Teaching from the Best of Both Worlds

Last fall, Molly Worthen wrote Lecture Me. Really.  This article lamented the fact that so many have declared the lecture format as dead (or advocate that it should be), but Worthen opines on the many benefits that lecturing provides for students, especially in the humanities.  Less than a week later, Rebecca Schuman’s article Professors Shouldn’t Teach to Younger Versions of Themselves was published.  Her point?  Lecturing is only one tool that instructors can use to engage all students (who are very different from the type of student the professor used to be).  As you can imagine, these two articles created a much heated debate as professors and intellectuals hotly defended their chosen side.  As usually happens though, the debate lasted a few weeks and then everyone promptly forgot about the issue with the ending of the semester and the holiday craziness.

Until the beginning of the year when A Lecture from the Lectured appeared in response to Worthen and Schuman’s arguments.   This article was written by a group of students in a writing course at a university in the United States.  They offer a different perspective – what it’s like to sit through those lectures – one after another – day after day, and why they often appear disengaged.

This article didn’t engender the same type of furor, but it did strike a chord with me.  How often do we say things like “students don’t…” or “students won’t…” without actually asking the students how they feel?  This has been on my mind a great deal since January, and I’ve made a conscious effort to not generalize all students by a few that I have seen or experienced in my classes.  I’ve also actively asked students how they feel about certain aspects of class.

And that was pretty much the extent of my thoughts until last week.  I attended the TAB/Lab conference in Austin from Wednesday until Friday.  The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board suggested that three members from each institution attend to discuss affordable baccalaureate degrees.  During the two full days (Wednesday at noon until Friday at noon), we mostly sat and listened to people talk about what they did at their institutions.  After a few hours of sitting and listening on Wednesday, I was exhausted!  The next day, I was yawning and trying to stay awake after only a couple of hours of sitting and listening.  The facilitators were well-trained, and they tried to engage us with questions and comment periods every ten to fifteen minutes, but that didn’t stop most of us from checking emails or using our laptops or tablets during the presentations.  After all, we are busy people, and we can multi-task, right?  As I looked around the rooms, I saw the same things that we see when we teach – people paying civil attention to someone else doing all the talking.

Personally, I’ve never been much of a lecturer, but I’ve also learned some important things while being lectured.  I see both sides of the issue.  Lecture has its place and so does active learning and student engagement.  I try to dispense important information and engage participants in the workshops I facilitate for CAPE and some topics lend themselves to active engagement while others do not.  Last fall, I facilitated two separate workshops for the grounds and custodial staff.  The first was a communication workshop in which the participants were divided into groups based on their personal communication styles.  The second was a motivation and engagement workshop where the participants played Minute to Win It games to illustrate the concepts of motivation versus engagement.  I left both sessions feeling as though the participants understood my objectives, but I felt as though the participants enjoyed the games more than they did the communication group exercises.  A few weeks ago, I saw one of the attendees and he stated that I was the one that made him do hard stuff.  I immediately thought he was referring to the Minute to Win It game he played in which he had to blow up a balloon and use the escaping air to knock over plastic cups.  When I said as much, he was quick to correct me; he was referring to the communications workshop when I “made” him “think.”  Ultimately, isn’t that what we want our students to do?  And, how awesome would it be to be remembered not as “the person who lectured” or “the person who didn’t lecture” but instead as “the person who made me think”?  In order to do this, we may just have to step outside of our comfort zones occasionally and use the best method for the students, the content and the occasion.

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