Re-Thinking Lecture

If you’re teaching fully online, you’ve likely already revamped the way in which you present information to your students. Perhaps you’ve decided to go with presentations / slideshows, audio / video clips, written text, or something else – or some combination thereof. In classes with a face-to-face component, there are lots of options for mixing it up. In particular, the flipped classroom model (where students learn the background information at home and then come to class to practice their skills) is receiving a lot of attention lately.

All of these approaches avoid the traditional lecture format. Lectures present information, but in today’s world, there’s no shortage of information. What a great learning experience provides is the opportunity for the learner to put this new information in context and work towards a deeper understanding of the topic – this is more than just listening and taking notes; these are the actions that are at the core of the educational process.

(However, in thinking about this narrative of the decline of the lecture, I’m struck by the comment another blogger made about the paradoxical popularity of TED talks in the age of the death of the university lecture. Given that TED talks are essentially lectures – and lectures that the vast majority of us are watching on a screen, not live – what accounts for the massive popularity of these talks? Are the people who give them especially magnetic, compelling, or skilled? Are they about the topics that seem truly important or interesting?)

TED talks notwithstanding, there’s ample research to suggest that learners learn best when they are actively engaged in doing something with the content. But what to do if you’ve got a large lecture class? Here’s a great story about two physics professors and their experiences with peer-to-peer instruction in the lecture hall setting. Why is this method so effective? One of the professors, Eric Mazur, notes that the great irony of being an expert in your field is that it is harder to teach the foundational concepts because you’ve become increasingly distant from the conceptual difficulties experienced by beginning students. When the students take time to discuss tricky issues with each other, they are more likely to help each other make the necessary connections. Those students how have mastered the material quickly recall the confusing points and see how a fellow student might have a different idea. With the benefit of a common vocabulary and similar background knowledge, students are well-poised to offer the kind of succinct, appropriate explanations that are sometimes elusive in large lecture classrooms.

Especially interesting from the educational technology standpoint is the way in which Mazur uses both a classroom response system (like clickers) during class and an online pre-class quiz to set up the day’s topics. Although there’s a fair amount of peer-to-peer discussion in the lecture hall, the professor hasn’t abdicated his role. Rather, there is still an intense amount of structure and content provided by the professor – the key is using technology to help meet the learners where they can best meet the material.


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