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Rethinking Classroom Lectures

December 21, 2015

By Wayne Nelson and Jayme Swanke

In this time of austerity and uncertainty regarding budgets for higher education, consider this option: remove all podiums and lecterns from classrooms and sell them to offset the budget shortfall. This isn’t just my idea. Chris Buddle made the suggestion earlier this year in a blog post (Buddle, 2015), but I expanded it by suggesting the sale of podiums and lecterns. In fact, my idea doesn’t go as far as one suggested by Joe Redish from the University of Maryland. He says that “If all there is is lectures, we don't need faculty to do it. Get 'em to do it once; put it on the web; fire the faculty." (Hanford, 2011). My idea doesn’t sound so bad given Redish’s perspective, does it? But what would you do if my proposal was enacted? Could you still teach effectively?

Many of us use the lecture as a major component of our teaching. After all, the lecture has been a mainstay in higher education for many years. Centuries, actually. The word “lecture” comes from the Latin “to read”, and the method became a major educational approach in medieval universities where the lecturer read to a group of students from a book (probably because it was the only copy of the book). It is an efficient way to transfer information from the mind of the professor to the students. But teaching is more than telling or reading.

'Scholars at a Lecture' by William Hogarth etching and engraving, 1736

The lecture evolved to include other teaching activities but even then research shows that it is not an effective approach to promote learning (Bligh, 2000; Weiman & Perkins, 2005). And there are other dangers in relying too heavily on lectures as an instructional strategy. Today’s students are much different than past generations, and are much less tolerant of excessive professorial droning (frankly, they bore easily). It is very difficult to provide differentiated instruction to diverse types of learners, in fact, the premise of lecturing is that one message, spoken by you, at your pace, will be sufficient for all students to learn. You may also be susceptible to self-deception regarding the efficacy of your lectures. Have you asked students if they are bored when you lecture? Do they look bored? Even if your lectures are outstanding recitations of the complexities of your discipline, much more is necessary to help students learn. As suggested by a tenet of eastern philosophy: “together the teacher and the taught create the teaching.” Just telling and testing won’t get it done, no matter how eloquent your lectures might be.

There are a number of alternatives to lecturing that fall along a broad continuum of student-centered to teacher-centered philosophies. One of our colleagues, Jason Stacy, has summarized in a published article several alternatives that help make lectures interactive. One suggestion to is to use a “10:2” method where ten minutes of lecture are followed by two minutes of “buzz groups” (Stacy, 2009). Another recommendation is to employ problem-centered, comparative, or thesis-driven lectures, rather than simple sequential discussions of topics. Jason also notes that the passive listening so common in traditional lectures can be replaced in interactive lectures where assessment of student understanding is embedded in the lecture itself.

I have asked another of our colleagues, Jayme Swanke, to describe her experiences with implementing alternatives to traditional lectures. Please read on and leave comments regarding your experiences and opinions.

“Flipping” lectures and classroom activities

by Jayme Swanke

My first year at SIUE I approached my classes using a traditional lecture format. Each class I provided information to students who sat and passively listened to my 50-75 minute monologues. Despite my best efforts, students were not actively engaged in learning. To combat boredom and increase participation I started to integrate problem-based learning activities in my second year classes. I found that students became more engaged with the material when they were given the opportunity to apply it.

Now that students were engaged the problem became how to balance a 50 or 75-minute class period. It was difficult to get through content delivery and learning activities. Students complained about feeling rushed, and I found that there was little time to critically think, clarify, and work through learning obstacles. Then I was introduced to the flipped classroom and resolved my dilemma of how to balance class content delivery and application exercises.

During summer 2014, I decided to utilize the flipped classroom model to teach one section of a 400-level social work practice course in fall 2014. Since I was teaching two sections of the same class, I chose to use my traditional lecture/activity model for the other section. This would allow me to compare student outcomes for the flipped class and the traditional class. I spent the summer creating detailed lesson plans for both the flipped and traditional classes, preparing PowerPoint slides, recording lectures for the flipped class, and devising class activities.

Throughout the fall 2014 semester I started my traditional class with a 45-minute face-to-face lecture with time built in for questions and discussion. The remaining 30 minutes was used to apply the course concepts with a problem-based learning activity. Due to time constraints, students in the traditional class only finished part of the activity and were required to work in groups outside of class to complete the assignment prior to the next class meeting. The following class period began with a recap and discussion of the activity students completed since the previous class session.

The students in the flipped class section were responsible for listening to the pre-recorded lectures outside of class. The lectures lasted approximately 20 minutes and students’ progress was tracked and points were assigned for listening to the lectures. At the beginning of each flipped class session I would answer specific questions about the lecture content and highlight the key concepts with a class discussion. The remaining hour was set-aside for students to complete the problem-based learning activities. More often than not, students in the flipped session were able to complete an entire activity and prepare to report out and discuss their problem solving applications and approaches during that same class session.

My personal experience with the flipped classroom model has been positive. Students in the flipped classes have not complained (too much) about listening to lectures outside of class. Having the extra class time to work on activities and projects allowed for students to collaborate more with their group members as opposed to divvying up the work and working independently. The class time also gave me more opportunities to check in with students regarding their progress throughout the semester, and provide groups with individualized feedback as they worked on assignments. I found that when comparing student-learning outcomes on activities, quizzes, and projects, students in the flipped class performed significantly better than students in the traditional lecture class.

Although I would advocate for educators to take the lecture out of the classroom and implement more hands-on and problem-based learning activities, there are still a few drawbacks. First, it takes a lot of prep-time on the front end of a flipped course to record the lectures and create activities. However, once you have created these parts, they require tweaking from year to year but you won’t have to rebuild the course again. Second, be prepared for some student resistance. While some students will be open to flipping the classroom, others will feel as though you are not teaching them, and that they are teaching themselves. This is both true and false. You are providing students with content and learning opportunities; however, it may look very different than they are used to and force them to be active in their learning process during class as opposed to being a passive participant.

References

Bligh, D. A. (2000). What’s the use of lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Buddle, C. (2015, September 10). Rethinking the university classroom: Ban the podium-style lecture, not the laptop [Web log post]. Retrieved from

http://arthropodecology.com/2015/09/10/rethinking-the-university-classroom-ban-the-podium-style-lecture-not-the-laptop/

Hanford, E. (2011). Don't lecture me: Rethinking the way college students learn. Documentary Radio program. United States: American RadioWorks.

Stacy, J. (2009). The guide on the stage: In defense of good lecturing in the history classroom. Social Education, 73 (6), 275-278.

Weiman, C., & Perkins, K. (2005). Transforming physics education. Physics Today, 58(11), 36-41.

Wiggins, G. (2014, February 3). The lecture [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/the-lecture/.

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