Atlantic on the place of the lecture in the college classroom sparked a familiar debate. A little too familiar, in fact. It left those who direct college teaching centers and who work on the scholarship of teaching and learning scratching their heads in exasperation. While no one would say that you should never lecture, the stunningly clear conclusion that you can draw from extensive research on the efficacy of lecturing is that it doesn’t work well when it is the sole pedagogical method.

lecture visual

Continuous lecturing is not consistent with what we now know about how the brain processes and comprehends material. When we listen to a lecture we don’t simply record it as a continuous stream of information that we can call up at some later date. Instead, we group or categorize information as we take it in, linking it to previous knowledge or creating new categories. This means that a lecture that goes on for more than about fifteen or twenty minutes becomes increasingly ineffective. Our brains simply can’t process it all effectively. In fact, we are more likely to better remember the beginning of a long lecture than the part we heard most recently. Even more troubling still, the research also demonstrates that lecturing is a particularly ineffective teaching method for minority, poor, and first-generation students. As Annie Paul has noted in her New York Times piece “Are Lectures Unfair,” “poor and minority students are disproportionately likely to have attended low-performing schools and to have missed out on the rich academic and extracurricular offerings familiar to their wealthier white classmates, thus arriving on campus with less background knowledge. This is a problem, since research has demonstrated that we learn new material by anchoring it to knowledge we already possess.”

If the evidence for the limitations of lecturing as a pedagogical choice is so overwhelming, then why do we keep having this debate? Why are some of our colleagues reluctant to abandon an over-reliance on “continuous exposition” (this phrase comes from Derek Bruff’s great piece, “In Defense of Continuous Exposition by the Teacher“) and why do we keep seeing defenses of the lecture in high profile publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic?

[And please note: I write all of this as someone who does lecture and sees a place for it in most of my classes].

To begin with, lecturing is a comfortable and familiar strategy that lets us control the classroom.

Lecturing is a relatively accessible pedagogical method. You can definitely be bad or good at it, but as a method, it is not complicated. Many (most?) of us did not receive pedagogical training as part of our PhD programs (though this is something that organizations like the American Historical Association are beginning to address). There are a myriad of excellent and proven active learning strategies that provide terrific counterweights to a reliance on lectures, but if we haven’t studied these and been equipped to deploy them, it is not terribly surprising that we would gravitate towards a fairly passive and straightforward pedagogical style.

A corollary to this is that lecturing provides control. Many active learning strategies put (quite rightly) more control in the hands of students. Suddenly, the students are directing the conversation and momentum of the class. This can be scary if you’re not used to it. Lectures provide a comfortable script. You walk into class and know that you have fifty or so minutes to get to the end of the outline/notes. Moving away from solely lecturing thus also requires readjusting our notions of how to impart information, communicate our expertise, and help students acquire higher-order thinking skills. We don’t call the lecturing style of pedagogy “the sage on the stage” for nothing. We need to understand that employing active learning strategies doesn’t discount our sagacity; it just asks us to adapt it to different pedagogical methods.

Further, I think we delight in the “sage on the stage” model because we have a nostalgic attachment to lecturing as an iconic representation of what college is supposed to be like: large lecture halls filled with rapt students hanging on the every word of a dynamic professor. I queried a group of friends and colleagues about examples of movies or television shows that enshrine the model of the “sage on the stage.” The responses came very quickly—we all have a ready picture in our heads of what this looks like. But the gulf between those representations and reality is, of course, huge. I don’t know about you, but I’ve experienced exactly one professor who could lecture that eloquently and charismatically. And I’ve been in the academy for over twenty years.

That said, I was really struck by some of the most popular examples that were offered. John Houseman in “The Paper Chase.” Except here’s the thing: he doesn’t lecture continuously. While we might object to his bullying style, he actually employs the Socratic method—a questioning give and take with his students, designed to guide them to the right answer. Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society” (putting aside the fact that it’s set in a prep school and not college). Except here’s the thing: he doesn’t lecture continuously, either. He lectures for a few minutes, then calls on the students, has them read passages of poetry aloud, compose and read their own poems aloud, etc. Barbara Streisand in “The Mirror Has Two Faces.” In this case, she does lecture fairly continuously, but she embodies the best that lecturing has to offer: good storytelling in the service of the broader communication of important ideas and concepts. And, not incidentally, she does pepper her lecture with questions posed to the students. So even our presumably iconic examples are not really examples of continuous exposition. And thus I suspect many of you who will read this and defend your use of lecture, actually do more of what’s described in these three examples: you engage in good storytelling, you break up your lectures with other activities, you engage the students actively in the flow of the lecture itself.

But what these iconic examples also instruct us to do then, is to embrace other pedagogical methods. To do so we will need to move away from what we know best, what comes perhaps easiest, and what feels comfortable and controlled.

