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One of the most entrenched opinions in discussions of pedagogy in higher ed is that classes should ideally be discussion-based, with lecturing kept to an absolute minimum. Lectures, we are told, fail to teach students in an enduring way, because they inculcate a passive learning style that results in information being stored only long enough to be “regurgitated” on an exam and forgotten soon after. By contrast, conventional wisdom holds, students are unlikely to forget what they learn in the context of a discussion, because they have to work hard to come up with their own answers. In this context, the consistent reports from students that they want more lectures are dismissed as laziness on their part, a reflection of a less-developed learning style that we need to challenge rather than coddle.

A lively discussion of a book by a small, engaged group is an ideal to be aspired to. At the same time, it seems to me that such discussions are pretty rare, even among professional academics (note how often people will express surprise that a conference session had good discussion). Such skills need to be cultivated, and of course you can only learn by doing. Yet there are some base-level confidence issues that need to be addressed as well, and unless we want to cultivate students who believe that their every utterance is intrinsically worthwhile due to their precious snowflake-hood, it would probably be good to get them to a point where their confidence is earned, where it’s based in actual knowledge.

A big part of that has to be getting them to a point where they are good readers. That means being actual baseline good readers who are able to identify key themes, sympathetically state the author’s argument in their own words, talk about what each section of the book is supposed to be contributing to the whole, and so on — that kind of thing is the necessary foundation for the “critical reading” stage.

I think that the assumption that students have baseline reading skills is behind the thinking of people who want more or less exclusively discussion-based classes — lectures, they suppose, are just trying to transmit information, which the books can do by themselves. If we assume that the students are reading attentively outside of class, we can use the class time to practice our critical reading with each other. I don’t think it’s at all clear, however, that students typically come to college with the skills necessary to make such a model work. Some will, but it’s much safer to assume that your students need help. And I believe that we should interpret students’ desire for more lectures precisely as a cry for help.

Lectures can play a significant role in getting students to that next level if they’re used not primarily to transmit information, but to guide students in their reading and in certain modes of thinking. Lectures have significant advantages over written texts — including the ability to use the full range of tone and pacing that an improvised oral delivery allows, as well as the ability to check in periodically to make sure students are still “on board” and change the presentation if necessary — and those advantages should be mobilized in a way that feeds into the reading process itself. A simple example is telling students what they should be looking for in their readings and giving them an outline of the basic argument ahead of time (my own students have requested as much). This will give them more confidence going in and give them a way of seeing what it looks like for themes to emerge or arguments to be strung together. After a few classes worth of that kind of directed reading, perhaps they’ll be ready to begin drawing out themes and arguments themselves. Again, these skills are not something we should be taking for granted!

What’s more, it’s not at all clear to me that imposing a straight discussion model on students who are bewildered and disoriented about the readings is going to do much good for them. I have learned this lesson from hard experience after trying an “inductive” pedagogical approach and finding that the texts only began to make sense to them after I gave up on leading questions and directly told them what themes they should have found. If I had begun instead of ended with that, not only would the discussion have been able to proceed at a higher level, but their reading time would have been better spent as well. Preparing students for the reading can be an important way of being respectful of their time in a context where they face ever-greater demands outside the classroom.

This brings me to another unpopular element of traditional pedagogy: the so-called “regurgitation”-style exam. It seems to me that to be productive in class discussion, students first need to be comfortable talking amongst themselves about the subject matter — and the best way to cultivate that comfort may well be for them to study in groups in an old-fashioned information-heavy course. The process of coming up with easy ways to remember things is a way of putting things into their own words and getting at the concepts, something they’re much more likely to do if they’re studying with others rather than trying to memorize things alone in their room. Not having the pressure of having to “perform” in front of the professor might also be helpful there. Hence even the much-derided process of studying for a “regurgitation”-style test has its role — and it also meets the students at the level of learning they are likely bringing with them from high school.

Overall, I believe that the traditional pedagogical methods, such as lectures and information-heavy exams, have an essential role, as long as they’re used in a conscious way. They have the possibility of covering up the flaws of lazy or unengaged educators in some cases, but then so does the discussion model — showing up with the book in hand and asking, “So what’d you think?” arguably takes even less work than delivering a decades-old lecture.

The goals of critical thinking are the only possible goals of a liberal arts education, and I support them without reservation. Yet you can’t jump straight to them, and I think that a lot of the ways people talk about pedagogy assume that you can — and what enables them to do that is to assume that the books can handle the data transmission just fine. We need to take seriously the fact that on many important levels, freshmen (and not just freshmen) don’t know how to read. It’s a fixable problem, but it’s a real one.

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