Annie Murphy Paul’s recent blog, Are College Lectures Unfair? gives us another look at the weaknesses of the lecture format as a teaching method. She reminds us that teaching through lecture is a cultural phenomenon.
According to Norm Friesen’s, The Lecture as a Transmedial Pedagogical Form: A Historical Analysis, the education lecture originated in the early Middle Ages to transmit the written word, first, literally, as lecturers read to their audiences many of whom copied down exactly what they heard so they would have the material in written form. After the Gutenberg printing press made books available to the public, lecturers also included well-respected commentaries in their presentations.
It wasn’t until the Renaissance, that lecturers started giving original talks reflecting their own ideas. By the 20th century, when audio and video came into play, lectures started evolving into multimedia presentations. Guides on how to give effective lectures including tips on speech delivery, engaging students, and multimedia integration continue to advise instructors on best lecture practices.
As Paul points out, not only are lectures the mainstay of higher education, they are also embedded in online courses such as MOOCs. There is a lot of contradiction on the place of lectures in education. Friesen notes that you can even watch TED talks on the ineffectiveness of lectures. Even if the speaker isn’t behind a podium, it’s still a lecture. How many lectures on pedagogy have you attended that tell you that’s not the best way to teach?
Friesen supports the continued use of the lecture format. He sees lectures as “bridging oral communication with writing and newer media technologies, rather than as being superseded by newer electronic and digital forms.”
In contrast, Paul questions whether the lecture format meets the learning needs of all students. She reviews studies on how lecture courses affect women, minorities, and first-generation and low-income students (non-dominants) who haven’t historically come from or participated equally in the dominant Western culture of well-off white males (dominants).
Paul found that the non-dominants do more poorly than dominants when a course is lecture-centered. In the studies she reviewed, professors engaged students with active pedagogical approaches such as questions, exercises, and collaborative work, that required students to engage with the subject matter more than they would with lectures.
All groups did well with activity-based learning. And, the non-dominants benefited even more than dominants. In one study, the achievement gap between white and black students decreased by 50% and the divide between first-generation college students and those with a family history of college disappeared.
Paul ends her article with this question:
Given that active-learning approaches benefit all students, but especially those who are female, minority, low-income and first-generation, shouldn’t all universities be teaching this way?
Education technology advocates are responding to Paul’s question with robust digital programs in which students learn through activities such as participating in simulations, completing exercises, drawing diagrams, initiating peer communication, and problem-solving. As higher education institutions and instructors integrate these programs into their courses, they will write the next chapter on how higher education courses are taught.