But it should not be too hard to do so if we avoid seeing this as an either/or proposition. It is not a question of lecturing or employing active learning strategies. It is, however, a question of choosing appropriate strategies and limiting or breaking up the amount of time we spend lecturing. And, yes, as the recent piece in The Atlantic argues, if we are going to lecture we could probably get better at it. But that same piece also implicitly argues that simply training professors to be better lecturers would somehow obviate the research that demonstrates the inefficacy of relying mostly on lecturing. That research is based in the kind of cognitive science cited in the beginning of this piece. Simply lecturing better will not erase the fact that our brains do not process long lectures efficiently. By the same token, we do not need to demonize the lecture in order to promote the adoption of active learning strategies. Both have their place.

Which brings me to my final point. We need to stop devaluing and ignoring the work of cognitive science and the scholarship of teaching and learning. It is strange that a profession that values research would ignore research on how we learn and teach. A colleague offered a good explanation for this: we bifurcate research and teaching. For too many, research is that thing we do when we’re not teaching, making teaching a separate category, oddly immune to the impact of research. And yet there is tremendous, important, and persuasive work being done in cognitive science which explicates what was once mysterious: how we learn and acquire knowledge and comprehension. And this work is in turn being applied by astute colleagues who work in the scholarship of teaching and learning to help us make smart choices about which pedagogical models to use when. Why would we fail to employ pedagogies that have been proven to promote student learning? Why would we cling to methods that do not work well under certain circumstances? To ignore this work is to do our students and ourselves a profound disservice.





6 thoughts on “Why Are We Still Having This Debate?

  1. Thanks for this, Liz–most of what gets published at The Atlantic these days is designed & headlined as clickbait, so which sounds better: “The college lecture is ‘endangered,'” or “Many different pedagogical approaches are worthwhile, and different strategies work for different students, which is what most proffies do?”

    I love lecturing, but not for the control it offers me. I like it because I like to perform, and I’m pretty good at it by now. I also like it because it’s a way of modeling how historians engage their material and the kinds of questions we ask. But I am not the only person talking: I interrupt myself every few minutes to engage the students in some Socratic dialogue, asking them to respond to an idea or to analyze an image on the fly, or to ask them to draw upon material from previous lectures or readings. That keeps them a little more alert and engaged, because like you say (and all the research says), believing that learning is happening because you’re up there talking is a fallacy.

    I only “lecture” in my limited, interrupted way one day a week, because we need time in my class to talk about readings, analyze primary sources, talk about the students’ writing, etc.


  2. “When we listen to a lecture we don’t simply record it as a continuous stream of information that we can call up at some later date. Instead, we group or categorize information as we take it in, linking it to previous knowledge or creating new categories. This means that a lecture that goes on for more than about fifteen or twenty minutes becomes increasingly ineffective. Our brains simply can’t process it all effectively. ”

    This is also where note taking comes in, I think. One of my issues with articles/approaches which describe lectures as passive learning is that they ignore this work – although to be fair to them, many of my students do too, treating the lecture as something to receive passively rather than something where THEY have to actively do some work. I’m interested in and actively working on finding effective ways to teach students how to do that work, and how to record it as they go along in the form of notes, preferably by hand (since there is research suggesting that hand writing notes improves retention over typed notes or just listening).

    That involves strategies like giving students short silent breaks to write in, asking them to first write about a question, then discuss it with neighbours, working specifically with notes from past lectures, telling them overtly what good notes might look like, at what points in the lecture they might usefully add material from reading (e.g. I’ve just explained how this theory applies to giraffes in zoos – in your independent study time, you could research and make notes on how it applies to other situations – rhinos in zoos, or dogs in shelters, or hamsters in cages, or giraffes in safari parks) to encourage them to see the lecture as part of the bigger picture. etc. etc.!

    I do that partly because that’s part of my pedagogy – the metaphor I choose is that my classes sketch in a broad map of the country, so they know where they start; their classwork should enable them to elaborate or colour some of the details that interest them, and they’ll continue to explore and add to that map throughout their studies and their lives, so I’m helping them get some coloured pencils and dividers to get them started on adding to the map – and partly to help them get the most out of classes with colleagues who continue to lecture the old-fashioned way (and from podcasts, audio recordings, readings etc. where the same active learning strategies also work).

    Nice piece, thanks!


  3. My methods for most undergrad classes are 50-50, give or take 15% depending on the level of class. And you’re dead right about control: I’ve had at least one 20-80 lecture-discussion totally bomb when the students consistently did not do the reading. The other thing is that, at my university, students balk and complain about active learning. I’ve had colleagues who created model active-learning scenarios get absolutely hammered on their evals with comments like “the professor didn’t do *anything*!” And lecturers and pre-tenure faculty depend too much on those numbers. And by the time they have tenure, the patterns are hard to shake. I oughta know: I’m working hard to shake them myself, and my enrollments suffer in comparison to faculty who adopt a lecture-only model.

    Don’t get me wrong: I think there’s a place for the lecture, and I fancy myself pretty good at it. But we can’t create passive consumers.


    1. I think part of the challenge in countering student resistance to active learning strategies is to be transparent about WHY we are employing them (and perhaps you and your colleagues do this, so I’m not assuming you don’t). I’ve tried to be much more self-conscious about my teaching and tell my students why I’m using the pedagogical techniques that I am (this has gone a long way, for example, in getting them to grasp why group work can sometimes be a good thing). Not saying that doing this would completely turn around issues of evaluations and enrollment, but it might help.


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