Extreme Makeover: Lecture Edition

June 11, 2013

Admittedly, I am a huge proponent of active learning and finding ways to move beyond lecture as the primary and sometimes sole mechanism of engaging students in learning. Even with that said, I think that much of the conversation about pedagogy in recent years has swung too far away from lecture and neglected to recognize the powerful learning that can happen as a result of lecture as just one pedagogical technique. My reason for this more accepting attitude towards lecture as an extremely valuable teaching and learning tool, when employed in judicious ways, is that lecture does not have to be a strict delivery mechanism, nor does it necessitate abandonment from a dialogic learning experience to take place. Perhaps the lecture itself just needs a makeover?

When we think of lecture as a teaching tool, it’s traditionally framed as “teaching” the material. It’s often one sided (teacher-centric, not learner-centric) and this framing allows, if not encourages, an explanation of material that is outside of “us”. Sure, maybe we use some applied, real-world examples to illustrate the concepts, but the subject matter is still out there and we need to go “get it”. The abstraction and objectification of knowledge rarely does anyone any good. This isn’t how learning happens. Instead, I wonder what would happen if we explicitly discussed with students our approach to the material, concepts and theory of the course—our way of making meaning of the material as the course instructor and scholar in the field? In many ways student participation and engagement is directly related to the perceived value-added of attending class. Is there something they can get in class that they cannot get anywhere else? So, with this in mind, how can lecture become something they cannot get anywhere else? Students can get access to all the content of almost any class online and in books- the content itself is not what is unique. They can even get access to their peers outside of class. (I’ve had many people tell me the way they actually learned in college was to go with classmates to the library, or a coffee shop, and just work through problems or discuss material. Attending lectures that strictly delivered the material to students was not where learning took place.) What students cannot get anywhere else is access to you as an individual professor, scholar, researcher and intellectual. They cannot get access to your brain, how you make sense of the topic, how you once struggled to grasp the theory and put it into practice, and how you learned the material, use it, and apply it. I once had a colleague tell me his biggest obstacle in teaching a particular course to graduate students and advanced undergraduate students was that they still viewed their place in the field as an individual doing work, and not as part of a team working to solve problems, hence their unwillingness to speak up in class and ask questions. I asked him how often they were exposed to scholars and practitioners in the field actually working in teams. His reply, “Rarely, until they are out of school.”

How often do we talk about, or show our students how we do work in our discipline? This is different than how our discipline does work. That’s helpful, but too general and accessible elsewhere. Undergraduate research opportunities are an obvious answer, but how can we, in a lecture, personalize the learning experience and give students access to ourselves as a scholar and teacher and more importantly, as a learner?

How do we use our experience and perspective as learners in a lecture to meet them where they are, lead them to where they need to be, and still cover the material?

How do you find ways to always make coming to class a value-added for the students?