What Learning People Really Think About Lecturing

A response to the Atlantic piece, Should Colleges Really Eliminate the College Lecture?

July 17, 2016

Is there really a war on lecturing going on across higher ed?  Do learning professionals want to kill the lecture?

Read Christine Gross-Loh’s Atlantic piece, Should Colleges Really Eliminate the College Lecture?, and you would be forgiven in thinking that there is and that we do.

The anti-lecture cadre is characterized as comparing the traditional lecture to "bloodletting—an outdated practice that has long been in need of radical reform". 

This story makes for a neat argument. Who has not experienced the power of a transformative lecture?  Who would not support the need for professors to “model the art of argument”?

And who is not critical of the tendency of educational pundits and administrators to blindly follow the latest educational fads?

Gross-Loh’s implies that the erosion in the quality of college lecturing [an argument provided with no evidence] has been driven by a decline in the status of rhetoric and public speaking. As interest in active learning has increased, so argues Gross-Loh, efforts to develop traditional lecture skills have waned.

The problem is that Gross-Loh’s description of the current climate on lecturing bears little resemblance to reality.

Let me be very clear.  There exists no campaign - no organized plot or plan - to eliminate the college lecture.  There is a movement across many schools to improve learning.  The lecture is, and always will be, part of the mix of a rich and varied learning ecosystem.

The learning professionals on our campuses - the instructional designers and faculty developers working in Centers for Teaching and Learning (CTL) or Academic computing units - are not anti-lecture. What we are are pro-learning, and we realize (embrace) that for some courses and for some faculty and for some students that a lecture will be the best method available.

How do learning people actually work with faculty?  

When faculty collaborate with the learning professionals in a campus CTL or Academic Computing unit (say an instructional designer), the goal is never to get the professor to “conform” to a particular teaching method or practice. What instructional designers do is ask lots of questions about the faculty’s goals, and then they work with them to figure out how to best reach these objectives.

In some cases, the solutions that professors and instructional designers come up with are to move away from a traditional lecture format - and towards flipped classes and more in-class activities and discussions. In some cases, the lecture is retained and is supplemented with other active, experiential and hands-on learning activities - including project based learning and frequent low-stakes (formative) assessments.

In every case, the methods that are tried to improve student learning are driven by the goals and desires of the faculty.

Faculty who are energized and skilled at lecturing are never discouraged from retaining this method.  Rather, the learning professional works with these gifted faculty lecturers to solve other goals - such as changing how learning is assessed and evaluated to coming up with new ways that the students can apply the concepts that are covered in the lecture.

The other point that Gross-Loh completely misses in her article is how the learning ecosystem is evolving, and how colleges and universities are responding to this evolution.

The reality is that we have a never-seen-before abundance of great lectures and compelling lecturers.  Anyone with a smart phone, tablet, or laptop can go on edX, Coursera, YouTube, or iTunesU and spend endless hours being inspired by the greatest lecturers on the planet. 

The lecture has a form of both inspiration and information transmission has become commoditized.  

This does not mean that inspiring lectures should not be lauded - or that lecturing as a skill should not be encouraged.  Rather, it is an admission that great lectures by themselves are no longer enough.  Lectures can be a crucial part of the overall teaching and learning strategy, but they constitute only one segment of an overall approach to catalyze and support student learning.

The real value is in the ability to form a relationship with the educator.  What is valuable is when the educator and the student can collaborate in the student’s learning.  When a student can be guided, coached, encouraged, and mentored by an experienced (and well-supported) educator to apply the concepts, ideas and methods that they are learning in the course.

The story that Gross-Loh misses (along with most others writing about higher ed) is just how much the world of college teaching - and college learning - are improving.

The lecture has not gone away.  Instead, the lecture is increasingly being supplemented by opportunities for active and experiential learning.

This trend is admittedly uneven, having gained momentum at the sorts of institutions whose mission is deeply tied to advancing teaching and learning.  Resources matter in the ability to invest in learning, and the disinvestment in public postsecondary education has made investing in learning increasingly difficult for many schools.

Still, the ongoing challenges and inequities in funding and resources (and the continued fight to bring some measure of status and security to contingent faculty) should not obscure the advances in learning that are unfolding across much of our postsecondary sector.

The “war on lecturing” makes for a good tagline - but not a very good description of reality.

How can those of us in the higher ed learning business communicate the more complex, nuanced, and positive developments that are really occurring around teaching and learning on our campuses?



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