Thursday, 12 November 2009

Lecture: A Dirty Word in Pedagogy?

For the past several months I have been reevaluating my teaching methodology and specifically whether I should embrace or discard lecturing in my classes. Currently, all the courses that I teach are general education requirements with at least forty students in each class. As an undergraduate I remember attending lecture-oriented classes that were painful to sit through. Looking back, I am forced to ask myself whether it was my immaturity, poor study habits or the speaking ability of the professor that made me believe that such courses were boring and ineffective. Now the situation is reversed. I am the professor and a new batch of students are forced to take my classes.

I have heard the arguments for abandoning the lecture. Small groups are what works best, some say. Another argument is that professors must include multimedia in their presentations - movies, cartoon, video clips - anything but straight lecturing. Powerpoint presentations are also suggested to be outdated and cannot help the lecturer.

In a few of my initial classes, I scraped by with canned lectures and came to the conclusion that something must change. But I am not convinced that the lecture must be completely abandoned. One of my friends at Fordham University, who was voted teaching fellow of the year two years in a row, commented on how he incorporated stories into his lectures. He told me that he tries to include at least one personal story in each lecture. Since the beginning of the fall semester this year I have tried to mimic this strategy. The good Lord knows that I have plenty of funny, entertaining, heart-breaking and unbelievable stories to tell that are based on my life's experiences. For the most part, I have been having tremendous results. Of course some of my lectures are not good, especially the ones that fall outside of my discipline and I am forced to rely on other people's scholarship. But several students have commented on how much they enjoy the stories I tell and certainly when I do pause and tell an emotional or hilarious story, the sleepy eyes of many students brighten and, in some cases, you can hear a pin drop in the class as I tell a particular anecdote. My question then is this: are stories the way to revive the notoriously boring lecture? Must teachers abandon lecturing all together and have students constantly breaking up into small groups and doing activities in order to ensure good evaluation reports?



Lionel said...

I too have noticed quite a change in student’s expectations. In my undergrad days the teacher occasionally used a chalk board. These days some students are unimpressed unless the professor turns the classroom into a full-scale Hollywood production! I guess I would have three brief comments. First, I think it depends on the audience. For example, I have found that teaching grad students varies slightly from teaching undergrad students and that professors need to adjust accordingly. Expectations in various cultures also requiring some adjustment. (The first time I tried to “spice up” a class in India by encouraging group participation everyone just stared at me in awkward silence.) Second, I think it depends on the professor. Some professors simply excel at giving lectures while others are at their best in the archives. Both “types” – in my estimation – still need to be able to give lectures – but those who are less at home behind the lectern may need to follow some of the suggestions you have outlined to retain attention. Finally, I think the challenge is a good one in that it requires us to give our very best – and improve our teaching skills significantly. Your post has encouraged me to give consideration to how I can teach more creatively. Thanks for your contribution.

F. Lionel Young III

Exploring the Study of Religious History said...

Thanks Lionel - very sage advice. Your comment about the difference between graduate and undergraduate courses is particularly insightful and certainly applicable in my case.