Monday, 23 January 2012

Are Lectures Boring?

A question I continue to ask myself is whether or not to lecture in a given course. I have taught a variety of courses at a number of schools since 2008 (ah, the life of an adjunct), but I have not yet come to a firm conclusion on lecturing. I had been told by several people who are abreast of the latest techniques and opinion polls, with regard to higher education, that students don't want professors to lecture. Rather, it is best to break them up into small groups for the purposes of having discussion. A number of people told me that today's students are technologically savvy and fidgety, and so can't sit still during a long lecture. They supposedly find the stand-and-deliver method boring.

Not knowing any better, I decided to organize my earliest courses so that students constantly had to form small groups for the purpose of discussion. Unfortunately, I found this method to produce dismal results. Most students--especially freshman--didn't want to talk, even within a group of their peers. On a typical day, several students would not do the reading, and so usually did not have anything to contribute. Asking individuals within the groups questions was often like pulling teeth.

In a few courses, I tried forcing students to do individual research on a topic and then lead the class in discussion for part of their grade. Talk about boring, try listening to a person give a thirty-minute talk on a subject that he or she had looked up on Wikipedia ten minutes before class. Not only did these students not know their subject, but it was typically delivered in a dispassionate way.

In later semesters, I tried lecturing. Despite the warnings that I had received, I figured that it couldn't be worse than previous experiences. It took me several months over the summer to write notes for upcoming courses. In most cases, I put together over 200 pages on Microsoft Word for a particular course like American history or historical theology. I reasoned that if I lectured, at least someone would be talking in class!

I remember being surprised by the result. For the most part, students seemed to enjoy the lectures, especially when I talked about a topic that I was passionate about such as the Great Awakening or the Enlightenment. In a few instances, students thanked me after a lecture. In fairness, I rarely lectured for fifty minutes without stopping for questions. More times than not, I introduced talking points, using the Socratic method. Perhaps young people, who are so immersed in today's soundbite culture, find a lecture that is interesting and presented by a passionate speaker, novel.

I continue to wonder what is the best method of teaching. I suppose the correct answer is that each course demands its own unique structure. There are also some factors that dictate how a course should be run. In larger sections of one hundred or more students, for instance, it would be nearly impossible to break students up into small groups or have them do presentations. But in the smaller classes of thirty or fewer people professors usually have the choice on how to format a class.

Is it true that lecturing is sometimes preferable by students?

Jonathan Yeager


M. Jay Bennett said...

Absolutely! I think it may be okay to do discussion groups extraordinarily, but doing them ordinarily is bad practice. Students pay for expert teaching, not to hear the forced opinons of fellow non-initiates.

Exploring the Study of Religious History said...

Good point. The value of our education and training should be worth hearing, at least some of the time.

Anonymous said...

I have likewise found that an instructor's knowledge of and passion for the material is the key to disabusing the student's assumption that lectures are, by definition, boring. I agree that a spoonful of Socratic questioning helps the "medicine" go down. It also encourages them to abandon the default passivity of many freshmen. I've seen research challenging the idea that student discussion groups or study groups are usually very productive. Good insights.