Are Lectures Less Effective Than Discussions?
If you’ve ever sat in the back your art history class, practically falling asleep to the sound of a professor’s monotonous drawl, and have wondered who ever thought that the lecture format was a bit unengaging, you’re definitely not alone. Since the late 90′s, following a study published by Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish of Indiana University that showed that college student’s attention would peak after 15 minutes during lectures, educators have known that the format of one teacher speaking before a room of a few hundred students on one subject for an hour or more is decidedly an ineffective way to teach.
So, why do we continue with the lecture format? And with the digital age of education in its infancy, is there a better way?
Salman Khan, founder of the online educational site Khan Academy, recently wrote about this very problem in a TIME magazine feature, and stated that time in the classroom could be better spent on discussing course material, rather than learning it. Instead of an instructor delivering a monologue that would then require a response from students in the form of homework, why not simply flip that model around? By having students study lecture material on their own time and at their own pace, class time would then be devoted to a discussion moderated by the professor.
“…[I]n many business schools, where students read a case study ahead of time and the teacher leads a conversation about the issues facing the company or executive described in the case,” writes Khan. “With engineering or science, class time can be used for students to collaboratively tackle more challenging questions or projects. The main point is that when humans get together to learn, we should replace passivity with interactivity.”
While it may sound far-fetched to the hardened college student, for whom lengthy and often tedious lectures are rather routine, it’s a model that has already seen use at numerous colleges across the country. The Evergreen State College in Washington famously embraces this discussion-centric format, which they refer to as “seminars.” In a seminar, a student is always expected to complete any assigned reading or coursework prior to arrival, along with notes and questions meant to spark a debate.
“Seminars do closely resemble orchestral rehearsals,” said David Marr of Evergreen. “They are working sessions, full of false starts, much practice, and some extended flights of analysis and synthesis. But the analogy with the orchestra breaks down in one interesting and crucial respect: seminars operate with no equivalent to a musical score. Indeed, it is precisely something like a musical score that gets “composed” in the course of the seminar.”
Critics of these types of classes, in which traditional lectures are eschewed in favor of student-powered discussion, say that it’s inevitable for alpha-type personalities to dominate these discussions, and those who seek to coast-by may simply sit back and listen, or that students who do wish to contribute but may be more introverted than those who talk the most may never be able to get a word in. But proponents counter with the idea that this could easily be curbed by teacher intervention, in which everyone must contribute in some form in order to pass, or discouraging those who talk the most from controlling the course of the conversation.
So how do you feel about lectures vs. discussions? If you believe that such a format would be more beneficial to your learning experience, try petitioning your student government to propose new learning guidelines at your school. While we may not see all university’s embracing the latter model any time in the immediate future, the rise of online education is shaking up the status quo at the traditional halls of higher education, so it may still be sooner than you think.