Friday, 23 October 2015

why do teachers feel personally attacked when the lecture is critiqued?

A recent post in the New York Times by Molly Worthen has provoked a number of responses both for and against the lecture as pedagogical strategy (See Eyler and Franke below for two different responses). This is apparently not new as exemplified by Cath Ellis' post from 2010 reflecting on the response of Donald Clark's conference keynote on the pitfalls of the lecture. Indeed, those that call for the evidence which indicate that the lecture is not a great teaching strategy seem to be unaware that the evidence has been around for some time. As Cath Ellis suggests, read Bligh's 1998 book. In the first couple of chapters he reviews the evidence that lectures are no better than assigning reading for impacting student learning outcomes. And then of course there is the 2014 meta-analysis of the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science which shows that active learning strategies have very real positive effects on student learning outcomes.

I think that for whatever reason lecturing vs active learning touches on people's sense of self identity. Teaching is such a personal act. What makes some teachers naturally good is that the teaching act meshes so well with their personality or that they have a very good sense of self. Thus a critique of lecturing or active learning is received as an attack on the self as teacher/person rather than a consideration of what produces the best student learning outcomes. In addition, I think Cath Ellis makes an insightful assessment that lecturing is the normative discourse in academia and thus its critique creates unease as the icon of university teaching is called into question.

However, as others have suggested, this really is a false dichotomy. It is not that instructors must choose between lecturing or active learning as their teaching strategy. Teaching is like science - we use whatever will get the job done. Sometimes that means that a particular class needs more lecturing than activities to help students understand a particular assigned reading. Other classes will use activities to help engage students in the concepts being considered to produce deep learning. What I aspire to as a teacher is to be able to read my class and be able to pick out of my bag of teaching strategies what will best deepen my students engagement with and understanding of the material and make their learning stick. Even those of us who use the most student-centered teaching strategy of all (IMHO), Team-Based Learning, still need to  make use of the mini-lecture.

The lecture is not dead. The lecture simply needs to make room for the other teaching and learning strategies which enhance student learning outcomes as shown by the published evidence. Perhaps what is really at stake is the understanding of who the class is for: is it for student learning or is it for instructor self-identity?


Bligh, D. A. (1998). Evidence of what lectures achieve. In What’s the Use of Lectures? (5th ed., pp. 10–23). Exeter: Intellect.

Ellis C. (2010). Tweckling, iconoclasm and lecturing as a normative discourse: reflections on two ALT-C keynotes. cathellis13, Nov 16.

Eyler J. (2015). Active Learning Is Not Our Enemy: A Response to Molly Worthen. A Life Time's Training:Thoughts on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Oct 20.

Franke D. 2015. Why Lecture Matters: A View from the Trenches. The Winds of War, Oct 18.

Friesen, N. (2011). The lecture as a transmedial pedagogical form: A historical analysis. Educational Researcher, 40(3), 95–102.

Weiman, C. E. (2014). Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 111(23), 8319-8320.

Worthen M. (2015). Lecture Me. Really. New York Times, Oct 17.