Reinvigorating the Lecture: New Approaches to the Old Method

Once the norm for college classrooms, lectures nowadays are taboo. Not only perceived as old-fashioned and outmoded, lectures and lecturers receive a fair amount of scorn, the former considered to distance students from the content, and the latter portrayed as attention-seeking performers. Lectures render students passive, bored, disengaged. Lecturers are "sages on stages," acting out self-serving monologues before alienated groups of students. Why do lectures get such a bad rap? How might teachers reinvigorate the lecture for today's students?

On the third day of TLISI, Georgetown professors Nathan Hensley (English), Steven Sabat (Psychology), and Heidi Elmendorf (Biology) participated in a panel discussion moderated by David Ebenbach to address these provocative and pertinent questions, as well as evaluate contemporary criticisms of the lecture. With each participant coming from a different discipline, the panel represented various contexts for lectures in the modern university, from small humanities seminars to auditorium-filled science courses. After sharing the extent to which they employ lectures in their own courses, the panelists discussed general approaches to teaching, particularly how a teacher should view their students. Sabat suggests not viewing pedagogical experiences as "teaching students," but as "engaging people," thus leveling the teacher-student hierarchy. From another perspective, Elmendorf advocates for answering the question "What do you teach?" with "students" rather than referring to specific courses or subject matter. All of the panelists agreed that teaching is much more than the dissemination of information; instead, teachers provide students with complex learning experiences that entail more than retaining and regurgitating information. In terms of the lecture as a pedagogical method, the panelists recommended its continued use—with a few caveats. For Sabat, the lecture is not so much to blame as the lecturer, who, in order to appropriate the method successfully, needs to avoid turning the lecture into a performance. Hensley suggests viewing the lecture as one tool among many that needs to be used carefully to avoid student disengagement. In addition, he points out that there are moments (particularly within graduate seminars) in which it might make sense to allow students to momentarily assume the role of lecturer, though he warns that one should be wary of letting a student who lacks knowledge in the subject area take the class in the wrong direction. Perhaps one of the biggest criticisms of the lecture, studies have shown that students from more privileged backgrounds tend to retain lecture material better than those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who generally perform better in more active learning formats. In this way, lecture-heavy courses tend to reinforce privilege. In response to this, Hensley points out that this is not only a product of lectures, but of all study habits: assuming students already know how to study assumes privilege. Therefore, Hensley advocates for constantly explaining proper study habits during the course of the semester, making sure all of the students are on the same page. While the session may not have arrived at any definitive arguments for lectures, the panelist expanded on many of the common criticisms, as well as offering advice on how to alter lectures in order to make them more engaging and interactive. While opinions sometimes differed among the panelists, all showed a deep concern for the education of their students and the importance of engaging them in dialogue—even if the course is mostly lecture-based. As Sabat's concluding anecdote revealed, teaching is not merely the transference of information between persons. His students were not merely grateful for his knowledgeability in the subject area; instead, they most appreciated that he "gave [them] the authority to speak."

Once the norm for college classrooms, lectures nowadays are taboo. Not only perceived as old-fashioned and outmoded, lectures and lecturers receive a fair amount of scorn, the former considered to distance students from the content, and the latter portrayed as attention-seeking performers. Lectures render students passive, bored, disengaged. Lecturers are “sages on stages,” acting out self-serving monologues before alienated groups of students. Why do lectures get such a bad rap? How might teachers reinvigorate the lecture for today’s students?

On the third day of TLISI, Georgetown professors Nathan Hensley (English), Steven Sabat (Psychology), and Heidi Elmendorf (Biology) participated in a panel discussion moderated by David Ebenbach to address these provocative and pertinent questions, as well as evaluate contemporary criticisms of the lecture. With each participant coming from a different discipline, the panel represented various contexts for lectures in the modern university, from small humanities seminars to auditorium-filled science courses.

After sharing the extent to which they employ lectures in their own courses, the panelists discussed general approaches to teaching, particularly how a teacher should view their students. Sabat suggests not viewing pedagogical experiences as “teaching students,” but as “engaging people,” thus leveling the teacher-student hierarchy. From another perspective, Elmendorf advocates for answering the question “What do you teach?” with “students” rather than referring to specific courses or subject matter. All of the panelists agreed that teaching is much more than the dissemination of information; instead, teachers provide students with complex learning experiences that entail more than retaining and regurgitating information.

In terms of the lecture as a pedagogical method, the panelists recommended its continued use—with a few caveats. For Sabat, the lecture is not so much to blame as the lecturer, who, in order to appropriate the method successfully, needs to avoid turning the lecture into a performance. Hensley suggests viewing the lecture as one tool among many that needs to be used carefully to avoid student disengagement. In addition, he points out that there are moments (particularly within graduate seminars) in which it might make sense to allow students to momentarily assume the role of lecturer, though he warns that one should be wary of letting a student who lacks knowledge in the subject area take the class in the wrong direction.

Perhaps one of the biggest criticisms of the lecture, studies have shown that students from more privileged backgrounds tend to retain lecture material better than those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who generally perform better in more active learning formats. In this way, lecture-heavy courses tend to reinforce privilege. In response to this, Hensley points out that this is not only a product of lectures, but of all study habits: assuming students already know how to study assumes privilege. Therefore, Hensley advocates for constantly explaining proper study habits during the course of the semester, making sure all of the students are on the same page.

While the session may not have arrived at any definitive arguments for lectures, the panelist expanded on many of the common criticisms, as well as offering advice on how to alter lectures in order to make them more engaging and interactive. While opinions sometimes differed among the panelists, all showed a deep concern for the education of their students and the importance of engaging them in dialogue—even if the course is mostly lecture-based. As Sabat’s concluding anecdote revealed, teaching is not merely the transference of information between persons. His students were not merely grateful for his knowledgeability in the subject area; instead, they most appreciated that he “gave [them] the authority to speak.”