The strengths and weaknesses of lecturing

The lecture is one of the oldest teaching strategies in the world, yet it remains one of the most controversial. Some faculty passionately argue for the value and effectiveness of lecturing while others suggest that the approach is one of the biggest challenges for helping college students learn. This debate has been in the forefront lately thanks to a New York Times column by Molly Worthen, “Lecture Me. Really.” Professor Worthen’s piece, while thought provoking, misses the mark in several places particularly in describing active learning as not much more than a fad. Moreover, her pieces failed to consider the growing and substantial body of empirical research on lecturing—research that shows the strengths and weaknesses of lecturing. My recent book with Claire Major and Todd Zakrajsek (Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success) explores the research literature on lecturing and in today’s post I want to describe some of the key findings to provide empirical information to the lecture debate.

Photo credit: Alan Levine

The primary purpose of lecturing is to transfer content and information from an expert faculty member to novice students. Lectures take many forms from formal lectures to lecture-discussions that include student questions.

In our work, we identified the following advantages of lecturing:

  • Provides teachers with control of information and pacing of session
  • Is rewarding for the teacher to be seen as expert
  • Provides the teacher with a change to model desired level of thinking
  • Allows teacher to model enthusiasm
  • Provides all students with a common core of content
  • Provides an opportunity to enliven facts and ideas from the text
  • Provides teachers with ability to clarify issues
  • Provides an opportunity to develop ideas (that may be later used for publications)
  • Provides immediate recall of information by students

The weaknesses of lectures are:

  • May not be as effective for higher order thinking
  • May not improve student long-term retention of information
  • Presumes students are learning at the same pace
  • Does not allow for personalized instruction
  • Can create opportunities for students to be passive
  • Relies on student attention span
  • Can be a disincentive for learning (if done poorly)
  • Can lead students to believe that it is a complete learning experience
  • Can lead to boredom on the part of professors and students

As with all teaching approaches, there are advantages and disadvantages of lecturing. So what should faculty do?  In our review of the research literature, we identified five findings that can improve the effectiveness of lectures for instructors that desire to use lectures.

Additionally, much of the research that finds lectures as ineffective examined traditional, full class lectures.  Recent studies suggest that lectures can be made more active and improve student learning if instructors can follow some of our suggestions below.

1.  Use mini lectures with purposeful active learning breakouts to improve student learning.

2.  Effective and guided note-taking during lecture can improve learning.

3.  Focusing on the essentials can improve student learning, and help students figure out what is essential can improve learning

4.  Frequent quizzing and testing can improve learning

5.  Paying attention to style and pace of speech can improve learning

We go into more details on each of these in the book as well as providing specific activities to help instructors achieve these goals. Ultimately, what is most important is that faculty take the time to intentionally design their classroom activities whether lecturing or another approach.

No teaching strategy is perfect.

However, by learning from research and proactively planning, instructors can improve their teaching and student learning.

An Open Letter to Margaret Spellings

After a contentious and often fumbled search process, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors has named former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings as the next UNC system president. She follows President Tom Ross who was well liked within the university, but failed to make many friends among Republican leaders in Raleigh. I would have preferred a president with significant academic experience, but I also see Spellings in the mold of other nonacademic presidents particularly Erskine Bowles. Below is an open letter to Margaret Spellings with my recommendations for her upon taking over the system in March.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

What Paul Ryan’s demands can teach higher ed administrators

Although much of American politics today is frustrating and sad, I’ve been completely fascinated by the power transition occurring in the U.S. House of Representatives over the last few weeks. In particular, I have watched closely Paul Ryan’s role and change of position from I won’t run to I will if my demands are met. While I have fundamental political and policy disagreements with Representative Ryan, I have been quite impressed with how he has handled the situation roiling his caucus. In today’s post, I will share the four demands that Ryan had before agreeing to run for speaker and what Paul Ryan’s demands can teach higher ed administrators.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Almost immediately after John Boehner announced his resignation as speaker, Paul Ryan was suggested as a potential consensus candidate to bring together the Republican House caucus. Just as immediately, Ryan said he would not be a candidate. Over time, as no viable candidate came forward, Ryan softened his stance and said he would run if he could actually unify the party and if his conditions were met.

I found that situation remarkably similar to how many administrative positions in higher education are filled, particularly academic administration openings. Many faculty initially decline, but are eventually talked into accepting the post. 

N.C. Republicans are trying to ruin the UNC system

Seemingly not content to just ruin K-12 public education, North Carolina Republicans have set their sights on ruining the UNC system. The latest mockery surrounds the presidential search to replace ousted UNC president, Tom Ross. The UNC Board of Governors met last Friday to evaluate the candidacy of Margaret Spellings, former U.S. Secretary of Education under George W. Bush. Legislative leaders and board members complained about the search process leading to mass chaos. The search is only the latest evidence that N.C. Republicans are trying to ruin the UNC system.

Photo credit: WCNC

For many years, the University of North Carolina remained above the partisan fray. While some Republicans complained over the years about liberal leanings in Chapel Hill or the legislature being too lenient on UNC leaders, the UNC system was not used as a political piñata.

The need for faculty self-discipline

University of California- Berkeley professor and famed astronomer Geoff Marcy has resigned. For those who haven’t been following the story, Marcy was accused by numerous former students of sexual harassment (here and here for more details). Nearly everyone has decidedly condemned his behavior. Many have been critical of the university’s response and seeming inability to discipline a member of the faculty that was sexually harassing students for many years. There is little question that Marcy’s behavior was reprehensible, but I want to discuss another aspect of the case: the need for faculty self-discipline.

After an extensive investigation of the facts of the case, the university found there to be convincing evidence against Marcy.

As a result, the university (with Marcy’s agreement) instituted a no-tolerance policy and said further actions by him would result in termination. The university administration claimed this was the best it could do under University of California faculty policies and that removing future appeal and procedural options for Marcy was a significant penalty.

No surprise, the backlash against this was swift. And in my view, justified.