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On the Use and Abuse of Lecture

Oct 05 2011

For over 500 years, lecture has been associated with teaching in higher education. The word itself derives from the Latin lectus and hints at the ancient and venerable origins of the practice. In the medieval university, texts were rare and beyond the economic reach of most students. Texts were therefore read aloud so that others could hear and take notes on them. In the renaissance universities, the practice no longer always involved reading aloud, but referred to an instructional discourse given publicly. 

In nineteenth century America, orators like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Jennings Bryan grafted rhetorical skills honed at the pulpit with the academic tradition and raised lecture to an art form, a means of public enlightenment and even entertainment. The Chautauqua or polished, engaging, public lecture became, according to Roosevelt, "the most American thing in America."

During the same period and starting with Johns Hopkins, America imported the German model of the research university, associating irrevocably the academic ability of a scholar with their ability to ‘hold forth' on their subject. The lecture became the sine qua non of academic life and the de facto instructional job description of the professor. Even in the minds of those who had not perfected the skill, lecture is what was meant by instruction in higher education.

Yet in recent years, lecture as the default mode of instruction in higher education has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism. Research on human learning and the resulting emphasis on collaborative and engaged learning in the classroom have raised questions about the appropriateness of lecture as a pedagogical technique.

Is lecture antithetical to effective learning and teaching? The most correct answer is, "That depends." There are times when it is most appropriate for us to use expository instructional methods like lecture.

On the other hand, the endemic one-sidedness of lectures and the temptation lecture provides to focus on the process of instruction rather than the process of learning means that we must be very careful. Lecture is too often the preferred means of instruction, not through any process of planning, design, or choice, but through an habitualreversion to the historical default.

When used properly, lecture can be an effective and enjoyable pedagogy. When used incorrectly or over-used, it can become a stumbling block to learning. If and when you decide to lecture,

  • Be sure that the instructional purpose and material is well suited to the lecture format. Use lecture to create initial motivation in students, dispense largely informational material, or frame a discussion in a particular way.

  • Design your class period to be broken into mini-lectures of no more than 10-15 minutes, punctuated by activities that help students focus, process, question, and re-engage. This interactive lecture makes use of such tools as concept tests, clickers, quizzes, peer mentoring and many, many more Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) interwoven with the lecture.

  • Verify that you have or can develop the presentational and rhetorical skills needed to effectively carry a lecture. Carefully prepare the lecture ahead of time, selecting key points, means of transitioning between ideas, examples and stories to use. Develop a presentation style that is pleasant and clear, avoiding distracting mannerisms while appropriately integrating humor, graphics, or other presentational aids.

  • Make sure that lecture doesn't become a default instructional methodology, but is always selected to fulfill specific instructional goals for its strengths over other, and potentially more effective, instructional options.

Resources:

  • Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2 ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press.
  • Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors (Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education). Jossey-Bass, 3 edition.

To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at fglazer@nyit.edu. This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.

Contributor:

Devan Barker, Instructional Development
Brigham Young University Idaho
http://www.byui.edu/

Author: francine_glazer