Academic freedom is glorious. Despite pronouncements to the contrary, university faculty — including most contingent faculty — enjoy tremendous freedom in what we teach and how we teach it. Most professors teach however the hell they choose to teach.
Academic freedom enables change, but resists rapid change. Faculty have the liberty to stand aside as change happens. We can stand by and snark as fads wash by. We also can fossilize as the landscape truly changes. I think it’s hard, in the moment, to distinguish between a fad and a change in the landscape.
I have no idea whether “active teaching” is a fad or a landscape change in higher education. When new K-12 teachers are being trained, it’s all about active learning. You couldn’t get your credential to teach in most states in the US if you taught by lecturing. That ship has sailed.
Professors will be quick to point out that universities are not high school, and that just because K-12 works one way, they don’t have to change. And they’re right, because most people are not changing.
But there is a substantial movement in the US to shift from lecturing to other modes of instruction. I think there isn’t a dichotomy between “lecture” and “active learning,” but instead a continuum.
On one end of the continuum, a classic lecture happens when a professor does not require the student to actively think. Students can just sit there, and are expected to listen, think and take notes. On the other end of the continuum, an extreme “active learning” lesson happens when students are interacting consistently with other individuals, and when presented with content, are expected to process this content and do things to communicate thought and understanding.
Most of us do something in between. We might ask questions of the class. We might use clickers or an easier and cheaper alternative (plickers). We might use “think-pair-share” to break up lecture segments, or have small group projects interspersed with powerpoints. We do all kinds of stuff. Anything that keeps students externally accountable for thinking while they are in class is a step away from the classic lecture. Randomly (not haphazardly, mind you) calling on students who don’t raise their hand works. When I’m teaching, I at least try to get students to talk with one another about small problems once in a while, which keeps them engaged and makes sure their attention doesn’t wane (which happens after about 15 minutes of lecture).
I’d like to think that all professors — those who just “lecture” and those who only do “active learning” — want the same thing: active thinking, and deep learning, by all of our students. I have more detailed thoughts about what excellent teaching is, but in short, I think excellent teaching happens when students become better critical thinkers, gain better academic skills, and of course learn the course material.
So how do we get there? What is the most effective approach? I’ll let you in on a little secret that few scientists seem to notice: There are people who research this for a living. What have they learned about what works best?
Well, this is a whole frickin’ discipline. They’ve learned a lot. Most relevant to my teaching priorities, here’s what I have learned and processed.
- Teaching with “active learning” can be just as effective as teaching with a classic “lecture.”
- Students from marginalized groups are less engaged in lectures than other students. Even advocates for lecturing acknowledge this fact. This list includes low-income, first-generation, and members of underrepresented groups, often including women.
- Let me point this out again: students who have experienced systemic disadvantages learn less from lectures than from active learning. There is a mountain of data on this. The findings are unequivocal.
- There are clear socioeconomic disparities in academic preparation among students, and these disparities result in differences in study skills and the ability to learn independently.
- No matter what we do in our 45 hours in a single semester, we are not going to fix a lifetime of economic and educational marginalization. Students who haven’t had the benefits of wealthy parents, expensive prep schools, and extraordinary high school teachers are not going to be able to learn from independent study like their better-advantaged peers.
- If I can do something teach well-advantaged students effectively and simultaneously promote the success of less-advantaged students, this is a no-brainer of a choice.
- Universities that primarily teach using lectures are choosing a mode of instruction that favors the academic performance of students from more advantaged socioeconomic groups.
- Of course we need to do our best to help everybody get the academic skills they’ll need in life. But we also must accept that attempts to repair this deficit are not enough to justify less effective modes of instruction.
- If I frame this issue as “students need to learn to study on their own,” then what I am doing is passing the buck for effective teaching to the student. If I can do things that help all students to learn, that’s my job. I can’t fix social inequities but I can use approaches that ameliorate them rather than exacerbate them.
- Universities that are attempting to diversify need to have an inclusive environment so that they can attract, retain and experience success of their marginalized students.
- If I really care about equity and diversity, then I can’t make the choice to lecture when I can use more “active” approaches.
Some people have claimed it’s “unethical” to lecture. That’s nonconstructive hyperbole. But, well, when I look at the facts and ideas above, it’s hard to argue against that hyperbolic argument. I’m not running around telling people that lecturing is unethical, but it’s not a choice that I can make in my own good conscience. But I’m used to making ethical decisions that are in the minority, including my diet, language, transportation. So now I can add “mode of instruction” to that list. I realize that preaching about how to teach isn’t going to change many minds, no more than PETA will make people go veg.
If you’ve got a job teaching a the university level, and you think lecturing is best, then please go ahead and lecture. You can’t be an effective instructor unless you believe in what you’re doing. But if you’re inclined to dive into the education literature to learn about what works better, this can’t harm your teaching and probably can help (even if the education literature is annoyingly full of jargon and group-think, as much as our own fields are to outsiders).
All instructors have to assemble their own pedagogical toolkit from the many resources out there and restock it (and recreate it) as necessary. There is no one single way of being effective. There is no magic spell… that will make all pedagogical techniques effective all the time. It is very difficult to generalize from one instructor’s experience to the next. One gets on with it.
Please, if you want to lecture, go ahead! I’m not stopping you. But if you’re mounting a defense of the lecture that isn’t evidence-based, and isn’t designed to help level the playing field for students with a disadvantaged educational background, then it’s not useful for me.