A response to the Atlantic: Active Learning Doesn’t Harm Students

The Atlantic published an essay from Christine Gross-Loh entitled, “Should Colleges Really Eliminate the College Lecture?” This follows a similar op-ed published in the New York Times, “Lecture Me. Really.” Is there someone out there assaulting lecturers? Are there colleges out there eliminating the lecture? Is there even a college out there that could force an elimination if they tried? What is this really about? There is a growing and substantial body of research that suggests the importance of engagement and active learning. This scholarship has led to calls to reduce the frequency (more importantly, the length) of lectures in favor of engaging students in the classroom. Clearly, those who believe in the power and potential of lectures feel under threat. Yet, the research is clear that the inclusion of active learning helps students learn content better. The defense of the lecture in the Atlantic essay is long on anecdotal support for lecturing and wrong in numerous ways. In response, I want to respond to a few of the most inaccurate passages as a response to the Atlantic and underline my central argument: active learning doesn’t harm students.

14th Century Lecture in Bologna

I’d never been trained in giving a lecture—and it showed. But that lack of training is not unusual; it’s the norm. Despite the increased emphasis in recent years on improving professors’ teaching skills, such training often focuses on incorporating technology or flipping the classroom, rather than on how to give a traditional college lecture. It’s also why the lecture—a maintain of any introductory course—is endangered.

First, I would challenge the assertion that the lecture is endangered. Falling out of favor in some circles—yes.  But endangered, hardly. Gross-Loh points out that there has been an increase in teaching centers and emphasis on improving teaching. I would also admit that my teaching center is unlikely to offer a workshop on improving the lecture. That’s not because I have something against lecturing. Rather, I know the research on teaching and learning. This research suggests the biggest bang for my buck is in supporting active learning approaches. If I can convince a faculty member to include just a few active learning activities inside a course that heretofore consisted entirely of lecturing, students will learn more. And that’s why those of us in faculty development focus on active learning over improved lecturing.

While the movement to eliminate the college lecture first gained traction among physics professors, including the Stanford Nobel laureate Carl Wieman and Harvard’s Eric Mazur (a proponent of “peer instruction” who has compared watching a lecturer to learn physics to watching a marathon on TV to learn how to run), it has expanded beyond the sciences. Getting rid of the lecture entirely is the mission of a broad group of educators.

I don’t know who is the lecture boogeyman going around and stealing lecture notes, but can I give you the name of a few faculty to come visit? Again, the author misses the point. Wieman and Mazur didn’t wake up one more and decide lectures were evil. Wieman and Mazur found that their students weren’t learning as much as they wanted them to so they did what good academics do. They studied the literature, engaged in their own research, and implemented changes based on their findings. Do we really thing they would have reduced lecturing if the data said otherwise. It would have been far, far easier to continue lecturing. The easiest thing to do in teaching is to keep doing the same thing. Moreover, the author misses the point of peer instruction. Lectures are a vital part of the process. A professor gives a mini-lecture and then students work together to consolidate their learning.

Still, although proponents of the movement to move away from the lecture cite data on its ineffectiveness, the debate has failed to take into account the fact that academics are rarely, if ever, formally trained in public speaking.

So let me get this straight… the evidence clearly shows that active learning can improve student learning, but we should ignore this because teaching a professor how to be a public speaker might make the lecture better. By all means, let’s teach professors how to speak in public better, let’s teach them how to lecture better, and then let’s conduct some studies to see about the effect on learning. In the meantime, will it really threaten the entire educational mission to break up lectures by asking a few discussion questions or engaging in group work? (Hint, no, in fact, it will lead to better student learning).

It is probably not a coincidence that as teaching public speaking fell out of favor, so too did the quality of the average college lecture.

What evidence is there that public speaking instruction is related to the quality of lectures? What evidence is there that the quality of the average college lecture has gone down? [Crickets chirping] Okay, let’s move on before this argument completely falls apart.

“The lecture was a highlight of my own education,” Molly Worthen, a University of North Carolina history professor who wrote a New York Times op-ed last year defending the lecture, tells me. “Some of my most powerful experiences in the classroom as an undergraduate and graduate student were in lecture halls. To draw this bright line between traditional lecture and active learning totally misunderstands the lecture. Done properly it should be an active experience, one that fosters critical skills but also conveys information and models the art of argument.” According to Worthen, many faculty are under pressure to experiment with active learning—“shorthand for things other than the lecture.” But, she says “many of these active learning modules assume students can be asked to do more outside of class, such as watch videos online.” There’s a limit, thought, to what one can expect students to reliably do outside the classroom. “There’s just no getting around the efficiency of a great lecture as a mode of conveying what students should know.”

I don’t even know where to start here. First, active learning is not “shorthand for things other than the lecture.” Suggesting this totally misunderstands active learning. Active learning is a process where students engage in activities designed to promote synthesis, analysis, and evaluation of course content. Second, there are undoubtedly students that learn through lectures. Lectures can be powerful learning opportunities. I appreciate Worthen’s anecdotal experience. However, the research simply tells us that she is wrong. She does get one aspect right, lectures are incredibly efficient. Lectures scale instruction and this is why they are the hallmark of introductory undergraduate courses. No one doubts the efficiency of lecturing. Yet, the real question that we should be asking is if they are effective?

“Remember the staggering advances in science, engineering, and technology in the last two centuries were made by former students who attended, and sometimes slept through, the old fashioned lecture. If progress is out measure of success, then the need for change is overstated.”

Absolutely! The need for change is overstated! We have the same students attending higher education as the past two centuries. There are no women, minority students, low income students, or adult students. The role of science, engineering, and technology today is no different than the past two centuries. I know I will have my quill pen and candle by my bedside tonight. I know the candle light is supposed to keep me up but I’ll just turn down the brightness.

Lectures aren’t evil but they aren’t the only way to teach

The problem that this essay and others of this genre make is that those of us suggesting other teaching approaches don’t believe the lecture is evil. We simply acknowledge that it has strengths and weaknesses. As my colleagues and I described in Teaching for Learning:  101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success, there are distinct advantages and disadvantages of the lecture:

Advantages

Provides teachers with control of information and pacing of session

Provides the teacher with a chance to model desired level of thinking

Provides teachers with ability to clarify issues

Provides most immediate recall of information by students

Disadvantages

May not be as effective for higher order thinking

Presumes students are learning at the same pace

Can be a disincentive for learning (if done poorly)

Relies on student attention span

Ultimately, I hope the proponents of lecturing are willing to pause (pun intended) and take a full look at the research. Everyone should acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of lectures as well as other teaching approaches.

In the end, I mostly hope they finally will admit that active learning doesn’t harm students so we can have a real discussion about improving teaching and learning.