Welcome to the Class Discourse – A Renewal of the Classroom Lecture

Welcome to the Class Discourse – A Rebirth of the Classroom Lecture

The classroom lecture has critics proclaiming its death. In a recent article on Chronicle.com, Lecture Fail? Students and Professors Sound Off on the State of the College Lecture, the clips presented student perspectives on ineffective lectures. One professor responded indicating that students are responsible for being engaged and present in class. My previous post Replacing the Classroom Lecture outlined the evolution of the lecture as a basic format that still exists today, even within online classes – only it is called by different names.

When students enter a classroom, they expect that information will be delivered to them by their instructor. And isn’t that one of the important roles of an instructor, to guide and inform students? Students believe that lectures become a problem when they are not effectively used. If so, then is the problem the lecture or has the nature of students changed and caused a need for updated and innovative teaching methods? I do not believe the lecture is dead. I believe it is time for a renewal. Let’s call this new state of information delivery the Classroom Discourse.

The Potential for Ineffective Lectures

In Generation Y: The Internet’s Effects on Cognition and Education it was noted that “the students of today and their baby-boomer generation professors grew up in very different academic environments.” While this may be true, I’ve found it can be an advantage or a disadvantage, reflective of my approach to teaching and my willingness to change. When I went to college I sat through lectures that I barely remember today. Even during a time when there weren’t as many technological tools available (yes, I survived without the use of a computer) I remember lectures that involved activities and an instructor who was passionate and knowledgeable about the subject matter.

Is it possible that the students in the Chronicle post are correct and lectures can be ineffective, dull, and boring? Of course the answer is yes. It begins with the facilitation style used by the instructor, along with their approach to the delivery of information and the activities used to supplement the lecture. Joe Redish, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, explained in Don’t Lecture Me: Rethinking How College Students Learn that “a lot of the information presented in a typical lecture comes at students too fast and is quickly forgotten.” Why does that occur? Redish says that “cognitive scientists determined that people’s short-term memory is very limited – it can only process so much at once.” This is one of the reasons why students appear to be fully engaged at the start of a lecture – they are just beginning to receive and process information. If there is too much information to process they may eventually tune the instructor out.

However, there may be another very important reason why it is becoming increasingly difficult for students to stay engaged in a traditional lecture – it is due to the changing nature of the technology. Brian Hampel noted in Rapid-Fire Technology Encourages Short Attention Spans that “some of the not-so-constructive uses of the Internet are appealing because they are quick and easy to digest, and most would agree that our attention spans are shorter because of it.” Hampel refers to social networking, especially Twitter, which keeps conversations or posts at 140 characters or less. He then relates this attention span challenge to the classroom and states that “it may be true that no class has ever had an easy time with hour-and-a-half lectures, but only we Internet users have had the ability to access our favorite short-attention-span media at a moment’s notice. As hard as it might be to admit, how can our professors compete?”

Instructors should not consider technological or even societal changes as competition. Instead, these changes can serve as a wake-up call and an indication that instructional techniques need to be adaptive. As noted in the Generation Y article, “lectures and long reading assignments, both still common, may be more challenging to today’s student since they are not as interactive and stimulating.” In reality it is likely that a lecture that is not engaging has never been effective in promoting the long-term retention of information.

Why Interactions Matter and Lectures Must Change

If some lectures can fail to engage students or keep their attention focused, what helps to create an effective classroom environment? Instructors that implement activities and interactions during the class meeting will find that students are more likely to retain information and participate in the learning activities. In Rethinking the College Classroom Bob Beichner, professor of physics at North Carolina State University, describes the lecture as the “tyranny of content delivery.” Beichner believes that as an alternative, increased interactions during the class will “result stronger relationships between faculty members and students” and these “relationships are the single biggest factor correlated with student success.”

I’ve also discovered how differently students react when I interact with them through class discussions and activities, instead of talking at them through a content driven lecture. Just as noted within the article Generation Y: The Internet’s Effects on Cognition and Education, “when students are engaged and stimulated in a way they find interesting, the results can be impressive.”

Welcome to: Classroom Discourse

I teach at a community college and the class meetings are typically one night a week with almost a three hour time period scheduled. I initially tried to conform to the traditional lecture-based approach and discovered that I did not enjoy it and I did not feel that I was providing the best learning experience possible. All too often there was a distinct sound of silence when students felt overwhelmed, uninterested, or they became tired (it’s an evening class). I began to incorporate questions and then group work.

Harvard physicist Eric Mazur described his approach to group work, which he refers to as peer instruction in Don’t Lecture Me: Rethinking How College Students Learn. Mazur prefers “teaching by questioning,” instead of “teaching by telling,” and he’s found it is “a particularly effective way to teach large classes.” He will talk to students about a particular topic, pose a question as a learning activity, and then divide the students into groups to discuss and arrive at an answer. This is an approach that I enjoy using as I view students as having experience and knowledge that can be shared, rather than a group of adults that are waiting for me to give them all of the information they need.

Another phrase that is being used to describe the transformation of a traditional classroom lecture format is called the Flipped Classroom, which is described by Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey as a method of focusing “a lot of attention on the role of interaction in a classroom,” since “interaction is very valuable in promoting retention and transfer of new knowledge.” I have not utilized the flipped classroom approach in its entirety as I still devote time to information delivery during the class session. The textbook can be used as a starting point, read by students prior to class sessions in which I bring updated, current, and relevant resources to class – and that requires an explanation and overview. I also add my experience and perspectives – and I consider how much time I spend talking. I’ll highlight key points and add interactive elements (activities, discussions, etc.) to engage students in the materials and provide discourse.

If you’re an instructor reviewing this post, I hope that I have inspired you to consider a renewal of your traditional lectures, considering the students’ perspective and need for interactions. If you’re a student, I encourage you to continue to speak up and let your instructors know when you would like to do more in class, such as group activities or projects. A class discourse suggests that the instructor and students are equally involved and responsible for the learning process – both need to be engaged in and contribute to the success of the class. While technology will continue to change and teaching strategies must adapt, interactions will always be needed to create a vibrant and dynamic classroom. The class lecture doesn’t need to die; it just needs to be transformed.

What is your opinion – is the classroom lecture dead or is it ready to be revived? Share your opinion via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

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